Joe Santoro: Nevada should go all the way with Jay
A couple of seasons ago the Nevada Wolf Pack proudly declared, “In Muss we Trust,” and gave men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman a stunning two-year contract extension just two seasons into his five-year deal.
It was a bold move. Progressive, far-sighted, aggressive, intelligent, shrewd. You know, all of the things the Wolf Pack wasn’t over its first century or so.
Well, here we go again.
The Pack, whether it realizes it or not, set a precedent two years ago with its Muss Trust. And the time has come once again for the Wolf Pack — the progressive, aggressive and shrewd Wolf Pack — to stand before us and do it all over again.
“In Muss We Trust” should now become “All the Way with Jay.”
Jay Norvell, the architect of the Wolf Pack football program, deserves at least some of the same respect and trust the Pack heaped upon Musselman two years ago.
After two seasons, less than halfway through a five-year deal, Musselman won a contrived postseason tournament (the College Basketball Invitational) on his own floor against mediocre competition, won a Mountain West regular season title and brought his team to the NCAA tournament.
And just like that, presto change-o, abracadabra, faster than you can say Muss Bus, his salary more than doubled to $1 million a year and two years were added to his deal.
After two seasons, less than halfway through a five-year deal, Norvell won a contrived bowl game in a half-empty stadium on the road against a mediocre opponent and led his team to its first eight-win season in eight years. And just like that, presto change-o, abracadabra, faster than you can say, “Nevada Grit,” absolutely nothing has been added to Norvell’s original deal.
“I’m just an employee for the University of Nevada football program,” Norvell said last week before the 16-13 Arizona Bowl overtime victory over Arkansas State.
He’s an employee who deserves a raise and two more years added to his deal.
Relax, Pack fans. Don’t start waving your Muss Bus T-shirts in the air in anger. We get it. Every dollar that doesn’t go to Norvell or every other coach at Nevada can go to Marvelous Muss after this season to give him yet another contract extension and raise.
And he’ll deserve it.
But so does Norvell. At least some of it. How about that $50,000 a year Musselman donates back to the university every year? That can go to Norvell. It’s a start. But this isn’t about money with Norvell. Yes, Norvell, at $500,000 guaranteed a year, is the second-lowest paid coach in the Mountain West. But money, to a grit and grind guy like Norvell, who wears a gas station attendant shirt complete with his name on the pocket to a bowl game press conference, isn’t the prime objective. Not yet, at least.
If it was he would’ve lifted up his shirt and displayed his abs after beating Arkansas State. He would’ve gotten one of his buddies at a Power Five school or the NFL to give him a mock interview to give the impression someone wants to steal him away from Nevada.
But that’s not The Jay Way. He’s just an employee who goes to work. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve the respect the Pack gave Musselman two years ago.
He deserves it just as much.
It’s time to pay Jay.
No, not a million a year. Mackay Stadium, after all, is still half empty. Football for mid-major schools like Nevada is basically an exhibition sport. It’s simply a weekly bake sale with tailgate parties created just to make money for the rest of the athletic department. There are no national titles to be won for mid-majors like in basketball.
And we’re not saying Norvell has done all of the same things Musselman did after two seasons. Musselman hit Northern Nevada like a tsunami tidal wave. Norvell’s impact has moved slowly but surely like volcano lava. Musselman began to fill Lawlor Events Center with fans after just two seasons. Norvell can’t even fill the Basin Street Club at Mackay Stadium.
But football, we remind you in case the shoulder pads, four-hour games and endless timeouts don’t give it away, is a different animal than men’s basketball. You just can’t get a couple of talented twins from North Carolina State and make your football team one of the five or six best in the nation.
Football takes time and patience. It takes grit and grind. It takes The Jay Way.
“We talked about fighting and believing and continuing to stay with the plan,” said Norvell after the win over Arkansas State. “And having faith. We had faith today.”
The time has come for the Wolf Pack athletic department to exhibit some tangible faith in Norvell and extend his contract two more years through the 2023 season.
Yes, of course, the Pack has been nothing but supportive of Norvell since it hired him in December 2016. They supported him through a 3-9 season in 2017 and supported him when they had to leave the Fremont Cannon in Las Vegas in late November.
