President Brian Sandoval hosts Nevada Wolf Pack Football Coach Ken Wilson in this sixth episode of Sagebrushers. They chat about why Wilson decided to return to Nevada, how he plans to make his mark on the program and what he missed most since leaving in 2012. Wilson also shares what made his family and his players fall in love with the Reno-Tahoe community. Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with a new episode every month.
Sagebrushers – Ep. 6 – Coach Ken Wilson
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Nevada Wolf Pack Football Coach Ken Wilson talk about why Wilson decided to return to Nevada, how he plans to make his mark on the program, what he missed most since leaving in 2012 and more.
President Brian Sandoval: Welcome to Sagebrushers, the podcast of the University of Nevada, Reno. I’m Brian Sandoval and I’m a proud graduate and president of the University. I’m your host of Sagebrushers.
Each month at Sagebrushers, which by the way was our University’s first nickname, we take a closer look at the people, history and future of our university. We explain why the University, ever since its founding in Elko in 1874, has been about so much more than ourselves and why we remain Nevada’s best experiment in understanding who we are and what we are capable of achieving.
Today’s podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University’s campus. In this episode of Sagebrushers, we are so happy to welcome the new head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack football team, Ken Wilson. With over two decades of experience on the Nevada coaching staff and an administration, Coach Wilson was named Nevada's 27th Head Football Coach in December 2021. Coach Wilson has over three decades of coaching experience, including most recently serving as
co-defensive coordinator and inside linebacker coach at Oregon. Over his coaching career, Wilson has been a part of 19 teams that have advanced to a bowl game including 16 of the last 17 years. Coach Wilson and the Wilson family have a deep connection to our University. And we are so happy to welcome them back to the Wolf Pack family. Coach, thank you for joining me today and let's start here: Why did you feel it was the right time to return to Nevada?
Coach Ken Wilson: Well, when I left in 2012, it was a chance for me to spread my wings a little bit and I kind of felt at that time I had to I had to better myself. We talked as a family, and we thought if we ever had a chance to come back and be a head coach here at the University of Nevada, which was a lifetime dream of mine, we would have to leave, show people how we could build, that we could be at a winning program. So, when this opportunity came up in December and coming back and looking at the growth of the University, the growth of the athletic department, yourself as the president, what the campus was looking like it was it was just a slam dunk and a dream to come back.
President Brian Sandoval: So, take us through that moment when you got the phone call – would you be interested in being the next head football coach at the University of Nevada?
Coach Ken Wilson: Yeah, I was, you know, there was a 48-hour period where the head coach at Oregon had gone to the University of Miami and had asked us to go to Miami and some of the people in Oregon that asked us to stay in right at the in the middle of that. I got a call from the athletic director and asked if I'd be interested, and I hung up my phone I looked at my wife and I'm like, ‘you're not going to believe this, this crazy week just got so much crazier’ and she's like, ‘what's going on?’ Like, they just asked if I'd be interested in being the head coach or interviewing for the head coaching position at the University of Nevada. And we both went, ‘it finally happened’ and we're just we're just hopeful, thankful and doing anything that we could do to impress the people down here, yourself, the University community, the fans, anybody that we could, the athletic department, that we'd be the right people to run this program.
President Brian Sandoval: Well talk a little about because you're no stranger to Northern Nevada and you're no stranger to the tradition here for the Wolf Pack.
Coach Ken Wilson: Yeah, so my wife's a graduate of here, my son’s a graduate from here, my family was raised here. My daughter was here until she was a sophomore in high school. We were here for 23 years. I was at the University, saw a lot of great things, raised a family here, lived in this community, won a lot of football games, saw the athletic department grow from a One Double A program to Division One program, to winning championships at all different sports and just saw this whole community grow and when we left, it was it was hard because we had put out serious deep roots here and it was on the hope that someday we'd be back and it's all worked out and now we're just doing everything we can to make this program be what everybody hopes it will be.
President Brian Sandoval: And you went from here to Washington State and then to Oregon. So how did your experiences there inform your becoming a head coach?
