By Neil Patrick Healy
Editors Note: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.
The fresh blue paint on the newly-won Fremont Cannon wasn’t even dry when the news about Brian Polian came down, leaving Nevada football with an uncertain future.
Polian and the university mutually agreed to part ways Sunday, Nov. 27. His tenure at Nevada, whether it’s fair or not, will be universally viewed as a disappointment. The highly touted recruiter with stints at Stanford, Notre Dame and Texas A&M was supposed to usher in the new post-Chris Ault era of Nevada football, but instead the program took steps backward in both performance on the field and enthusiasm around the program.
Polian went 23-27 in his four years at the helm, and much of the fault will be placed at his feet by the fan base. But when I think of the Brian Polian era at Nevada, I will always think, “The guy didn’t stand a chance.”
The failed Polian regime is due to circumstances both inside and outside of his control, but the guy was dealt a bad hand. In my opinion, the Polian hire was doomed from the start.
THE TRANSITION TO THE MOUNTAIN WEST
Nevada made the jump from the WAC to the Mountain West in 2012 before Ault’s final season as head coach. Ault’s only season in the conference was a disappointing 7-6, but he had star players Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson running his pistol offense, so this along with Ault’s mere presence camouflaged the fact that the school was not ready for the boost in competition. Then Ault spontaneously retired and Jefferson declared early for the NFL, and Polian was left to ease the program into a new conference.
Polian had to overcome running a program consistently at the bottom of the conference in terms of athletic funding. According to a study commissioned by the Nevada Board of Regents, Nevada has the lowest overall athletic budget in the MW, with $27.01 million annually, compared to the league average of $36.88 million.
The more you dig into the numbers, the worse it gets. The Wolf Pack spent the second fewest on both coaching salaries and bonuses ($10.16 million, compared to the league average of $13.32 million). Nevada’s athletic department also received the least university funds and the third-fewest student fees, received the least overall subsidy revenue among fellow conference schools, and placed ninth in ticket revenue. When it comes to football specifically, the average MW budget is $10.04 million, but Nevada spends a conference-low $7.02 million on its football program.
It’s evident Nevada is a university that isn’t financially prepared or committed to compete in a conference with schools that can afford to shell out millions more on their athletic programs. Since joining the Mountain West, Nevada’s football team is 30-33 over five seasons. The lack of funding wasn’t a guaranteed inhibitor to Polian’s success, but it played a major role.
POLIAN WASN’T PREPARED TO BE A HEAD COACH
There are two aspects to this point: his lack of major coaching experience and his poor decorum and attitude.
Polian had 15 years of coaching experience before taking the head-coaching job at Nevada, but most of that time he was as a special teams coordinator. He had never been appointed even as high as an offensive or defensive coordinator, so it wouldn’t come as a shock to think Polian was in a little over his head.
There were persistent questions about his coaching, ability to recruit and lack of self-control on the sideline, but the decision that ultimately may have cost Polian his job was his continued defiance against public pressure to replace quarterback Tyler Stewart with the young dual-threat sophomore quarterback Ty Gangi. The offense under Stewart was becoming more and more predictable and pedestrian while only averaging 20.9 points per game.
Polian refused to entertain the notion of a quarterback change until Stewart suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Wyoming. Then Gangi took the reigns and almost won a shootout with Wyoming, one of the top teams in the conference. Gangi would go on to put up more passing yards in five games than Stewart did in seven while also adding the dual-threat component to the offense that Stewart was severely lacking. Gangi ignited the offense and helped the unit average 31.6 points per game, doing so against the more difficult portion of the schedule.
If Nevada had played Gangi for the entirety of the season, maybe those close losses where the offense looked sluggish could have had different outcomes. Imagine Gangi in the Purdue and San Jose State games. His big-play ability could have broken those wide open, and Nevada could be sitting at 7-5 with a bowl berth and a shiny cannon while Polian is signing an extension. Player evaluation is a major key to success in college football, and this may have cost Polian his job.
As for Polian’s persona, he didn’t do himself any favors with the brash Northeastern attitude he exhibited on a regular basis. His attitude would have undoubtedly been appreciated and viewed as endearing if he were winning games, but it ended up grinding on a fan base’s nerves when he wasn’t.
He started out by telling ESPN in the summer of 2013 that “there isn’t a lot of tradition here.” When you’re replacing someone who won 233 games as the head coach, it’s not the smartest idea to shoot your mouth off about the school not having tradition.
It didn’t stop there. When Nevada struggled against Cal Poly to start the season, Polian’s response to that was to say you “don’t know football” if you’re concerned. After a close win over Utah State, Polian took the opportunity to take a few jabs at the fans for leaving early and being negative on social media. And finally, after winning the cannon and ending a tumultuous season on a high note, Polian is again defiant and questioning the validity of the people’s concerns of the direction of the program.
“If anybody believes this program is not on the right track, they’re just not watching,” Polian said.
He also gained the reputation of being an excuse-maker, where he would open with saying he’s not going to make excuses for the poor play before proceeding to make excuses for the poor play. Last week he even said he could give a 15-minute presentation on all the circumstances that were out of the team’s control. People got tired of it.
The combination of these factors and two home losses to UNLV led to the fan base checking out. This season’s average attendance at Mackay was 18,500, which is the lowest since 2011 when there were just 15,776 people attending per game. Keep in mind the attendance figure in 2011 reflects how many people actually showed up, but now the attendance numbers released reflect how many tickets were sold. The real figure isn’t announced, but there were a lot of empty seats in Mackay Stadium this year. Attendance has declined consistently, with a drop of 1,000 in 2014 and about 1,700 in 2015.
People simply had enough. Polian’s lack of ability to play the crowd and appease the fan base contributed to his downfall. A coach with a more experienced background being in charge probably would have handled the situation better.
REPLACING A LEGEND
Polian was given the task no one has been able to do: successfully replace Chris Ault. The ghost of Ault will forever loom over the football program. Ault is Nevada football. He was around the program in some capacity for over 35 years, so replacing someone of that stature isn’t going to be easy for anyone.
No coach has ever replaced Ault successfully. Jeff Horton took off after one season, Jeff Tisdel started out hot with a 9-3 record but sputtered down the stretch and finished with a 23-22 record in four seasons before being fired, and Chris Tormey never had a winning season in his four years.
The hardest part for Polian was that he was replacing more than just a successful coach. Ault played quarterback for Nevada, coached high school football in northern Nevada, made the Wolf Pack a viable program in I-AA, propelled the university into Division I athletics, came back and invented the pistol offense, and made Nevada the Biggest Little Offense in the world. He is Nevada. He put this university on the map, so following that act must have been a daunting task for Polian. One can make the argument, given the current state of Nevada’s athletic programs, that no one can truly live up to the standard Ault left.
With Polian out, Nevada will scour the countryside for a viable candidate to try and vault this program back to relevance. Athletic Director Doug Knuth has a tough job ahead of him. Two of these problems will still be there when the new coach takes over. Can Nevada find an under-the-radar guy like basketball did with Eric Musselman? Of course. Knuth has proven he knows how to hire good coaches. One has to wonder, though, if the new coach will fall victim to the same circumstances Polian did.
To say this is the most important hire of Knuth’s professional career would be a grave understatement.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.