“We will be successful,” Ault told the Reno media in the spring of 1976. “We will win.”
He kept his promise for the next 36 years.
“It’s been an incredible journey, one that I think will stand the test of time,” Ault said at his farewell press conference on Dec. 28.
The 66-year-old Ault finished his career with 233 victories, more than any other Division I-A coach in history who ever coached at his alma mater, one more than even Bear Bryant won at Alabama.
That, boys and girls, is the definition of standing the test of time.
Ault, who was also 35-3-1 in four seasons as a high school coach at Bishop Manogue and Reno High with two state titles, led the Wolf Pack to 10 bowl games in just 12 Division I-A seasons. He won nine conference championships. He was one of the greatest offensive innovators in the sport during his 28-year college head coaching career and left the entire football world, even if Nevada doesn’t want it anymore, the pistol offense as his enduring legacy.
There will never be another Chris Ault at the University of Nevada.
That’s not a preliminary slap at the next head coach which, at this point, appears to be Texas A&M special teams coach Brian Polian. That is just history talking. No coach will ever win 233 games again at Nevada. No coach will even stick around for 28 years. And no coach will ever dedicate his life to the University of Nevada like Chris Ault dedicated his life to the silver and blue.
And, right now more than ever, before the university hires a head coach with no ties to Ault it is important to fully realize what Ault did for this university.
“It’s been a privilege to have been a part of this university, as a student athlete, as a coach, as an administrator for 40 years,” Ault said. “My whole adult life in one way or another has evolved around this university.”
The University of Nevada football program, without question, evolved around Chris Ault for four decades. And that evolution began with the very first game Ault coached for the Wolf Pack.
The first time Ault tried to beat an opponent as head coach of the Wolf Pack took place on May 1, 1976 in front of 1,926 fans at Mackay Stadium. It was a beautiful, clear, crisp, spring day in northern Nevada and Ault needed to make a statement.
It didn’t matter that it was just the final scrimmage of his first spring football session as head coach. It didn’t matter that it was against a team of former Pack alumni players. All that mattered was that those players on the other sideline were not his players. And this was the first time someone was keeping score when he was head coach.
There was, after all, that three-word promise he made right before Christmas.
“We will win.”
The Pack won all right, 41-6, as quarterback Jeff Tisdel passed for 192 yards and three touchdowns in about half the scrimmage. The message sent that day was simple: Chris Ault means what he says and Chris Ault keeps his promises.
Oh, sure, like all coaches, he didn’t always tell all of the truth and he sometimes answered questions that were never really asked. But the words that came out of his mouth were never lies. And if you listened very closely, he’d tell you exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it.
“My philosophy is a combination of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry,” Ault said in the spring of 1976. “Lombardi believed that he could show you his playbook, tell you which way he was going and still ram the football down your throat with perfect execution. Landry doesn’t use the emotional approach. He thinks he has to fool you. He relies on a combination of deception and perfect execution.”
Deception and perfect execution. That, boys and girls, was when the pistol offense was truly born.
“What we strive for is perfect execution of an offense that relies on finesse and deception,” he said back in the year of the American Bicentennial celebration. “One of the advantages of the multiple wing is that you don’t need behemoths to be successful. You need good, quick people who understand their assignments and are capable of executing them. This offense is going to do it for us. I believe in it. Our coaches believe in it and the kids believe in it.”
Sound familiar? And, remember, that was about 30 years before he invented the pistol in 2005.
Ault hit the ground running when he was named the youngest head coach in the country at 29-years-old. He didn’t try to slip quietly into his new job. He went out of his way to tell all of northern Nevada, which had seen just eight winning seasons over the previous 27 years, that the Pack was going to win.
Will the new head coach be as bold and confident?
Ault didn’t care. Confidence was always his strong point. The man never, for a second, doubted anything he believed in.
The Wolf Pack, don’t forget, was a football program that had won more than seven games in a season just three times over its first 69 seasons when Ault took over. Polian has it easy. This program has already had great success. The Pack that Ault took over was a Division II independent that hadn’t won anything of note in three decades.
Ault then went out and won more than seven games four times in his first four years.
“We are going to be successful,” he promised right after he was hired away from UNLV. “I can sense it. There’s an aura of success you can sense.”
Ault was always a living, breathing, walking aura of success. If he even smelled defeat on you, well, he called the fumigator.
Ault changed Wolf Pack football forever because he changed the standards. And he changed the standards for everyone, including the head coach. That’s why nobody, of all the players, coaches, administrators and office personnel who had the nerve to be a part of Wolf Pack football since December 1975, ever worked harder than Ault.
On and off the field.
Right in the middle of his first month of spring football as Pack coach in April 1976, his wife Kathy had the nerve to give birth to their daughter Amy. Ault, who was entertaining recruits that evening, got the call to come to the hospital.
He did as he was told, stood by Kathy as she went into labor for eight hours and watched the birth of his 8-pound, 8-ounce daughter Amy Kathleen at 3 a.m. By 7 a.m. he was back at the office for a staff meeting and at 9:30 a.m. he was on the field for a scrimmage.
Recruits in town? Check. Wife about to give birth? Check. Daughter being born? Check. Staff meeting? Check. Scrimmage? Check. That was an average workday in the life of Chris Ault.
The Wolf Pack won under Ault, all right. Ault’s teams won at least five games in each of his 28 seasons. They had 25 winning seasons out of 28. He took them to the Division I-AA national title game. He went 13-1 twice and 13-2, 12-1, 11-1 and 11-2 once. Take away those six incredible years — a career for most coaches — and his Pack teams were still 160-101-1 for a winning percentage of .610.