Coach Ken Wilson: Well, I got to work for two really, really good head coaches Mike Leach a Washington State for six years, and I got to see him build a program. They had not won many games when he took that program over. In my last four years there, we averaged ten wins a season, so I got to build a program or help build a program from the ground floor up. Then had the chance to go to Oregon where they already had a really good program. I got a chance to see Mario Cristobal coach that program and take it over because they had they had underachieved a little bit in our first season there. We won the Pac-12 and won the Rose Bowl. So, I got to see two different ways, different coaches, I worked for four different head coaches here when I was at in Nevada, so I got a chance to recruit at a Pac-12 level to coach in some of those bigger games that have more consistent basis. And I got a chance to see other ways to build programs to show success, how to train athletes how to develop athletes, and I think everywhere you go up and down around you, you learn and if you're smart, I guess, you keep your eyes open and you take a little bit of everybody that you like, and you put it put your own feel on it, and then you just go.
President Brian Sandoval: No, and you've anticipated my next question, because you have worked for some amazing coaches, including Coach Halt. And so, what is the Ken Wilson stamp that you're going to put on the program?
Coach Ken Wilson: Yes.
President Brian Sandoval: And so, what is the Ken Wilson stamp that you're going to put on the program?
Coach Ken Wilson: Yeah, so, you know, I've worked for coaches that were about discipline that were about doing things the right way that were about treating people in the right fashion. And that's quite frankly, I was raised back on the farm in Illinois when I was growing up. So, you know, I think our program will be - we're going to respect everyone you know, we're going to we're going to be tough guys, we're going to we're going to play hard, and we're going to be respectful in the community, we're going to do things the right way, we're going to graduate our players. I just think, you know, you can, you can be a very tough and, and hard-nosed football team and you can also be very smart, intelligent and respectful players and people in the community and raise good human beings and have a program a Coach Wilson program that the people this community would be proud to come out and support.
President Brian Sandoval: No, and I've noticed myself and I know a lot of people in the community have mentioned to me that they see you and they see your players out in the community and cheering for the Aces, going to the Reno Rodeo, being out at community events. Talk about that.
Coach Ken Wilson: So, I worked in Pullman, Washington, and I worked in Eugene, Oregon, two not really big communities and some of the things that we got a chance to come back. We're living everything again, and I want my players to experience this community. And, you know, two weeks ago, we were at the WWE wrestling matches. So, we just, you know, we just wanted to feel everything and be a part of the community and be partners with this community and not be just asking for people to come watch us - to be willing partners and that means we got to get out to the athletic events and the social events on this campus. We got to be partners on this campus community and in the community. A lot of my players have never been doing a professional baseball game. They love the Aces, and we had a great time. We went out, we've done hockey, we've done anything that we can to get out. We go to as many schools as we can go to, the Reno Rodeo was obviously a very fun time, the Davis Cup tennis matches, you know, we got to go out and be a part of that whole thing. [We] played in the Barracuda championship program last week, that was a dream to get to do that. So, you know, we're getting to do things that this community is built on - the Hot August Nights and you know, Street Vibrations, all the Hot Air Balloon Races. We've missed that for 10 years, my family and I, and I want my players and my family to be back into those situations. And we love all the different things, like that Rib Cook Off. I mean, there's so many things that people get used to around here that when you go away, you want to come back and have a part of those again.
President Brian Sandoval: Now, one of the things I enjoyed and you know, I've seen your players at the softball games and the swim team and the men's and women's tennis, but you had a little fun at the swim team little diving contest.
Coach Ken Wilson: We did. We had a belly flop contest, and I was just glad we didn't break the diving board because I don't know how the stress test on those diving boards, but we tested it. That was one of the more fun things that we did was the belly flop contest at the swim meet.
President Brian Sandoval: I know a lot of people really enjoyed that. Yeah. So, let's go back to football and you know, you inherited a roster that had been depleted, and you've brought in a lot of new players, both high school and transfer players - you want to chat about those new individuals coming to our campus and joining the Wolf Pack family?
