Santoro: There’s rebuilds — and then there’s the 2024 Wolf Pack

Nevada head coach Jeff Choate speaks to fans at the Wolf Pack’s open practice at Carson High School on April 6.

Nevada head coach Jeff Choate speaks to fans at the Wolf Pack’s open practice at Carson High School on April 6.
Photo by Jeff Mulvihill, Jr. | InstaImage.

Sports Fodder:

Jeff Choate has the most difficult and daunting rebuilding job for a new Nevada Wolf Pack football head coach in more than seven decades.

Choate was handed the keys to a two-win team last December. It was basically the keys to a dilapidated car that was out on the front lawn, missing three tires, a door, windshield and an engine and was propped up on cinder blocks with a family of squirrels living in the front seat.

The last new Wolf Pack head coach to take over a team that had won two or fewer games the previous season is Gordon McEachron. McEachron, in 1955, took over a Jake Lawlor team that went 2-5 in 1954.

But that 2-5 team, despite not having any scholarships and only as many assistant coaches as McEachron had syllables in his last name, had a winning percentage of .286. That dwarfs the .167 (2-10) of Ken Wilson’s 2023 Wolf Pack that Choate bought sight unseen last December.

The most difficult, daunting and, yes, demoralizing rebuilding job for a new Pack head coach before the one facing Choate, therefore, belongs to Lawlor in 1952. The Wolf Pack didn’t even have a team in 1951 and was 1-9 in 1950 the last time the school fielded a team. Lawlor, the athletic director and former basketball coach, couldn’t even afford to hire a real head coach for the 1952 season so he did it himself. He was faced with resurrecting the program with no scholarships, almost no budget in an aging, dilapidated stadium that had a dozen families of squirrels living in the stands.

Choate doesn’t have it that bad. We think. But he does have to win six games this year to avoid the Wolf Pack’s first three-year stretch of less than 10 combined wins since 1999-2001 (eight wins).  Before that it was 1962-64 (nine wins).


We didn’t see anything last Saturday in the Wolf Pack’s annual Silver and Blue spring scrimmage to suggest that the bleak and dreadful years of the Ken Wilson era are guaranteed to be a thing of the past anytime soon.

The scrimmage, after all, ended with a Wolf Pack player (running back Sean Dollars) being carried off the field in a stretcher. Stephen King couldn’t write a more bleak and dreadful ending to one of his horror novels.

There were hardly any fans and almost no atmosphere or excitement last Saturday at Mackay Stadium. But that’s not Choate’s fault. It was, after all, a meaningless spring scrimmage in April for a program that has won four of its last 25 games.

One of the touchdowns in the 21-15 Blue victory over Silver was a scoop and score by the defense when the offense left the ball on the ground near the line of scrimmage.

“There was some good stuff, some bad stuff and some ugly stuff,” Choate said.

Yes, Pack fans, the first public showing of the 2024 Wolf Pack, according to the new head coach, revealed two negative events to every positive one.

Choate, a soon-to-be-54-year-old who has never been a head coach at the Division I-A (FBS) level before, has his work cut out for him.


Nobody, of course, has any idea how many games Choate will win in his first season. But don’t worry about the wins and losses this season.

Yes, keep the faith and your fingers crossed that Choate evacuates the squirrels and installs a working engine in the Pack car. But it’s difficult to get rid of squirrels. We even saw a few of them, after all, play quarterback for Wilson the last two years.

But win or lose, if you truly love college football, you are going to enjoy this Pack home season. This season promises more than enough value for your Wolf Pack football dollar to get you off your coach and head to the stadium and buy a ticket.

First of all, there will be 13 games in the regular season, with seven of them at home. The last time that happened was 2010, when the Pack was 7-0 at home, 13-1 overall (12-1 in the regular season) and finished first in the Western Athletic Conference.

Choate was Boise State’s linebacker coach in 2010 and saw the Pack beat his Broncos 34-31 in overtime that year. So, he knows that a magical night and fairy-tale season is indeed possible at Mackay Stadium.