Polian better be able to work under a huge shadow.
Ault, though, was always about more than just winning games. He always knew that northern Nevada required more than merely winning. Polian better realize it, too. This was and is, after all, Nevada. Ault, better than anyone, also knew his teams also had to entertain.
That’s why, after his first season at Nevada, he got up at the annual Governor’s Dinner in July 1977 and went one better than his “we will win” promise of the year before. He stood up in front of the smiling and happy boosters, as well as his No. 1 supporter, Governor Mike O’Callaghan, and promised, “We will play with enthusiasm and we will play with reckless abandon or else you can have your money back.”
You think Polian will offer a money back guarantee?
Once again, though, Ault kept his promise. The Pack went 8-3 again in 1977 and scored 421 points, the third most in school history at the time and 91 more than Scattini’s final two seasons combined.
One gentleman, though, did take him up on his money back guarantee. He walked into Ault’s office on the Monday after a game, wearing a blue Pack hat with the white N ripped off and a Wolf Pack sweatshirt turned inside out.
“You call it reckless abandon when you have a fourth down and one yard to go at the 15-yard line and you go for the field goal?” the man told Ault. “I was ashamed to be a Wolf Pack fan.”
Ault just smiled, looked at the gentleman and said, “But we had a 42-0 lead and we’d sort of like to play them next year.”
That moment, too, kind of summed up Ault’s career at Nevada. No matter what he did, no matter how many promises he kept, no matter how many games he won and no matter how exciting Wolf Pack football was, there was always at least one guy with a Wolf Pack sweatshirt turned inside out and the big white N ripped off his hat that wasn’t happy.
Polian better be ready. The Wolf Pack fan base might be small, but it’s loud. And, thanks to Ault, it has high expectations.
Ault’s Pack teams, though, won a lot but they never seemed to win enough. That’s why there will be a fairly sizable portion of Pack nation that is happy the ties to Ault have been severed with Polian.
Under Ault, the Pack never seemed to win the big game enough. But that’s probably true with 99 percent of the coaches who ever stood on a sideline. Ault is no different. Yes, he took them to 10 bowl games but they only won two. Yes, he went to the I-AA playoffs six times, but they never won a title. He lost 18-of-26 games to Boise State, with most of those 18 loses coming with a conference title on the line. Yes, he won 233 games but why did most every year feel like it ended in disappointment?
And why couldn’t he ever seem to develop a consistent defense year after year? The Pack always seemed to develop great defensive players but it was rare that they ever had anything more than a mediocre defense. If Ault did have one genuine failing as a head coach, it was his simplistic view of the defensive side of the ball, a view that never really changed in his 28 years as head coach.
“The only way to play defense is to get after people,” he said in 1976 before he coached his first regular season game as a Pack head coach. “A lot of coaches make mistakes on defense with too much technique. If you just lay your ears back and go get ’em, you can play defense.”
That’s pretty much, word for word, what he said going into the 2012 season. Oh, sure, he threw in some new words like passion and intensity this past summer but the message was the same. And we all saw how that turned out. That’s pretty much how it turned out for the bulk of Ault’s career.
Ault only lost 109 games in his career and 62 per cent (68-of-109) of those losses were when his team scored 20 or more points. His biggest enemy his entire career wasn’t the team on the other sideline. It was always his own defense.
The reason Nevada can even risk hiring a head coach with no Ault ties is that it probably won’t hurt them at the gate anyway. In face, it might help. The crowds at Mackay Stadium, which numbered about 5,000 strong before Ault arrived in 1976, never truly reflected the success the team was enjoying in the standings under Ault. If Boise State, UNLV or some BCS school wasn’t in town, well, about half the seats remained empty. The week before 30,000-plus showed up to watch the greatest game in Pack history on Nov. 26, 2010 against Boise State, just 10,000 and change showed up to watch New Mexico State.
That roller coaster support from the community was typical throughout Ault’s career. It was one of the reasons why he sounded and looked so tired mentally on Dec. 28.
Ault, to be sure, was always respected in northern Nevada. He won everywhere — Bishop Manogue, Reno High and on north Virginia Street — that he was allowed to call the shots. Heck, he even helped UNLV go 27-8 over three years (1973-75) as an assistant. Talk about things that are never going to happen again.
But, for some reason, it just never seemed like he was a beloved figure in northern Nevada. Bobby Knight and Joe Paterno leave their schools in scandal and the community stages an all-night vigil or a rally in their honor. Ault leaves and, well, let’s just say more tears were shed when the Mapes Hotel was torn down 13 years ago. And the university takes all of six or seven days to turn the program over to someone who doesn’t know Chris Ault from Chris Evert.
If the Polian coaching rumors prove true, there’s only one guy who is getting slapped in the face right now. And it’s not Polian.
Ault deserves a rally. That stadium he built on campus needs to have his name on the side of it before too long. The Mackay family will understand. The Wolf Pack should wear an embroidered CA on the front of their jerseys from now on.
Something, anything to honor the greatest head coach and athletic director the university will ever know.
Before his memory is confined to a couple plaques in Legacy Hall.
Chris Ault has only been gone about two weeks and he’s already missed by a large portion of the Pack nation. If I can believe my e-mails, the bulk of his former players already seem to feel as if they’ve been cut off from the program with the Polian hire.
“If success is that proper ratio between what one contributes and what one derives from life, I’m a very fortunate man,” Ault said during his farewell.
Wolf Pack fans were very fortunate for 40 years.
That should never be forgotten, now more than ever.