Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack football coaches ranked

Jay Norvell shown against New Mexico in Reno on Nov. 2. Based on his first three seasons, Norvell ranks sixth (tied with his predecessor, Brian Polian) all time among Nevada football coaches, Joe Santoro says.

Jay Norvell shown against New Mexico in Reno on Nov. 2. Based on his first three seasons, Norvell ranks sixth (tied with his predecessor, Brian Polian) all time among Nevada football coaches, Joe Santoro says.

There have been 27 Nevada Wolf Pack head football coaches in the 113 seasons of the program. A third of them, for more different reasons than there are letters in Joe Sheeketski’s last name, lasted just one year.

That leaves just 18 that have lasted more than one season. Current Pack coach Jay Norvell will open his fourth season at Nevada in the fall, thus ranking him in the top two-thirds of all Wolf Pack head coaches in history by longevity alone.

But where does Norvell rank among the 18 fortunate head coaches who survived at least three seasons of Wolf Pack football? Well, he’s not the best. But you probably knew that already, given the rollercoaster nature of the past three seasons. The good news, though, is that he’s also not even close to being the worst. Coaching Wolf Pack football, it turns out, is not an easy thing to do.

What follows is a ranking, based solely on the first three seasons of their Wolf Pack head coaching careers, of the 18 men who stuck around longer than two seasons as head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack football program:


You were expecting Alexander King Dickson (1899) on top of this list? Ault, who coached the Wolf Pack for 28 seasons, simply transformed Wolf Pack football in his first three seasons (1976-78). Under Ault in those first three seasons the Wolf Pack transformed from a losing Division II independent (8-14 in the two seasons prior to Ault taking over) into one of the top Division I-AA teams in the nation. The Pack won 27 of 34 games in 1976-78, making the Division I-AA playoffs in 1978 and finishing with an 11-1 record. Those first three seasons paved the way for the Wolf Pack to join the Big Sky Conference in 1979. Ault showed the Pack how to win in the Big Sky Conference and the Big West Conference.


Norvell, a former Oklahoma assistant, was not the first Wolf Pack head coach with the Sooners on his resume. The first was Courtright, who was a football, basketball and baseball star for Oklahoma (1911-14). Courtright is the first standout football coach in the history of Nevada football. He took over a program that didn’t know whether or not it wanted to be a rugby team (1906-14), whether it needed a coach (no coach in 1905) or whether it even wanted to exist at all (no team, rugby or football, in 1918). The Wolf Pack went 26-13-6 in Courtright’s first three seasons (1919-21), playing such standout programs as California, Santa Clara, St. Mary’s, USC and Stanford. Courtright also coached the Wolf Pack basketball team for four seasons (1919-23). The Pack football team was 14-1-1 at home in Courtright’s first three years. The 1919 Pack went 8-1-1 overall and outscored its opponents 449-32 with seven shutouts. Those eight wins were a school record until 1947. Courtwright also coached Pack star Rabbitt Bradshaw.


Sheetketski, who played for legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne in 1930, went 23-9 in his first three seasons (1947-49) at Nevada. He coached such Wolf Pack stars as Scott Beasley, Stan Heath, Tommy Kalmanir, Ken Sinofsky and Dick Trachok. The Pack, which set a school record with nine wins in both 1947 and 1948, played in two bowl games in Sheeketski’s first two years, winning the Salad Bowl and losing the Harbor Bowl. Sheeketski led the Pack past Oregon and quarterback Norm Van Brocklin on the road in 1947 (beating former Pack coach Jim Aiken) and won at Hawaii in 1948.


Yes, Jeff Tisdel at No. 4, which unfortunately says more about the quality of Pack coaches that have lasted more than two years than it does about Tisdel. The Wolf Pack was 20-14 over Tisdel’s first three seasons (1996-98), winning its first bowl game (since Sheeketski’s Pack in the Jan. 1, 1947 Salad Bowl) in December 1996 over Ball State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Ault, at the time, had yet to win a bowl game. The Pack went 9-3 in 1996 (Ault coached the Pack in 1994 and 1995 and handed Tisdel a stacked lineup in 1996), winning the Big West Conference. Tisdel’s Pack also won the Big West in 1997 and finished second in 1998. He also went 3-0 against UNLV his first three years. Not even Ault did that. Tisdel’s biggest obstacle was dealing with the unusually brutal and unfair non-conference schedule (on the road at Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Southern Mississippi, Toledo) that was handed to him by athletic director Ault.


