Chris Ault back in Pack picture
Special to The R-C
Papa Pack is back.
Chris Ault, the unofficial father of all sporting things silver and blue on north Virginia Street, has returned to the Nevada Wolf Pack football program.
“I’m here for whatever they need from me,” Ault said last week at the Mackay Stadium press conference announcing Jay Norvell as the newest Pack head football coach. “It’s up to them. I’m just a phone call or a text away.”
Ault, who coached the Wolf Pack to 233 victories in 28 seasons, was a very visible presence at Norvell’s Wolf Pack welcoming party. The 70-year-old greeted Wolf Pack boosters as well as past and present players, coaches, athletic directors and administrators. He willingly gave his stamp of approval on Norvell, calling him the surge the program needs. Although he tried to stay out of the way and in the background last Friday, you can be sure that his presence at the very start of the Norvell era was not an accident.
“The community is going to love Jay,” Ault said.
Ault never used the word love the past four years in the same sentence with the coach that Norvell replaced. When Brian Polian was introduced as the newest Pack football coach on Jan. 11, 2013, Ault was nowhere to be found. There was no Ault stamp of approval, no backslaps, handshakes and welcome to the Pack for Polian. Ault didn’t pass the Wolf Pack baton to Polian, symbolically or otherwise.
That, too, was not an accident.
“I didn’t even know they hired him,” Ault said. “I didn’t know him. I was not part of the selection process.”
That, too, was not an accident.
So he stayed away. And nobody in silver and blue seemed all that upset that he wasn’t around.
Even the Wolf Pack’s obligatory I-guess-we-should-name-the-field-after-Ault ceremony felt forced, contrived and artificial. The ceremony before Polian’s first home game on Sept. 7, 2013 had all the warm and nostalgic feeling of handing a door-to-door salesman a gold watch upon his retirement after 50 years of service. Neither Ault or Polian addressed the crowd and the two didn’t shake hands publicly or privately that evening. And Ault certainly didn’t give his public blessing to the new regime. The Pack just uncovered the words “Chris Ault Field” between the 40-yard lines, Ault and his friends and family walked off the field and that was the last we saw of him publicly at Mackay Stadium for four seasons.
Once again, not an accident.
While Polian was busy losing 27 of 50 games, Ault spent the last four years consulting coach Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs, seemingly teaching everybody but the Wolf Pack the ins and outs of the pistol and coaching the semi-pro Milano Rhinos to a perfect 13-0 season and an Italian Football League championship last July.
“The Italians know how to celebrate,” Ault said.
The Wolf Pack under Polian didn’t do a whole lot of celebrating the last four years. Ault said he attended two or three Wolf Pack games a year slipping in and out of the stadium without any official fanfare. “I went to the UNLV game (a 27-22 Wolf Pack loss in 2013 at Mackay Stadium) and that made me sick to my stomach,” Ault said.
Ault also went to a game late this season at Mackay Stadium.
“People came up to me and said, ‘What can we do about this football program?’” Ault said. “I didn’t want to get into that because I wasn’t around the team anymore. But I did say one thing. I said, ‘He (Polian) better put the (Fremont) cannon back where he found it.”
Polian did just that as his Pack beat the Rebels 45-10 in Las Vegas on Nov. 26. He was “mutually departed” from the program less than 24 hours later as the first splashes of blue paint hit the cannon. Polian didn’t know it, but by leaving the program last month he also put something else back where he found it.
He put Papa Pack back in the program.
“It’s important that he’s part of what we’re doing,” Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said. “He hasn’t been around the last four years.”
And whose fault is that? That is a long list that starts with former athletic director Cary Groth and president Marc Johnson, who headed the search that found Polian. That list also obviously includes Polian who, for some reason, started to twitch and stammer each time Ault’s name came up in conversation. But that list also includes Knuth, who also didn’t try to shove Ault down the throat of his skittish football coach.
“I would talk to him (Ault) two or three times a year, just call him up and ask him things,” Knuth said. “He’s done this job (athletic director). Why wouldn’t I use a resource like that?”
Ault, for reasons he prefers to keep to himself, didn’t feel welcome around Polian’s Pack. “I didn’t want to impose,” he said.
None of that matters anymore. Papa Pack is back.
Knuth now deserves a ton of credit for reopening the Wolf Pack door to Ault. He didn’t interview any former Ault player or coach when looking for a head coach – former Ault assistant Chris Klenakis, the co-offensive coordinator at Louisville, made it very clear that he wanted the job – but he did make sure Ault was part of the search.
“I never played football and I never coached football,” Knuth said. “So when I hire a football coach I want input and ideas from people who played the game and coached the game. Why wouldn’t I use someone like Chris Ault?”
What took place between Knuth and Ault the past month or so should have happened between Ault and Groth four years ago. It didn’t happen four years ago and Ault took it personally.
“That was tough for me,” he said. “I didn’t handle that well at the time and I said some things that I wish I hadn’t said.”
The message the Wolf Pack made clear to Ault four years ago was that his time at the university was over. The result was that the Pack hired Polian, whose resume clearly did not deserve what Ault built over five decades as a player, coach and athletic director. Knuth, who saw interest in the Pack football program shrink in the last four years, made sure to bring Ault back into the Pack inner circle this past month. The result is Norvell, a man whose resume deserves the Pack baton.
“When the name Jay Norvell came up he (Ault) just told me, ‘I know him. This is a guy you should check out,’” Knuth said. “We would have called Jay anyway, but it was good to have that reinforcement.”
