By Neil Patrick Healy
Nevada limped off the field last Saturday after taking a thorough beating at the hands of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, one of the worst programs in college football. The 38-17 loss gave Hawaii its first Mountain West win since Nov. 22, 2014, and its fifth in the program’s five seasons in the conference. Nevada was dominated in almost every way as Hawaii held a 38-3 lead through three quarters. That empty feeling at the pit of your stomach is what rock bottom feels like, Nevada fans. The loss is certainly one of the low points in the program’s recent history, but what if I told you that this loss is the best thing to happen to Nevada’s football program in almost four years?
I know, I know. A loss can’t be a good thing. Just hear me out first, OK? You know the cliche about learning more from failure than from success? Well, it rings true in almost every aspect of life. Before you break up with the person you’re dating that your friends and family hate, you always have an incident or a fight that tips you over the edge. In school you have that big final you bomb and you have to retake the class the following semester. Any time there is severe failure it usually has a thundering, climactic moment that puts everything into focus. That’s what the loss to Hawaii was for Nevada — a moment of clarity.
What also comes from failure is the re-evaluation of your actions that led to the climactic low point in the first place. Maybe dating someone just because they’re hot isn’t a recipe for a healthy relationship, or skipping lecture half the time to sleep in because you drank six gin and tonics the night before may lead to you missing some information on the test. It’s the same with Nevada football. Programs don’t just fall into disarray overnight. It starts with a line of questionable decisions and gradually leads to epic failure.
Former Nevada coach Chris Ault was by no means perfect. Longtime fans will tell you he had his flaws with time management, defenses and questionable play-calling in big moments, but with Ault you always knew what you were going to get. When Nevada was at its most successful and relevant in its Division I history, the team had the same game plan for almost eight years: NFL caliber quarterback, a plethora of capable running backs, a steady offensive line and being one of the nation’s leaders in total offense. From 2005-2012, Nevada failed to finish in the top 15 in total offense just once and placed in the top 10 five years in a row from 2008-2012.
Since Ault left Nevada after the 2012 season, the program has fallen into disarray. The easy punching bag here is the hiring of current head coach Brian Polian. Since his first season in 2013, the Wolf Pack’s record is a dismal 20-23 with a slew of head-scratching losses littered across the schedule, including two home losses to UNLV and the letdowns at Wyoming last season and against Utah State when Nevada choked away a 27-7 lead at the beginning of the third quarter. The program’s total offense ranking hasn’t crawled above No. 66 in the last three seasons and shows no signs of improvement now (Nevada currently ranks No. 82 in total offense in 2016).
Good things in life usually just don’t blow up in your face. It takes time to deteriorate, and you usually don’t see it as it happens in real time. It takes a singular, sometimes dramatic, incident to recognize a failed relationship. College football is no different. Nevada’s embarrassing loss was the sobering moment where the program’s fans and administrators knew that the Polian experiment was coming to an end. Sure, the Pack may pick up wins against other ailing programs like Wyoming and Fresno State, but the Nevada fan base is just waiting for that first Monday after the UNLV game before Polian gets his pink slip.
So to all the Nevada fans who are hiding in shame, don’t despair! In the long run, the loss to Hawaii will be a good thing. You needed this. The program needed this. The buildup to a breakup is never fun, but you and the program will be better off in due time. In order for the program to move forward, it needed to fail in spectacular fashion first, and that’s exactly what the loss to Hawaii is.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.