Kurt Esser is looking to "paint" Mackay Stadium blue in a manner much like the University of Nevada Quadrangle is turned into a sea of white each May at Commencement. That's seat by seat, to be filled during fall Saturdays by anyone who knows the difference between John Mackey, the Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame tight end, and the Mackay family, the stadium namesake with its most famous member immortalized in bronze on campus.
Most of all, Esser, Nevada's assistant athletic director for marketing and promotions, wants to reach the more than 15,000 students expected to enroll for university classes this fall. He seeks a spirited group to join a new student fan club debuting for the 2003-'04 academic year: the Blue Crew.
"I want our students to know our fight song," Esser says. "The neat thing I've learned from talking to students over the past few months is that we've really got to initiate the freshmen, telling them, 'You are part of the Blue Crew. You learn the fight song, and when the band plays it, you should sing it.'"
The Blue Crew gets bonuses, as in a frequent flyer program. Each member presents an ID and garners points for coming to events. They get free Blue Crew T-shirts from Pepsi (the university's soft drink supplier) and swipe cards for discounts at area stores.
"Students are my No. 1 goal," says the 36-year-old Indiana University graduate who joined the Nevada staff last November. "Student involvement is something we've lost over the past five to six years."
Esser says some of his ideas for the new Nevada student group came from the Student Athletic Board at Indiana. "You know, I still know the Indiana fight song, and when I hear it, I stand up and clap," he says.
"My wife (Tricia), she's an Aggie from (Texas) A&M, and, man, she does all her hand signals, because there they don't have cheerleaders, they have yell leaders. It's seven guys and they give you a hand signal and you just pass it back through three levels of the stands."
Esser watched a smaller form of such rabid support germinate at Wolf Pack basketball games last winter, especially in the stands under the west end basket at Lawlor Events Center. He wants to help the Nevada student body make the next bold step.
"We had 32 students come in (during April) for a Blue Crew leadership meeting. I told them, 'This is your group, and I'm just here to provide you with assistance and resources. You guys take this and do what you want with it.'"
"I don't know how to put into words how excited I am," says interim Blue Crew vice president Todd Jewett. "By getting the students involved like this, Kurt is changing the way the book is written."
Jewett, a senior anthropology major from Carson City, says the Blue Crew received official recognition as an organization from the Associated Students of the University of Nevada in early May.
In late April, Nevada announced that its first three home games, the Aug. 30 Mackay Stadium season debut versus Southern Utah, the Sept. 27 Western Athletic Conference home opener against Southern Methodist, and the Oct. 4 battle for the cannon with UNLV will be played at night. It will be the first time the Wolf Pack has held night football games on campus since the 1950s.
Part of the fun and the new atmosphere, Esser believes, is extending his plan beyond students to youngsters and their parents. That involves soon-to-be implemented strategies at Mackay, such as creating a host of family-oriented activities: a midway, with vendors giving away items from corporate sponsors, prizes and games.
"A new partnership we've formed (starting in August) is with McDonald's," he says. "They're going to be heavily promoting the Wolf Pack in northern Nevada. They'll give away tickets to fans in Winnemucca and Tonopah, and we'll provide bus service back to those McDonald's.
Esser managed public relations for Host Communications' Sears Cup NCAA national championship trophy program for three years. He came to Nevada last year from Learfield Communications, where he ran event marketing and sales for 15 universities, including Oklahoma, Miami, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Colorado and Oregon State.
Beyond football season, he looks forward to working with the newest member of the Wolf Pack coaching staff, women's head basketball coach Kim Gervasoni, hired from Arizona State April 18.
Gervasoni wants to develop an exciting atmosphere for younger fans, Esser says. "Kim said, 'We'll do clinics and we'll do whatever it takes to make sure that the youngsters feel a part of it.' A "Computers for Kids" event at an opening-month game in November may be on the slate, Esser says, to get young fans and families immersed in the team's progress at the start of the season.
Jewett, meanwhile, is thinking more and more about Nevada football.
"I can't wait," the 23-year-old says. "With the new night games and the new Blue Crew, there is going to be an energy that has not been there before."
With respect to the ghost of Leo Durocher, nice guys don't always finish last.
In fact, if you are Nevada women's track and field coach Curt Kraft — one of the most genuinely nice people you will ever meet —sometimes you finish first.
In March, Kraft led the Wolf Pack to the team title at the Western Athletic Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships in Boise, Idaho. Nevada totaled 127.5 points to edge the WAC's perennial power, Rice.
Senior Erin Kelly led the way with a victory in the pentathlon, while senior Chanika Corley and senior Allison Sewell finished 1-2 in the 60-meter hurdles.
