“The final straw for me was the week of the Boise State game in 2010,” said Mastro, a Wolf Pack assistant football coach since the 2000 season and now a member of Mike Leach‘s new staff at Washington State.
“Here we are, trying to prepare for the biggest game in the history of the school, and I find myself doing non-football related stuff half a day on Monday and Tuesday. It was so much so that I was late for my own position meeting on Tuesday of that week.”
The Wolf Pack went on to stun Boise State 34-31 in overtime on the night of Nov. 26, 2010 and later put the finishing touches on a historic 13-1 season. Mastro, who doubled as the Pack’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, played as big a part in the program’s success as anyone.
But Boise Week was a bittersweet week for the veteran assistant coach.
“I remember telling my wife about it and she said ‘have someone else do it,”’ Mastro recalled. “My response was, ‘There is no one else.’ That’s when I knew something had to change.”
It’s when Mastro knew for sure that it was time for him to leave the Wolf Pack if such an opportunity presented itself. “When 60% of your job as a coach becomes non-football related responsibilities you have a problem,” Mastro said.
Mastro said the problem — a lack of administrative help in the football program — had been building for a while, ever since the Pack started seriously competing for conference championships and bowl games in 2005.
“(Coach Chris Ault) had asked to get minimal support help for years (but) with no luck,” Mastro said.
Ault and Mastro had many conversations down through the years about getting that administrative help so that the coaches could concentrate on coaching.
“I told him that if we didn’t get the support help we needed that this would become an impossible situation,” Mastro said. “Not to have an operations director and a recruiting coordinator was unacceptable, especially since 119 other division I schools had them.
“The workload that was put on the assistant coaches was unimaginable at times.”
Ault, Mastro added, set the tone for the entire staff.
“When you have a head coach that is also your offensive coordinator and the quarterback coach his plate is more than full so as an assistant coach you feel you have to go above the call of duty to make sure he can focus on the big picture of running the program,” Mastro said.
Ault, Mastro said, understood the frustrations of his assistants. But he also didn’t want to hear his coaches making excuses.
“Working for coach Ault the one thing you better understand is that if you have a job to do then you better do it and he doesn’t want to hear about why you can’t,” Mastro said.
An opportunity to leave the Wolf Pack came Mastro’s way after the 2010 season.
“I want to make something perfectly clear,” Mastro said. “In no way did I want to leave Nevada in February of 2011. It just became evident that the lack of support and vision for the program was not going to change unless I left.”
The UCLA Bruins wanted Mastro to help teach its staff the pistol offense. Mastro then went to Ault to discuss the offer.
“I believe he was feeling the same frustrations I was on an even bigger scale,” Mastro said. “When I sat down with Coach to talk about the UCLA opportunity I was very honest and open about my frustrations and he agreed 100%.”
The conversation changed the direction of Mastro’s coaching career.
“It was different that any (conversation) we had before,” Mastro said. “For the first time I saw a look of exhaustion in (Ault’s) face. When I asked him how much longer he planned on coaching, for the first time he couldn’t give me an answer. That is when he encouraged me to take the UCLA job.”
Ault, of course, had a plan. After Mastro left for UCLA, the Pack head coach was able to hire Dave Brown as the Director of Football Operations and Jon Haskins as Recruiting Coordinator. Haskins, now the Florida Gators’ Director of Player Personnel, has since been replaced by Andy Vaughn, who comes to the Pack from Middle Tennessee State.
“I knew by my leaving they would have no choice but to go out and hire a Director of Football Operations and a Recruiting Coordinator to take over the workload,” Mastro said. “So I guess you can say it was addition by subtraction.”
Mastro helped the Bruins and head coach Rick Neuheisel improve to 6-8 overall and 5-4 in the Pac-12 with a bowl game appearance in 2011 after going just 4-8, 2-7 the year before. The pistol also had a positive influence as the Bruins’ offense averaged three more points and 60 more yards of offense per game in 2011.
But, to nobody’s surprise, the year ended with Neuheisel getting fired and his assistants (including Mastro) having to find another job.
“I wouldn’t trade the UCLA experience for anything in the world,” Mastro said. “The lessons learned will stay with me forever. I tell people I know in the business that this last year at UCLA might have been the best coaching job of my life. To take that team that we had and finish third in the Pac-12 in rushing offense was amazing. We were playing with a I-AA offense line.”