Yes, Jerry Scattini at No. 5. The former California Golden Bear running back (his game-winning touchdown beat Stanford in 1959) went 16-13-1 his first three seasons (1969-71) after taking over the program at age 28. Scattini, named head coach when former coach Dick Trachok became athletic director, won the first game of the Wolf Pack-UNLV rivalry in 1969. At one point Scattini went 7-2-1 over 10 games overlapping the 1969 and 1970 seasons. He also won 14 of his first 25 games (one tie).


It is almost impossible to separate Norvell and Polian when comparing their first three seasons. Both compiled an 18-20 record their first three seasons. Both went 1-2 against UNLV. Both went 1-1 in bowl games. Polian won seven games twice in his first three years. Norvell won seven games in 2019 after an eight-win year in 2018. Polian beat Washington State and BYU. Norvell beat Oregon State and Purdue. Norvell, though, won just three games in 2017 and lost to a Division I-AA team (Idaho State) while Polian never won fewer than four (2013) games or lost to a I-AA team. Call them Polvell or Norvelian. You can’t separate the two after three years. We might see some separation this year. Polian lost to UNLV again and went 5-7 in Year Four and was fired. Mackay Stadium crowds under Norvell have yet to return since Polian’s final season.


Aiken took over a Wolf Pack program in 1939 that had not had a winning season since 1925. The former Akron head coach (1936-38) stabilized Nevada football his first three seasons, going 12-13-1 from 1939-41 just before the start of World War II. Aiken won a Far Western Conference title in 1939. The Pack also went 8-0-1 during one stretch (late 1939 to early 1940) under Aiken. The tie was 6-6 at BYU in the second game of 1940. Aiken did win a lot of games against military base teams but that was the state of college football in the late 1930s and 1940s. The Wolf Pack’s confidence in Aiken after three seasons paid off big time. Aiken would go 22-10-1 over his final four seasons (1943-46).


Clarence Leon “Brick“ Mitchell was just 8-14-3 over his first three seasons (1932-34). But he is ranked this high because he won a pair of Far Western Conference titles in his first two seasons. Those are the first two conference titles in Wolf Pack history. Mitchell, a former Walter Camp All-American player at Oregon, was a respectable 7-7-2 over his first two seasons, 4-1-1 in the Far Western Conference. Mitchell’s signature victory at Nevada was 9-7 over a powerful St. Mary’s team in 1934. St. Mary’s had beaten the Pack 61-0 and 35-0 the previous two seasons and was coming off a huge victory over Cal before meeting the Pack in 1934. The Pack beat the Gaels at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco 9-7 on a 30-yard dropkick field goal by Tom Cashill with three minutes to play. It was the Pack’s first win against St. Mary’s, then a college football power, since 1922 after eight losses.


Allen Chub Steckel lost just nine of 17 games (6-9-2) over his first three seasons (1901-03). Steckel, who played for the Michigan Wolverines, took over the Wolf Pack football program (it was referred to then as the Sagebrushers) at a time when the university had just 100 students. Players did not have scholarships. They barely had enough money for equipment and a football. The Pack played just 17 total games in Steckel’s first three seasons combined but half of them were against much larger schools (nine combined against California, Stanford, Utah, Washington, Oregon State). The Pack was 2-6-1 against those five schools combined in Steckel’s first three years and 4-3-1 against everybody else. His brothers (Abel, Ivan) played for him at Nevada. Under Steckel, the Pack tied Stanford and beat Cal in back-to-back weeks on the road in 1903.


The former Wolf Pack player and Reno High coach (1949-58) took over a program in 1959 that had little money or support. The Pack had gone 12-34-1 in seven seasons without scholarships since reviving the program in 1952 after a one-year absence before Trachok took over. Trachok immediately turned in the Pack’s first winning season (4-3 in 1959) since 1948. The Wolf Pack went 12-13-0 (9-5 at home) in Trachok’s first three years, producing two winning seasons. By the time Trachok stepped down as coach after the 1968 season the Pack had built a new Mackay Stadium (for the 1966 season) and brought a confident 5-foot-7 quarterback to Nevada (Chris Ault) from San Bernardino, Calif.


