The subject of Nevada Head Coach Brian Polian’s future employment status has been as ubiquitous as a James Butler carry this season. With the Wolf Pack sitting at 3-5 and a tough finish to the schedule, the natives are getting restless.
THE OPENING AND THE HIRE
Less than two weeks after Chris Ault and Nevada suffered a heart-breaking loss in the New Mexico Bowl, a game in which Nevada led by 13 with 1:48 left and lost in regulation, Ault shocked the football world and resigned from his post. It was the latest in a long string of agonizing losses, each one more painful than the previous, in 2011 and 2012. He was Nevada Football. For all of his faults and shortcomings, he was the living embodiment of the program. As the story goes, the Wolf Pack get home from Albuquerque and the loss just stews on him through Christmas and he decided to hang up his headset.
The powers that be on North Virginia Street had to find their new head coach and they had to do it quickly. The contact period for recruiting opened up on January 11th and not only did Nevada need a head coach, they also needed some semblance of a staff so they could recruit with NLI Signing Day looming on February 6th. This was a worrisome situation as oft-criticized Nevada AD Cary Groth was on her way out at the end of the school year and President Marc Johnson was just eight months into his tenure. Even scarier for some is that a lame duck AD would have a hand in choosing the next football coach, for which she wouldn’t be held accountable for the results.
A search committee (Collegiate Sports Associates) was involved along with Groth and Johnson, as they flew to Dallas in early January to interview candidates (Chris Klenakis, Jim Mastro and Tom Mason were other candidates mentioned). Before the Cotton Bowl kicked off Brian Polian, then the Texas A&M Special Teams Coordinator, was offered the job and he accepted before the Aggies destroyed Oklahoma. Seven days later it would be official with the NSHE Board of Regents.
With the loss to Wyoming last Saturday, the Pack moved to 3-5 on the season and 1-3 in the Mountain West. To start MW play, the Silver & Blue faced three straight teams that hadn’t won an FBS game and they lost to two of them (Hawaii, San Jose State). With a markedly more difficult second half of their MW schedule, there’s barely a flickering light at the end of the tunnel.
Career Record: 21-25 (17-25 against the FBS)
· As a Favorite: 15-6*
· As an Underdog: 5-19
· At Mackay Stadium: 14-8
· On the Road: 6-16
· Neutral: 1-1
· Mountain West: 12-16
· MW West Division: 10-8
· Rivalry Games (UNLV, Boise): 1-3
· Against the Power 5: 1-7
When looking at the records above context is everything. It’s not just that Polian’s teams are four games under .500 in the MW but that they’re just 2-8 against the much tougher Mountain Division. Through his first three seasons the Pack beat just six teams that were bowl eligible (35% of his FBS wins), including 5-7 San Jose State that went to a bowl last season.
By and large, Nevada has beaten the teams they were supposed to beat and lost to who they were supposed to lose to. Polian has largely benefited from being in a very mediocre division. The West has yielded just two 8+ win regular season teams since 2013, Fresno State (2013-10w) and San Diego State (2015-9w), both of whom won the conference in their respective years. The West was so delightfully mediocre in 2014 that 6-6 Fresno State earned the right to get demolished by Boise State in the MW Championship Game.
What sticks out when looking at this body of work is the bad losses. Two home losses to UNLV (both as 6-point favorites), a 20-point home loss to Fresno with the West Division hanging in the balance, a loss to 0-6 Wyoming (who had lost all six games by double digits), a loss to Utah State while being up 20 in the 3rd Quarter and the dumpster fire that was San Jose State two weeks ago. Had Nevada won a majority of these games it’s likely that the fan base would have a different opinion on his time here, alas they didn’t and we don’t.
· 2013 (4-8), Overall:81st, Offense: 41st, Defense: 108th
· 2014 (7-6), Overall: 81st, Offense: 64th, Defense: 87th
· 2015 (7-6), Overall: 99th, Offense: 91st, Defense: 101th
· 2016: (3-5), Overall:120th, Offense: 106th, Defense: 121st
The downward spiral here is something to behold. Polian and then-Offensive Coordinator Nick Rolovich were handed the keys to a Maserati, they then lost control of it down Mt. Rose Highway and put it in a ditch. Rational Nevada fans expected the offense to take a dip once Ault left, naturally so when you lose one of the game’s brightest offensive minds. During Ault’s last season Nevada ranked eighth nationally gaining 514.8 yards in Total Offense per game, that number has decreased every year since with the Pack having dropped to 101stnationally.
Total Offense Per Game
· 2013: 429.3
· 2014: 397.6
· 2015: 375.2
· 2016: 369.9
The decrease in production can be mostly attributed to Quarterback and Offensive Line play along with scheme. The Polian era has been marked by a revolving door within the Union, losing hordes of lineman to injuries and attrition. The biggest positives offensively when Polian got settled in was talented junior QB Cody Fajardo and being able to retain Rolovich, who nearly left for Temple. Play calling and the changing of scheme on offense have also been popular complaints from the fan base. By the end of Rolovich’s tenure, people were excited to see what a new OC could do here and Tim Cramsey has provided a bit of a spark this season, without much in the way of results. Leading some, including me, to believe that Polian is involved in the play calling particularly in late game situations.