Nobody is suggesting the Wolf Pack will go 12-1 in the regular season this year or even 7-0 at home. That 2010 Wolf Pack team, of course, is the greatest in school history and was full of future NFL draft picks.

But we are saying the 2024 home season will be worth your attention, if only for the entertainment value.

The home schedule includes SMU (Aug. 24), which will be in its first season in the ACC. The last time the Pack messed with SMU the Mustangs trounced the Pack, Colin Kaepernick and Chris Ault and the rest of those future NFL draft picks, 45-10, in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. That loss was part of the motivation for the 2010 dream season.

Georgia Southern is also coming to town this year and every Pack fan who still wants revenge for 1986 and 1990 needs to be at Mackay on Sept. 7. Three or four decades should not temper your revenge if you are a true Pack fan. It was the Division I-AA playoffs (1986) and national title game (1990), for goodness’ sake.

Eastern Washington of the Big Sky is at Mackay on Sept. 21 for its first trip to Reno since 2010. Choate, by the way, was 0-3 against Eastern Washington when he was Montana State’s head coach from 2016-18.

Oregon State comes to town on Oct. 12 for a game that counts in the Mountain West standings. Yes, things are bad for the Pack right now. But at least their entire conference didn’t abandon them like the Pac-12 did to Oregon State. The last time the Beavers came to Mackay they were in the Pac-12 and left town with a 37-35 loss.

The final three home games are against traditional Mountain West teams Fresno State (Oct. 19), Colorado State and ex-Pack coach Jay Norvell (Nov. 2) and Air Force (Nov. 23).

Norvell alone, who has beaten the Pack the last two years, should guarantee a packed Mackay Stadium.

We are looking at the most interesting, entertaining and busy football season at Mackay Stadium in quite some time. Just don’t always look at the scoreboard.


The Wolf Pack baseball team is, so far, proving its doubters wrong this season. The Pack, which hosts Oregon State at Peccole Park on Tuesday and Wednesday night in games that don’t count in the Mountain West standings, is just 14-17 overall this year.

But the Pack was picked by Mountain West coaches this year to finish dead last in the seven-team league and is so far a solid 9-8 in conference play and in fourth place.

The Wolf Pack, last in the league last season at 20-33 overall and 10-20 in conference, has had a streaky season so far. Second-year head coach Jake McKinley’s team lost six games in a row in late February and early March after starting 4-1 but has gone a respectable 10-10 since.

The Pack is currently in position to qualify for the four-team conference postseason tournament next month in Las Vegas. But it won’t be easy. Nevada’s 9-8 league record so far has been aided by playing 11 (7-4 record) of its 17 games at home. Nine of the final 12 league games are on the road.

The Pack’s Mountain West tournament berth chances, therefore, might be obliterated by nine road games, three each at UNLV, Air Force and New Mexico over the next month. Or they might come down to three regular season-ending games at Peccole Park against San Diego State, May 16-18.


Nevada, of course, is a basketball school now. While Wilson's football team was winning two games in each of the last two seasons, Steve Alford's basketball team was going to the NCAA Tournament twice.

Football once ruled the Biggest Little University, but those days are long gone. The best football can do now, after all, is win a meaningless conference and a meaningless bowl game. Alford's Pack can legitimately compete for a national title.

Now that the Mountain West can get six teams into the NCAA Tournament that reality is even more legitimate. Why do you think Alford is still even at Nevada now after five seasons? It's because he knows he has just as good a chance of competing on a national stage than any so-called big-time basketball factory.

There is little pressure at Nevada for Alford. There is little to no media scrutiny or attention and nothing he says or does is challenged by anyone. All he has to do to keep basketball king at Nevada is win 20-plus games and at least be in the discussion to get into the NCAA Tournament.

That is not all that difficult anymore with more than half the Mountain West getting into the NCAA Tournament. We saw the formula come to fruition this year when Alford smartly padded his schedule with a ton of home games against mediocre-to-bad teams to start the year.

Choate's task is far more difficult simply because of the nature of mid-level college football. There is no forgiving NCAA Tournament for Pack football. Choate can only invite so many Eastern Washington's to his stadium in the fall.


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