Shaw would end up having an outstanding coaching career at other places. He was the San Francisco 49ers first head coach in 1946. He would coach the Philadelphia Eagles to an NFL championship over Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers in 1960. He was the second head coach in Air Force history. He also played at Notre Dame and was also a head coach at Cal, North Carolina State and Santa Clara. Shaw was just 26 years old when he took over the Pack in 1925, leading them to a 4-3-1 record his first year and 10-13-3 over his first three seasons. Five of those losses in the first three years were against Cal and Stanford. The Pack went 7-3-1 in Shaw’s first 11 games and 3-1 in the Far Western Conference in each of his first two years.


Tormey didn’t win a lot of game his first three years, going just 10-23 from 2000-02. But while the Pack didn’t win much under the former Washington Huskies defensive coordinator, it was never boring. The Tormey era was filled with great moments by great players. Tormey’s first victory was at Wyoming after the team arrived late to the stadium because of a snowstorm. Tormey beat BYU at Mackay Stadium in 2002. Yes, the Wolf Pack lost nine of its first 10 games under Tormey, but it rallied to go 15-20 over his last 35 games. The Tormey era featured great players. Chance Kretschmer led the nation in rushing in 2001 with 1,732 yards, Nate Burleson caught 123 passes for 1,629 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2002 and Zack Threadgill passed for 3,418 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2002. Tormey also brought defensive stars such as Jorge Cordova, Derek Kennard and Daryl Towns to Nevada.


Dashiell, who coached Las Vegas High to four consecutive (1931-34) state titles, resigned from the Wolf Pack after three seasons (1936-38) before the final game of the 1938 season because of a player revolt. The 33-year-old (in 1938), though, was still the most successful coach at Nevada since 1925. Dashiell’s Pack never had a winning season but they did go 8-12-1 (he didn’t coach the final game of 1938, a 51-0 loss to Pacific) over three seasons. Under Dashiel, the Pack started 3-1 in 1936 and won five of its first nine games. The Pack also beat Wyoming at home to open the 1937 season. John Robb played quarterback (1936-37) for Dashiell. Dashiell also coached the speedy Walt Powers, the father of former Wolf Pack baseball coach Gary Powers. The Pack also wore “satin sheen” navy blue jerseys under Dashiell with gold pants and blue and white socks.


The Pack went 6-14-5 in three seasons 1929-31 under Philbrook, who played at Notre Dame. Philbrook was a roommate of Knute Rockne’s at Notre Dame and later competed in the 1912 Summer Olympics in the decathlon. The Pack was shut out 12 times over Philbrook’s three seasons. The Pack, though, did play well in the Far Western Conference under Philbrook, going 6-4-1 in three seasons, though it never did finish first. Philbrook’s first season was marred by blowout losses at powerful football factories USC (66-0) and St. Mary’s (54-0). The Pack, however, did tie BYU (6-6) the following year and lost just 8-0 at Cal.


Glascock’s Pack went 4-13-0 in three seasons (1915-17). Four victories, though, were a noteworthy accomplishment considering the Pack had not had a football team since 1905 or scored a single point since 1904. Yes, three of the victories came against either the Stewart Indian School or the Sacramento Athletic Club. The other was against Utah State, something the 2019 Pack couldn’t say. The Pack scored just 192 points in Glascock’s three seasons and 163 of them came against Stewart Indian School or the Sacramento Athletic Club. Five of Glascock’s losses, though, came against either the Cal freshman (four) or varsity.


Lawlor, the Wolf Pack’s athletic director, only became head coach in 1952 because he didn’t have enough money to hire one. After shutting the program down in 1951 for an entire year because of a lack of funding, the Pack brought football back in 1952 with a bunch of students that simply played for the love of the game. The Wolf Pack went 6-11 over Lawlor’s only three seasons, playing teams mainly from Northern California. The Pack would not finish more than three games over .500 until Ault’s first year in 1976 (8-3). Lawlor was better known as the Pack’s men’s basketball coach from 1942-59.


The Wolf Pack went 3-20-1 in McEachron’s first three seasons (1955-57). McEachron, who went 9-8 over two seasons (1953-54) as Pepperdine’s coach, had no money for scholarships at Nevada. The Pack couldn’t even offer players free room and board. A 21-13 win at UC Davis in the middle of the 1957 season snapped a painful 12-game winless (0-11-1) streak. The Pack went 1-15-1 over the 1956 and 1957 seasons. McEachron, a former Pepperdine player, then offered his resignation after the 1957 season but was convinced by athletic director Art Broten to stay one more year (he improved to 3-3 in 1958). The Pack then hired high school coach Dick Trachok in 1959. Trachok brought Chris Ault to Nevada as a player in 1963 and hired him as head football coach in 1976.


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