Make no mistake, the offense is always criticized more than the defense at Nevada because we’re used to having mediocre/bad defenses. There have been five different Defensive Coordinators at Nevada since 2009. For years the fan base was used to the Pack outscoring everybody and getting stops every once in a while. Part of that is Ault was an offensive genius and neglected the other side of the ball to the point when Polian took over there was far more offensive players than defense on scholarship. I believe that this current regime has put more of an emphasis on that side of the ball, though the results haven’t been there.
RECRUITING AND DEVELOPMENT
Following the historic 2010 season, the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes turned out to be complete duds. The 2011 class featured 17 signees and just three of those played a senior season. The 2012 class had 30 players in it and only 13 of them are playing a senior season. Polian had just three weeks to put a staff and a recruiting class together for 2013, that class featured 16 HS signees of which five are left. Let that sync in for a minute.
The two classes following the best season in school history were a complete disaster and when you factor in the 2013 class, it’s not hard to imagine why Nevada is a struggling Mountain West program right now. There are players you’d recognize from each of those classes that ended up having good careers but the depth has been depleted.
According to the 24/7 Sports Composite Rankings, Polian has pulled in classes of 4th (2014), 6th (2015) and 9th (2016) in the Mountain West. His current class for 2017, with 14 verbal commits, is currently in 3rd behind benchmark Boise State and Colorado State.
With all that said I don’t think recruiting is Nevada’s problem, rather it’s development. Ault wasn’t a great recruiter but he would get kids on campus and four years later they’d be significantly better, particularly on offense. By contrast, Polian seems to get a better caliber of athlete but they aren’t developed to nearly the same extent.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the QB position. Fajardo was among the most efficient QB’s Nevada had ever seen his first two years on North Virginia Street. He had a QB Rating of 143.9 in 2012 and that dropped all the way to 120.1 in 2014 with 11 interceptions, his senior year which was very un-Cody like.
Anyone who remembers Tyler Stewart’s lone start in 2013 against Hawaii will remember that he looked a lot like he has in 2015 and 2016. He’s certainly improved in some areas, such as the zone read game, but he’s looked roughly the same for the last two seasons. When you have issues developing the most important position on the field, it’s easy to assume that development lacks in other position groups as well.
Polian has often said in press conferences that unlike the upper echelon of the Power 5 conferences, Nevada is in a conference where they’re in the business of developing players. One has to think by his own criteria that this is his biggest weakness as a Head Coach.
I’ve only been around Polian at public events such as The Blitz dinner, luncheon’s, etc. and I’ve always thought he was a decent man and none of the stuff I’ve written changes that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about all of the off-the-field stuff that he has done during his time here. He quickly instituted events such as Football 101, which has had a great impact on women’s charities in Washoe County, and I’ve heard that The Blitz (Nevada Football’s fund raising arm) reached its highest level of membership in its history. He’s never been one to shy away from fund raising and hob-nobbing with boosters, which cannot be said for his predecessor.
He’s also launched some great traditions that I adore in the Wolf Pack Walk and the post-game Alma Mater. He truly has done more good here than bad. He’s recruited a quality of student that the Football program has never seen before, his players rarely get in trouble and he’s represented Nevada pretty well over the course of the last four years. Other than his record, he’s been a coach very befitting of a Tier 1 University and as a proud alum, that does matter to me.
The chatter about Polian’s status is loud right now and with likely more losses on the way, it’s only going to intensify. Nevada AD Doug Knuth has a big decision to make in the next five weeks, by far the most important of his tenure. It’s easy for any fan or booster to arm-chair quarterback this and tell an FBS Athletic Director what he needs to do, but I won’t pretend I know all of what goes into these decisions.
Polian has one year left on his original 5-year, $2.825M contract with a base salary of $535,000. We all know that Nevada has one of the smallest budgets in the MW but you cannot have a coach recruiting and coaching with 0 years left on his deal. I did countless searches and I can’t find the last time an FBS Head Coach put on his headset with no years left on his deal, it simply doesn’t happen in this day and age. Which leaves Knuth with just two options, extend or fire Polian. There isn’t a third option.
After everything I’ve written above, the choice has to be to let him go. I’ve never been a #FireCarter or #FirePolian guy on Twitter and don’t like seeing anyone lose their jobs, but after nearly four seasons we know what we have and it’s time to move in a different direction. The Pack have two homes games left and if those crowds are anything like the Wyoming game, it will make Knuth’s decision easier.
Knuth’s Department is at the beginning of a 15-year, $11.5M loan to pay off the renovations to Mackay Stadium. The ticket prices for the best seats increased, rightfully so, the AD is asking their biggest supporters to pay more than they ever have for a product that has gotten worse in the last four years. This is the definition of tough sledding and has easily the worst season since 2002. We all knew that this was a make or break season for Polian and we’ve gotten our answer.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Polian era has been that the Mountain West is at an all-time low and the West Division is annually among the weakest in the FBS. Yet the program never seized control and took the next step, rather they went in the opposite direction. The one silver lining is Knuth has proven himself to be an incredible evaluator of talent and has made excellent hires in Basketball, Baseball and many Olympic sports. I have the ultimate confidence in him to hire an excellent replacement and get this program back on track.
As always, you can follow all of my debauchery @SaturdaysInReno
* - 2015 San Jose State game was a pick’em