Back to the Future
Over five days of tribulation, tears and triumph, Wolf Pack football emerges with a new leader – Chris Ault – and a new direction
By John Trent
SATURDAY, NOV. 29
Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho, has always been a bit of an illusion on the landscape of college football, a strange apparition that connotes anything but excellence.
The blue turf, stitched onto the pad of concrete like a child’s pair of bedtime pajamas, is the biggest giveaway. The colors are all wrong. Football is green and full of the odors of fall and fresh-mown grass. Bronco Stadium is blue, inert, strangely one-dimensional.
Yet football really is played here. Great football. The Boise State Broncos, with an assortment of undersized wide receivers who speed across the turf like mischievous fire ants, a swarming defense and a gutty quarterback who bears a vague resemblance to a young Tom Cruise, enter the game with the Nevada Wolf Pack ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams. Nevada’s Wolf Pack enters the game in less lofty company. A promising season under fourth-year head coach Chris Tormey — a 5-2 start, with an upset road victory over Washington in October — has dissipated with three losses in the last four games.
Nevada needs a victory today to ensure its first winning season since 1998.
Nevada athletic director Chris Ault arrives at the stadium a bit before the 12:05 p.m. kickoff. The sight of the blue turf, goofy as it is, cannot even raise a chuckle from Ault as he grimly takes a seat in the crowded Boise State press box. Ault, Nevada’s athletic director since 1986 and twice head football coach at Nevada — his 163-63-1 record in 1976-92 and 1994-95 is the winningest in school history — will have a difficult decision to make in the next few days.
Ault knows he likes Tormey, a devoted family man. But college football, even when it is played on blue turf, is not about personal likes and dislikes. Chris Tormey is a good man, but his overall record at Nevada is 16-30.
Nevada never has a chance. The Broncos roll across the blue turf like a tidal wave. They lead 21-0 early in the first quarter. By halftime it is 42-0.
At one point during the half, Ault sees Gene Bleymaier, the longtime athletic director at Boise State. The two men have known each other for nearly a quarter century. They have long been rivals, using their two athletic programs as measuring sticks.
This should be a time to gloat for Bleymaier. But Bleymaier knows something is amiss. All the color has been drained from Ault’s face. As the conciliatory words come from Bleymaier — the man of blue turf — Ault can only hear fragments.
“Chris, I’m sorry,” Bleymaier says.
Bleymaier stares at his friend. Ault’s blue eyes, always an innermost engine, always on the move, always alive, seem to have suddenly gone cold.
“It was,” Ault remembers later, “probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, sitting in that press box and watching our team lose. We were just so lifeless. A tough day, all the way around.”
SUNDAY, NOV. 30
The conversation with Chris Tormey at 10 a.m. in Ault’s Legacy Hall office is not easy. Ault had consulted with President John Lilley earlier in the week regarding the future of the program — 2-10, 3-8, 5-7, 6-6 after yesterday’s 56-3 loss to the Broncos. Ault, with the full support of the President, makes a difficult decision. The remaining year of Tormey’s contract will be bought out.
Ault grows emotional as he recounts the dismissal.
“You hope against hope that maybe we’ll pull another Washington, that we’ll sneak up on Boise and win one so I don’t have to make this decision,” he says. “Torms is such a good person.” He still sees the blue turf in his mind’s eye, the tiny Boise receivers swooping all over the field, so energetic and alive … passionately proud about their quirky but undeniable place in college football. Ault has to catch himself for a moment. This is a man who usually speaks so quickly and so assuredly, the words come out of his mouth so rapidly they almost trip over each other.
His words fail him as he momentarily composes himself. Four years ago, when he hired Chris Tormey, he was convinced the tough-as-nails fire ant wide receivers, the excitement of the sold-out crowd, the swarming defense, would belong to the Wolf Pack.
“Now I’ve got to find us a football coach,” he adds, softly. “That’s priority number one.”
MONDAY, DEC. 1
Ault has slept little in the past two days. His morning has been filled with phone calls. During an interview with Reno Gazette-Journal college football beat writer Chad Hartley the day before, Ault spells out what qualities he is looking for in Tormey’s replacement. He talks about West Coast recruiting ties. He talks about a wide-open offensive philosophy. He talks about an attacking defense.
“What I feel is so important is consistency,” Ault says. “I’m looking for somebody who is looking for a particular way to lift your weights, and to condition, and to run the offense or defense and who makes demands on how your players look on the field and how they travel.”
“It sounds like you’re describing yourself,” Hartley says.
Maybe so. But Ault retired from coaching for good following the 1995 season. He is clear on the prospect of ever coaching again:
“That’s not my priority right now,” he says, again reaffirming the No. 1 priority of hiring a new man to be the Wolf Pack’s head coach.
