Chris Ault has just two seasons remaining on his current contract to coach the Nevada Wolf Pack football team.
Did a frightening chill just fly up and down your silver and blue spine?
Well, it should.
Imagine, if you will, a Wolf Pack football program without Ault. Scary, huh? Visions of 2000 through 2003 just flashed through your mind, right? Your heart skipped a beat, didn’t it? That’s OK. We get it. Just the thought of a Wolf Pack sans Ault is enough to make a grown man sleep with a night light on.
Well, as of right now, we are a mere 24 months away from such a bloodcurdling scenario. In just 12 months Ault will be officially into his lame duck season. Time flies when you are trying to build a nationally ranked football team with a limited budget and a fickle fan base, doesn’t it?
A year ago the Wolf Pack was riding the wave of a 13-1 season, a magical victory over Boise State, a bowl game party by the bay and a can-you-believe-it No. 11 national ranking.
“I’m proud of how this football team brought this community together,” Ault said last January.
One community. One Pack. For once, it wasn’t just a cheesy marketing department slogan.Everyone was swelling with Pack pride. And everyone thought it would never end. Heck, nobody was worrying about it ending back in January 2010. The fun, after all, had just started.
All of the years of frustration, of near-misses, of broken hearts and wait-till-next-years were over. Every year from now on was going to be one Pack party after another. That’s what climbing the mountain means, right? You get to the summit, you plant your flag, you set up camp and you live there forever. The string of 10-win seasons, bowl victories, conference titles and Top 25 rankings were just beginning for the Pack 12 short months ago.
The Pack had become the new Boise.
Or so we thought.
Ault, though, warned us. Just minutes after his Wolf Pack climbed its Boise mountain, stuck its flag right between the Broncos’ shoulder blades on the night of Nov. 26, 2010, Ault issued a buzz kill reminder.
“The thing about Boise,” Ault said, “is it’s not a one-year deal.”
He’s never been more right about something in his life.
Boise started winning in 1999 and has never stopped. They’ve won so much that they’ve been wooed by three conferences in the last 12 years. Since 1999, the Broncos have never lost more than four games in any one season. They’ve had seven seasons with no more than one loss. That’s seven Wolf Pack miracle seasons for those of you keeping score. Since the start of the 2006 season, when the rest of the nation began to notice them, they’ve gone 73-6.
What did the Pack do after its landmark season in 2010? It went 7-6 and lost every meaningful game that didn’t have a cannon as a prize. OK, now 7-6 does sound a little like 73-6. But that’s where the similarity ends.
The Pack went backward in 2011. It went from a landmark season straight into a landmine season. The Pack didn’t win its conference in 2011. It didn’t sniff the Top 25. It lost games it shouldn’t have lost. And it didn’t win its bowl game. Yes, 2011 felt an awful lot like most of those seasons before 2010.
One community. One Pack. One-year wonder.
That’s why Ault cannot possibly retire in two short seasons. We found out this past season that the Wolf Pack football program is no closer to being ready to go Ault-less than it was in 1993 and 1996 the last two times the old ball coach supposedly retired from coaching.
There is more work to do, more mountains to climb, more foundations to build, more Boise victories to attain. And the only one who can do it is the old ball coach.
“It’s about the program,” Ault said a year ago. “I know what we need. And we still have a ways to go.”
That’s why Ault can’t go. Not now. Not in two years. Not in four years. Maybe not ever. So change the marketing campaign. One community. One Pack. One coach.
The first thing that needs fixing is this annoying contract issue that, for some reason, the athletic department wants to revisit every two years. The Pack is going to give a four-year deal to two dozen or so high school kids next month to come play football at Nevada. Ault deserves at least the same deal to coach them, don’t you think?
Ault, who turned 65-years-old in November, has repeatedly said in recent years that he won’t coach when he is 70-years-old. Well, he also said he was retiring from coaching two times before so take that for what it’s worth.
Age wasn’t a concern for Ault when he took the Pack job for the first time at the ripe old age of 29. So why should it be a concern for him now?
But if he does stay true to his word this time and won’t coach when he’s 70, it seems obvious that he’ll sign another two-year extension after 2012, keeping him on the sideline through the 2015 season and his 69th birthday.
If that’s the plan, well, he better get to work. But will that be long enough for him to fix all that ails the Pack? Will this program become a turn-key operation by then and ready for Ault to hand off to another coach?
Those are questions that nobody knows the answers to. Not even Ault. So, just to be safe, he better revise his coaching retirement age to 80. That should be enough time for us to get used to sleeping without a night light.
For now, though, the Pack needs Ault as much as it ever did. Probably more so because the goals are higher. They are headed to the Mountain West Conference, a conference that insists it should be included in the BCS. It’s imperative that the Pack be a player in the Mountain West if this program is going to thrive moving forward.
But, again, there are still huge problems that need to be fixed.
The first thing is community support. Yes, last January was a glimpse of what could be. The Wolf Pack nation was truly a nation and not just a bunch of guys hanging out at the Little Wall. But it was only a glimpse.