Ault got to know Norvell in the spring of 2013 when he visited Oklahoma to teach the Sooners coaching staff the pistol offense. Norvell was the Sooners’ offensive coordinator at the time and quickly formed a friendship and mutual respect with Ault.
“I am a guy who loves the offensive side of football,” said Norvell, who was a defensive back in college at Iowa and a linebacker for one season (1987) with the Chicago Bears. “Everybody in America wanted to talk to Coach Ault back then (2013), when Colin Kaepernick was running all over the place (with the San Francisco 49ers). I was one of those coaches. I hold him in high regard.”
The best Polian could say about Ault’s pistol offense when he was hired in January 2013 was, “Why change something that isn’t broke?”
“I heard him say that, ‘Why fix something that isn’t broke?’” Ault said. “I didn’t care if they used the pistol or not. A coach needs to do what he feels comfortable with, to do what made him successful.”
Norvell, unlike Polian, doesn’t seem to be afraid to have Ault circling the program overhead. Of course, he has yet to coach a game at Nevada so all that could change. But, for now, he is saying all the right things.
“When I was at Oklahoma, (former Sooners coach) Barry Switzer used to live two blocks from the stadium,” Norvell said. “He was very much a part of the program. And that was great, to have someone like that around to talk to.”
Norvell, also unlike Polian, is a very secure and confident man. Ault’s presence around the program is not going to threaten Norvell, a coach with three decades of experience. He’s been an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, UCLA and Nebraska. Texas let him call plays in 2015 and Arizona State allowed him to coordinate their passing game this last season. Norvell has coached for six years in the NFL. He worked for Al Davis. Chris Ault isn’t going to scare him. Norvell’s teams have been to a Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bow, Fiesta Bowl, a BCS title game and a Super Bowl. A 70-year-old former coach, one whose players now play for pizza and vino, isn’t going to make Jay Norvell feel jittery and skittish.
Norvell wasn’t afraid last Friday to make it very clear that the days of Ault’s pistol are over at Nevada. The pistol, Norvell said, will at most be used as a sprinkle of salt on his Wolf Pack steak. But nothing more. “We’ve used elements of the pistol the last few years,” Norvell said. “You will see some of these qualities in our play. But we will run an up-tempo spread offense. That’s what we do.”
Ault is more than fine with that.
“Teams now use the pistol formation,” Ault said. “But they don’t run the pistol offense like we did. And that‘s what they should do. You have to run what you know.”
Polian told ESPN a few months into his Nevada career, before he even coached a game at Nevada, that the Wolf Pack had very little tradition. He then basically spent the rest of his doomed career at Nevada trying to create the program in his own image, changing everything from the uniforms, helmets and locker room to how the team conducts its post-game media interviews and which sideline it stands on at Mackay Stadium.
Norvell, it seems, wants to embrace what Ault built at Nevada. Not tear it down or simply ignore it.
“I have great respect for the traditions of this program,” he said as Ault looked on. “I will love and honor that.”
The respect is mutual between the best coach the program has ever had and its newest coach.
“Jay has been around great players and great coaches,” Ault said. “Look at the moves he’s made in his career. He wasn’t only an assistant coach. He was a coordinator at a lot of these schools. He had positions of authority. He was hired to come in and manage a group. That says a lot about a coach.”
Ault also said a lot about Polian without actually mentioning him by name.
“Jay is the type of coach when something goes wrong or something needs to be fixed, he doesn’t have to look at the coordinator and ask him what went wrong,” Ault said.
Ault also said that Norvell won’t be the type of coach that makes excuses for not winning.
“The one thing he (Polian) said that I didn’t like was the things he said about how the program is supported,” Ault said. “It’s not about money. It’s about the person running the show. The money grows when you win. We don’t have money like Boise State. That’s true. But you have everything you need here to win. There are no excuses for not competing at the top level of this conference. We’re in a conference we can win. You don’t need one of the biggest budgets to win in this conference.”
It is that sort of no-excuses philosophy that carried Ault’s Wolf Pack to 233 victories in 28 seasons. It’s that sort of philosophy that has been missing the last four years.
“This university is still a big part of my family,” Ault said. “I want this school to win.”
The Wolf Pack averaged just 18,500 fans for each of their six home games this season. Just 13,390 showed up for the last home game of the season on Nov. 19 against Utah State. The Pack averaged 23,432 fans a game in Ault’s final season in 2012. Ault’s continued presence around the program moving forward just might bring some Pack fans back to the program. He will be busy coaching in Italy from the opening of training camp in January through, he hopes, the Italian Super Bowl in early July. But don’t be shocked to see a little gray-haired guy sitting in the stands this fall at Mackay Stadium who looks an awful lot like a Wolf Pack Hall of Fame coach.
“I not sure that anybody cares that I’m back or not,” Ault said. “I was just excited to be involved in the (coaching) search.”
People care. The Pack players, young men who never even played for Ault, already care.
“He came up to me and called me a Nevada Back,” Wolf Pack running back James Butler said. “That means a lot to me.”
When Chris Ault speaks, people listen and care. And when he doesn’t speak, like the last four years, people also notice and care.
“He is part of our Wolf Pack family,” Knuth said.
Ault wants everyone in Northern Nevada to know and understand that this football program now belongs to Jay Norvell.
“He’s got a personality and a demeanor that can bring the community together to support this football program,” Ault said. “The community will enjoy him. I think he can connect this community and bring it together.”
Just like Papa Pack used to do.