At 5 p.m., Ault goes to a scheduled meeting in the office of President Lilley. For a first day, progress in finding a new coach has been acceptable, Ault tells Lilley as the two sit down in Lilley’s office on the second floor of the Clark Administration Building. Ault has a notebook of seven possible candidates.
Lilley, angular, well-spoken, gets right to the point. The notebook is never even opened.
“I have to ask you one question, Chris, even though I think I know the answer is no,” Lilley says. “Would you be interested in stepping down as athletic director to become coach?”
Ault, surprised by the question, says to his own astonishment, “Could be.”
“I expected you to say a flat out no, Chris,” Lilley says. “Are you sure? You’re already in the National Hall of Fame with nothing to prove. If you are feeling pressure to do this, self-imposed or otherwise, no one must pressure you. This would have to be not about history but about the future. How would your family feel?”
The conversation continues. Ault is intrigued. Lilley is beyond intrigued. He can’t believe Ault is considering the offer.
The conversation continues for an hour and fifteen minutes, past the 6 p.m. appointment he had already scheduled with Chris Exline, the longtime Nevada geography professor and faculty athletics representative, and so they add him to the conversation. Exline is the rarest of all commodities: a man of uncommon, carefully calibrated equilibrium, never too high or too low. A man so absolutely true to himself that the bushel of teaching awards he has won at the university pales in comparison to a much smaller award given to him once by the Residence Hall Honor Society.
Exline has known Ault for more than 20 years. When asked his opinion, Exline affirms Lilley’s idea with a question.
“How often do you get a chance to hire a Hall of Fame coach, especially a person who has shown such loyalty to the university and the community?” Exline says, noting Ault’s 2002 induction at age 55 into the National College Football Hall of Fame.
So it is decided.
When Exline arrives home that night, his wife, Diana, asks her husband of 34 years what has happened.
“Something big went on,” she says. “Are you going to tell me?”
“It’s been a long day,” she says. “You need to eat something.”
“You know what?” Exline says, his outer calm disguising a nervous, uncharacteristically excited impatience. “I’m having a glass of milk and then I’m going to bed.”
TUESDAY, DEC. 2
A news conference will be announced for Wednesday, Dec. 3. It is late in the evening and Ault is on the phone making some last-minute arrangements.
He talks about a conversation he had earlier in the day with another coach. He has decided to keep three assistant coaches from Tormey’s staff: Barry Sacks, Jim Mastro and Cameron Norcross, a former Wolf Pack lineman who came to Nevada as a tow-headed walk-on from Ely, Nev., and then blossomed into an all-conference performer.
Ault’s conversation earlier in the day brought back a flood of memories. The coach to whom Ault had spoken is a quiet, dignified man. In the age of cool, he is probably the least cool of anyone, a centered and old-fashioned man; in a variety of ways the essence of simplicity. A few years ago the coach lost his son, a talented and vivacious young man who could lope like a young Joe DiMaggio, to a fatal automobile accident. Yet the coach has soldiered on, allowing his loss to shape the way he treats people. His flawless sense of values has only grown stronger; he has remained, at his center, always true to himself and to his players.
Ault knows it is because of coaches like this that ordinary players are capable of extraordinary things, such as the Ault-coached greatest comeback in NCAA history in 1991, when the Wolf Pack trailed Weber State 42-7 before rallying for a 55-49 victory.
“He’s a guy kids love to play for, a guy that I want around my kids,” Ault says of the coach, who already has a great job at a Pacific 10 school. “The kids he coaches have character and discipline. His statement to me was this: ‘Coach, if you’re getting back in, I want to get back in with you. That’s how much I think of you.’”
Ault has to catch himself again. Football coaches don’t cry.
WEDNESDAY, DEC. 3
President John Lilley presents Chris Ault as the 25th head coach in the 105-year program’s history during a news conference in an overflowing Legacy Hall. Ault sits in a front row that consists of Gov. Kenny Guinn, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, State Sen. Bill Raggio and prominent Nevada lobbyist and attorney Harvey Whittemore.
“I have to admit,” Lilley says in his introduction, “no one is more surprised about this announcement than I.” Lilley, like Ault, rides a roller-coaster of emotions this day and momentarily has to catch himself, feeling the emotion rising in his chest and throat.
Earlier, before Ault joins Lilley and Guinn — Ault first met Guinn more than 25 years earlier, when he had recruited the Governor’s son, Jeff, an all-state linebacker from Las Vegas — for the walk downstairs, Ault is hesitant. He has been fiddling with a prepared speech, wondering if he should stray from his own best weapon — his ability to speak off the cuff — and instead lock himself into a formal statement.