As soon as the fan base saw that 2011 schedule, with road games at Oregon, Boise State and Texas Tech in the first month, that glimpse began to fade. This season there was absolutely no momentum of support from 2010. The losses at Oregon, Boise State and Texas Tech took care of that. So, just one year after the dream season, the Pack averaged just 15,776 fans at Mackay Stadium, its lowest average attendance since 2005.
Again, Ault warned us.
“It’s about building community support,” he said last January. “We need to get the community involved in this football program.”
If 2010 didn’t do it, when will it ever happen?
Ault needs to stick around to find out.
The second thing that Ault needs to fix before he spends the rest of his life playing golf at 7:30 a.m. and eating dinner at 4 p.m., is the roster. It’s simply not deep enough to compete for a Top 25 spot year after year.
We all saw what injuries did to this football team in 2011. It turned the pistol offense at times into the popgun offense. And when this team doesn’t score points in truckloads it, well, doesn’t win. We also saw what happens when four or five key players graduate in the same season, like they did after 2010.
Injuries and graduation — coaches like to call it depth — turned a 13-1 team into a 7-6 team.
That hasn’t happened to Boise. Not since 1999, that is. And even if it does happen to the Broncos this fall (they lose a ton of talent off the 2011 team) they already have had an unbelievable 13-year run. They are already headed to a BCS conference (the Big East in 2013). They already have unbelievable community support. Their head coach already makes $2 million a year.
Mission accomplished for the Broncos. They can now afford to take a breath.
The Pack, on the other hand, can’t afford to take a breath. Not yet. And Ault, you can be sure, won’t let them. That’s another reason why Ault continues to be the best and only man who can guide this football program.
The fire burns hotter and brighter in his belly than ever before. He doesn’t scoot around the practice field in a golf cart. He still yells at everyone in practice from the quarterbacks to the ball boys and the media. He still now and then will even run a pass pattern to show his wide receivers how its done. You know any other 65-year-olds like that?
Ault is as motivated as ever. Maybe more so. That’s because he’s seen what Boise has accomplished on and off the field. He knows down deep in his heart that Boise’s success should have been the Pack’s success. The Pack was on the verge of doing everything that Boise has done a full decade before Boise even dreamed of it. But while Ault was busy being athletic director from 1996 through 2003, Boise passed the Pack by.
Ault is now making sure his football program catches them again, like it did in the 1980s through the late 1990s, before he hands over the keys to the Pack car to the new owner. And he won’t go anywhere until that happens.
“We have to find a way to get there,” he said last year. “We will find a way.”
The other issue that proves that Ault is the only one who can lead this program right now and into the foreseeable future is what, exactly, happens to the pistol offense when Ault does retire. That question is quickly turning into the 350-pound offensive tackle in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
Ault has called the pistol the savior of this football program. It would be a shame for the pistol to retire with Ault in 2-4 years (remember, he’s not coaching when he’s 70). That’s why before he goes kicking and screaming into retirement, he has to make sure his football program is taken care of. And that means taking care of the pistol.
Has he taken steps to do that yet?
Does Ault trust any of his current assistants to be the caretaker of the pistol once he’s gone? Don’t forget that this is a 65-year-old coach who is his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. What do you think?
Ault’s staff, it seems, is built to serve him. It’s a great staff for Ault, full of loyal career assistants. It is probably the best staff that Ault has compiled in his three decades of coaching. But are any of them head coaching worthy?
And will the new head coach keep the pistol? There are a ton of coaches around the country — in high school, college and the pros — who run some facets of the pistol but nobody runs it like the Pack and knows it like Ault.
Therefore, without Ault, the future of the pistol would seem to be in jeopardy. That’s another reason why he can’t go anywhere anytime soon.
You can be sure that nobody knows how much this program needs Ault more than Ault. It’s the main reason why he keeps coming back. That’s not cockiness or arrogance on his part. That’s just a guy who tried to retire from coaching twice before and wasn’t able to because he saw his football program slipping into obscurity.
“I came back in this thing to build it up,” Ault said last year of his decision to come back to coaching in 2004.
Well, mission accomplished. The Pack, despite the little speed bump in 2011, is built back up. They will no doubt compete for a Mountain West title next year and will likely go to their eighth consecutive bowl game (hopefully nowhere near Honolulu).
But that’s not the issue right now because, well, Ault is still here. And if all Ault wanted to do was build this thing back up, he would have left after 2010. It would have been the perfect time to go.
But he stayed because he knew the job wasn’t finished. He knew down deep, even when he could have run for Governor in January 2010 and won, that the community had yet to truly buy into the program. He knew the Pack was merely one loss to Boise away from all of those Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl ticket buyers to start saying, “Same old Wolf Pack. Same old Ault.”
So he stayed.
And we better hope he’s not going anywhere until the job is done, whether he’s 70 or 80. There will be, after all, no coming back after this retirement. That’s why he has to know that the football program he turns over to the next head coach is a football program that can win without him.
He doesn’t know that yet.