Looking back on the 2011 season, though, Mastro can see why it ended with a complete overhaul of the UCLA staff.
“(The year at UCLA) just reassured me that the lessons learned at Nevada and the pistol offense can be successful at any level,” said Mastro, who coached tight ends and F-Backs at UCLA. “But you have to commit to it all the way. That was the problem we had at UCLA. You can’t try and mesh a west coast offense with the pistol run game. (We) couldn’t be great at anything because (we) didn’t get the practice time (the pistol) needed.”
The situation at UCLA, though, seem destined for failure before Mastro moved to Southern California. Neuheisel, everyone knew, was under win-or-else pressure in one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
“I do have a few regrets in hindsight regarding the move to UCLA,” Mastro said. “There are things I would do differently if I had the chance. I should have only taken the job if I was going to be the offensive coordinator or quarterback coach.
“It just became very hard and time consuming to coach the coaches (on the finer points of the pistol). Knowing that Rick was under the gun to win, I could have made a much bigger contribution in that role (as offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach). I think Rick realized that but it was too late.”
Mastro, now 46-years-old, jumped at the opportunity to coach with Leach at Washington State. The two first got to know each other in the late 1980s at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo when Mastro was a player (a running back) and Leach was a graduate assistant.
Leach, who was born in Susanville, Calif., made his name as a college coach as an assistant at Kentucky under Hal Mumme and at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops and later as the head coach at Texas Tech (2000-09).
Leach’s spread offense at Texas Tech, especially with quarterback Graham Harrell and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, helped revolutionize college football.
“It has always been a goal of mine to work for Mike Leach,” Mastro said. “We have been friends for many years and had always talked about working together someday. In the past the timing was not always right but this time it was perfect. I had a few other opportunities this year but there was no way I was not going to go work for Mike. So when I got the call at 2:15 a.m. on a Tuesday morning the answer was simply, ‘Yes.‘ I never even asked him what I was going to make. I was just excited that I was going to finally get to work with my friend.”
Mastro, the running backs coach for Leach, said the process of blending the pistol with Leach’s wide-open, spread offense — he calls it the Air Raid — is exciting. It is similar, in fact, to the Wolf Pack’s current challenge of blending Ault’s pistol with new offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich’s University of Hawaii run-and-shoot attack.
“Mike is definitely going to use the pistol,” Mastro said. “We have talked about it for a long time. The difference (between what UCLA attempted last year and what Washington State is trying to accomplish) is we are going to get good at just two or three concepts (of the pistol) and tie that in with (Leach’s) passing game. It is going to be fun to watch. It has been a blast learning (Leach’s) passing game as well as teaching these guys the run game. We have had some wild long nights in the film room together.”
There is also another thing that Mastro appreciates as a member of the Washington State staff.
“As Coach Leach always says, ’I pay you to coach and nothing else,’” Mastro said.
Mastro, though, said he will forever be grateful for his 11 years with the Wolf Pack and his time coaching under Ault.
“What Coach Ault has done for that athletic department, university, community, and the state of Nevada is unmatched,” Mastro said. “He is also the man that should and will pick his successor. Who besides him knows who better to run his program than Coach Ault? I believe President (Marc) Johnson feels the same way. He has the utmost respect for what Coach Ault has done for that university and more importantly respects and admires him for what he stands for.
“President Johnson being selected as the President of the University was the best thing that could have happened for the athletic department at Nevada. He bleeds blue just like a lot of us.”
Mastro, even though he has gone from UCLA blue to Washington State red in the past year, will also forever bleed blue.
“Reno will always be my home,” he said. “I’m building a home (in Reno) now. My son Mike lives in Reno and works for the Reno Aces. I will never forget my time there and will always consider myself true blue Wolf Pack. The relationships and friendships I bonded there will never be forgotten. They are true lifetime friends.
“Coach Ault made me a better person and a much better coach. Maybe someday he will ask me to come back, which is most likely the only way I will leave working for Mike. The lessons learned (at Nevada) will stay with me forever. You want to know how to run a successful Division I program? Just go up to Cashell Fieldhouse and ask for a meeting with Chris Ault.”