But those are just words. Words are just how Norvell controls the media and gets him new jobs. Words don’t win football games.
“We made a commitment as a team,” Norvell said last week. “We wanted to be a team of action and not words.”
Norvell will never publicly and maybe not even privately campaign for more money or years on his contract. He’s just a guys in a gas station attendant shirt ready to check your oil and tire pressure and make sure all of your brake lights are working.
But Norvell is just as important to the Wolf Pack football program as Musselman is to the men’s basketball team. And, although it might not seem like it right now, football is just as important to the Wolf Pack athletic department as men’s basketball.
That’s why it’s time for the Pack to go all the way with Jay. Mountain West championships, Las Vegas Bowl games and, yes, Top 25 rankings, are on the silver and blue horizon. Brick by brick. Grit by grit. Norvell is building a consistent winner at Nevada.
The Jay Way.
“It takes time and repetition for kids to really understand a new system and schemes,” Norvell said.
It also takes a fan base time to figure it out. We’re two full seasons into The Jay Way and, well, Northern Nevada is still not sure the right guy is leading the program, if Mackay Stadium’s attendance is any indication.
Musselman won over the community in about 10 minutes. That’s because Musselman’s basketball program put the pedal to the metal from Day One. A CBI title and 24 victories the first year. A Mountain West title the second year. A Sweet 16 trip the third year. And this year, well, Sandra Bullock is now driving the speeding Muss Bus and it’s about to run over Duke, Michigan, Kansas and anyone else foolish enough to get in the way.
Norvell’s Wolf Pack is still in the right hand lane. At times it doesn’t even approach the speed limit. There are other times when it doesn’t even look like it’s moving forward, like on a late night this past November in Las Vegas or on a December morning in Tucson for almost four quarters of the Nobody Cares Home Alone Bowl.
Musselman’s Pack leaves fans gasping for breath. Norvell’s Pack leaves fans wondering why they didn’t just stay home and watch the game on TV and avoid all of the bother.
Musselman is the Pied Piper of the Pack. He speaks and a thousand more Pack fans are born. He simply owns Northern Nevada’s collective heart. His players are rock stars. Norvell doesn’t even own the Fremont Cannon anymore. His best players, it seems, are either graduating or transferring to another school.
Musselman’s Pack is a purring Porsche that gets angry when it has to stop for a red light. Norvell’s Pack is sort of like that vintage 1965 Mustang sitting in the driveway. It looks great and everyone that passes by looks on with envy. But once you open the door, sit down and turn the key, well, it rattles and shakes, feels out of control on the curves and struggles to pass minivans on the highway.
That was Wolf Pack football in 2018. It looks good sitting there. Just don’t drive it.
There was the ugly losses to Toledo and Vanderbilt, the ugly victories over Oregon State and San Jose State, the they-are-going-to-blow-it victory over Air Force and, yes, the losses to the three biggest rivals (Boise State, UNLV and Fresno State) on the schedule.
The offense was as inconsistent as a TV remote on a dying battery. The defense was, well, think of that remote that worked great when you could find it on the coffee table. But half the time it was hidden in the couch cushions.
The bowl game was the perfect example of the Pack’s 2018 season. Arkansas State dominated the Wolf Pack in just about every category, out-gaining the Pack 499-285, with more first downs (25-15), more rushing yards (224-85) and more passing yards (275-200). The Pack should’ve lost in regulation by at least two touchdowns.
But the Pack won in overtime. Isn’t college football wonderful?
So just enjoy this Pack season from afar. Don’t get in and turn the key and take it out on the highway.
“We’re a blue collar program,” said Norvell, the master of cliches. “We are a disciplined outfit.”
And it needs a blue collar, disciplined coach who doesn’t need to worry about winning games and filling the stands with fans. It needs a football coach with job security.
Norvell is building a program based on subtle improvement that isn’t always noticeable to the naked eye. Or the average fan. Musselman’s Pack hits you square in the forehead with wild and crazy success. You can see it and feel it from space. Norvell’s Pack success comes packaged in a frustrating bowl game that makes you want to pull your hair out for almost four quarters.
Both are successful. It’s just both go about it differently.
“We talked this season (with the seniors) about planting trees you’ll never see,” Norvell said, “and giving our young players something to build on.”
Norvell has earned the right to see those trees grow.