Nevada women's track, thanks to the victory, will go down in university history as the first program at the institution to win a WAC team title.
"I've always been told that, 'Coach, you're a nice guy,' and I know with some of our near-misses in the past (Nevada had finished in second place in last year's indoor and outdoor championships), some people might be wondering if I'm too nice and not tough enough sometimes," Kraft says. "Well, I'll tell you what. I'm going to stay a nice guy. Our championship goes to show that there are a lot of different ways to win a championship — including letting your athletes know that you care about them."
Kraft, in his 13th season at Nevada and in his ninth season as head women's coach, talks often of "establishing a legacy." The legacy of his program to date: consistency, accountability, excellence on the track and in the classroom (with an overall team GPA of 3.20, the Wolf Pack ranks every year in the nation's top five academically).
Kraft, true to his humble North Dakota roots credits his coaching staff and his athletes for the program's success.
"We have some phenomenal ladies involved in our program," Kraft says. "They work so hard, on and off the track. And what can I say about my assistants, Kay Ulrich, Joe Blaney and Bert Serrano, other than that I truly we feel we have one of the best staffs in the entire country here at Nevada. I've really been blessed to have such good people."
Of course, every organization needs a leader, and in the track world there are not many better than Kraft, who earned WAC Coach of the Year honors. His approach? Coach from what he calls "the ears up."
"We get the ladies in shape, we teach them technique, but perhaps most importantly, when they want to talk about their lives, that's what we do," Kraft says. "We get great buy-in from the ladies in our program. They give us 150 percent in everything they do, and our staff shows that we're there for them, that we care for them as people."
Spoken like a gentleman -— a truly nice guy who finally finished first.
Harvey, rifle coach, named national Coach of the Year
Fred Harvey, Nevada's eighth-year head rifle coach, has been named national rifle Coach of the Year by the Collegiate Rifle Coaches Association (CRCA), the organization announced in April.
Harvey, who led the Wolf Pack to their best finish in school history in March with a fourth-place showing and a team trophy at the NCAA Championships, shares the award with two other coaches: Xavier (Ohio) head coach Alan Joseph, who led the Musketeers to an NCAA runner-up finish and Alaska-Fairbanks' Glen Dubis, who has led the Nanooks to five straight NCAA titles (1999-2003).
While at Nevada, Harvey has produced three All-Americans in the past two years in advancing his squad to the NCAA Championships both years, and has tutored one individual NCAA champion in Ryan Tanoue (2002).
Tanoue finished fifth in air rifle and ninth in small bore at the 2003 NCAA Championships, held in West Point, N.Y.
ASU assistant named new head women's basketball coach
Kim Gervasoni, an assistant coach at Arizona State University, was named head women's basketball coach at Nevada on April 18.
Gervasoni, 36, has been the top assistant at Arizona State for the past three seasons. In addition, she was a highly successful head coach at Solano (Calif.) Community College for eight years. She replaces Ada Gee, who resigned after 10 seasons following the Pack's 2002-2003 season.
"This job is everything I've worked for and prepared for," she says. "It's really a perfect fit — I couldn't ask for anything better. It's a family atmosphere at Nevada with a great athletics staff and really incredible facilities. I'm just thrilled to be able to take the Wolf Pack to the next level."
Gervasoni, who has never been associated with a losing team either as a player at Fresno State or as a coach, has been part of nine conference championships. She is widely credited with helping Arizona State's recent rise into the national rankings, including back-to-back Pacific 10 Conference titles and three straight postseason appearances. She has been active in promoting the program in the community with the creation and development of the Hoop Devil Kids' Club.
"She clearly has a vision for the growth and future success of Nevada basketball," Cindy Fox, Nevada's senior women's athletic administrator, says of Gervasoni, who won 73 percent of her games as head coach at Solano Community College. Gervasoni was inducted into the California Community College Hall of Fame in 1997.
Gervasoni is married to Mike Gervasoni, women's basketball coach at DeAnza (Calif.) College. Mike Gervasoni has been named an assistant coach for the Wolf Pack.
Skiers seventh at NCAAs
Led by All-America nordic skiers Maija Saarinen and Abby McAllister, the Nevada ski team finished seventh at the 2003 NCAA Skiing Championships at Hanover, N.H. in March. Saarinen finished sixth in the 15-kilometer classical event, while McAllister was 10th in the 5K freestyle. Nevada qualified 10 athletes for the 2003 championships. Nevada will play host to next year's NCAA Championships at Sugar Bowl, March 10-13.