Ault’s lips fold with concern. He feels as stiff as the crease in his pants.
He finally tosses the prepared statement aside. He will instead speak from the heart.
“I’m not coming back because I have anything to prove,” he says. His words are strong, determined and earnest. The innermost engine, the eyes, alertly scan the room. “I am coming back because I feel I can make a difference. … I know this. The good football teams, the ones that you see and admire, have great attitudes. I know attitudes are a direct reflection of motivation. And we will be motivated.”
Ault speaks of himself. Is he a relic of a long-past era of Wolf Pack football?
“It’s not about the past,” he says. “It’s about the future. And yet I feel so good about being a person that can link the past, with the present, with the future.”
Ault speaks of the Wolf Pack’s home, Mackay Stadium.
“We will recapture Mackay,” he says. The words come charging out, like the Wolf Pack sprinting through the blue smoke onto the Mackay playing surface on a frenzied opening day. “That is a top priority. That has to come back. And there will be no excuses. That is our home, our valley, and our players are going to fight for it.”
Junior quarterback Andy Heiser, the team’s starter for most of the season, who will most assuredly have his position challenged by a passel of Ault recruits, is impressed.
“It gave me chills,” Heiser says. “I’m ready to play right now.”
Ault sees Jorge Cordova, the Pack’s All-WAC defensive lineman, a four-year starter who played his final collegiate game five days earlier in Boise. The two embrace.
“Coach, whatever you need, I’m here for you,” Cordova says.
“Jorge,” Ault says, not missing a beat and now fully in coaching mode, “what I need for you is to figure out how to get you another year playing for us.”
As Ault exits Legacy Hall this evening, blue is still very much on his mind — though it is no longer the blue turf of Boise. More than ever before, he is convinced that one day soon a new color of blue will cover the top of the WAC standings — Nevada blue.
Ault’s coaching staff
During the press conference announcing his return to coaching on Dec. 3, Chris Ault announced that he would be retaining three coaches from Chris Tormey’s staff: Barry Sacks, Jim Mastro and Cameron Norcross. On Dec. 5, Ault announced that two former Wolf Pack assistants, Chris Klenakis and Ken Wilson, would also be returning to the sidelines. Here are brief biographical sketches of the first five members of Ault’s new staff.
Jim Mastro had served as assistant head coach/running backs coach for four years under Chris Tormey. Mastro helped tutor the nation’s leading rusher in Chance Kretschmer in 2001 and helped the Wolf Pack establish one of the top rushing attacks in 2002. Mastro, 38, also served as recruiting coordinator. Mastro was with Tormey for two years at Idaho before coming to Nevada. He was also linebackers and special teams coach at San Jose State, and was defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and running backs coach at his alma mater, Cal Poly.
Barry Sacks served two years as tight ends/special teams and defensive line coach under Tormey. The 47-year-old Sacks has nearly 20 years of coaching experience, including three years at San Jose State, four years at Boise State and seven years at Portland State. Sacks is a familiar face to Ault, who coached against Sacks while Sacks was a four-year starting outside linebacker from 1976-79 at the University of Montana. Sacks also has professional coaching experience, having spent one season with the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League.
Cameron Norcross served one year as tight ends coach and two seasons as Nevada’s offensive graduate assistant coach under Tormey. The Ely, Nev., native was an all-state performer at White Pine High School and was an All-Big West Conference performer as an offensive lineman for Nevada.
Ken Wilson, assistant athletics director/sports services for the past five and a half years, will serve as assistant head coach and direct the linebackers and the secondary. Wilson served under Ault for six seasons (1989-92 and 1994-95) and for Jeff Tisdel from 1996-98, the final three seasons as the Wolf Pack’s defensive coordinator. “I couldn’t be more excited about becoming assistant head coach and getting back into coaching,” Wilson said. “There is nothing like competition and I’m looking forward to getting Mackay filled again.”
Chris Klenakis, with 13 years of Division I experience, spent the past season as offensive coordinator at Central Missouri State. He will serve as offensive coordinator and tutor the offfensive line. Klenakis was offensive coordinator for three years at Southern Mississippi, helping the Golden Eagles set eight offensive records and helping them qualify for two bowl games. From 1990-99, Klenakis was an assistant at Nevada, serving as offensive coordinator from 1997-999. Under his guidance, Nevada set 24 NCAA records, and annually ranked among the nation’s leaders in total passing and scoring offense. “I’m extremely happy to be coming back, especially with Coach Ault,” Klenakis said. “I can’t wait to get back and be part of the Silver and Blue.”