Coach Ken Wilson: Yeah, you know, with the transfer portal, now there's a third wave of recruiting. You've got high schools, you got junior college and you got the transfer portal and you want to get players in your program that you can trust in the locker room, that won't be divisive in your locker room, that'll enhance your locker room. Sometimes that's taking guys out of the portal that you already have a history with. A lot of the guys that we brought in here, myself or my staff knew of them and relationships are so huge in every profession, but specifically when you're asking a parent to give you their son to develop and have away from home and you got to have those development situations be strong to get them here and when we took over, we brought some high school guys in that we knew, but we didn't have a year or two years to get strong relationships with the high school guys, but some of the JC [junior college] and portal guys we knew better, so we knew the kind of people they were we knew what they were academically. So, we leaned on the portal we leaned on the high school guys that we knew and we're at 84 scholarships right now. We're at we were going to get to about 77 before the NCAA took away the 25 initials and gave us some additional scholarships this summer. So, yeah, we revved back up the recruiting wheels and kept looking through the portal and guys that not only would be good players for us but would be good people on campus and had good histories in the classroom and would do good things all through the program and not just on the football field. So, you know just about every position. We brought in quarterbacks. We brought in wide receivers this summer, linebackers, a few D lineman, secondary and running back are probably the two positions that we didn't have to go and get many guys we got some good players that are coming back, but it'll be a different looking roster than everybody saw last year, but it'll be a roster that that there'll be proud of the guys that are going to be on the football field. We're going to play the game the right way.
President Brian Sandoval: Now, you've also got a brand-new coaching staff and pulled them from a lot of places, but people that you've worked with before. Do you want to chat about them?
Coach Ken Wilson: Yeah, they've been, you know, there's a lot of young coaches out here a lot of them that I've worked with and guys that are that are hungry guys that I've either worked with at camps had with me, guys that I know their families, I know what they're about as people, I know how hard they work, some of them played are for us here and that's always great to be able to bring guys back that know the history of this program, and can push it farther ahead. So, you know, guys like Vitali, Jeff Nady, Virgil Green, some of the really good players. From around here, I brought Jim Mastro back as my Chief of Staff had a long history here and then I brought some coaches I worked with at Washington state and Oregon and Mike Buffet who played for me here. So, I think they're guys that they want to be here. They're really good coaches, the players, they're young enough that the players really interact and adapt well with them. They can speak from a player standpoint, from a coach standpoint, and they want to be good coaches. So, they're working really, really hard on the recruiting trail. And, you know, recruiting in this sport, and all of us now are about relationships and how we can build them and how we can build trust, and keep that trust in both directions, right? The players, they got to trust us just as much as we have to trust them to put them on the field, and it's not like the old days where just because I'm the coach, you're going to do this, you know. This is a collaboration now. It's our job to develop them and get those relationships and keep them here for their whole career.
President Brian Sandoval: I believe the first game is at New Mexico State and then we play Texas State at home on Labor Day Weekend, we're going to have a beautiful new field. I can't wait to see what that new track. But what do you what would you tell the fans what they have to expect?
Coach Ken Wilson: Well, I think what's really cool is I think the first two home games are both early afternoon games here. So, I think the biggest thing I was told was when I got here, a question that was asked was, how come we don't have day games. So, the biggest thing you're going to be able to the fans going to be able to come out in early afternoon, see us play in the daytime, they're going to see an exciting brand of football. Derek Sage, the offensive coordinator staff, have brought in an offense from UCLA and Utah some of those Pac-12 vibes that this is going to be really hard for other teams to defend is going to be fun to watch. Then, you got some really hard-nosed defensive coaches here that are going to they're going to put a really good defensive product on the field. I brought in a really good friend of mine named Joe Bolden to do the special teams, and he's about as passionate a football coach I've ever worked [with]. He was a starting middle linebacker and team captain at Michigan for Gary Moeller back in the Big 10, and he coached special teams just like an old Big 10 linebacker so you're going to they're going to see something I think they'll see a team that plays hard, plays it the right way, doesn't make dumb mistakes, hopefully, and learns from anything that they do and, and they're going to see good brand of football out there.
President Brian Sandoval: Now, switching back to another subject. We've talked about all these players that you've gotten through the portal and these high school recruits, what's the reaction when they see our campus?
Coach Ken Wilson: You know, what the whole community, the campus, the community. This is a great place to recruit too, it always has been. I think there's so many things about this community and this campus in general that, you know, you're in a relatively good-sized community, but this campus is very defined in a two or three block area. There's great housing around our campus. There's great academics, there's a lot of great academic fields for our guys to go into here. We've got a study center next to the football office, like you mentioned, brand new football turf going in. We've got new locker rooms going in, we got new weight equipment coming in. So, there's a lot of things, and there's a small community vibe on campus. We're really trying to bring back all the athletes to interact together and spend a lot more time together and get out in the community together. So, when you when you bring a recruit on this campus, and you take him up to the edge of Lake Tahoe, and you show him that lake, and you show him the beauty of this campus, and you show him the nice new housing that's around our campus, the buildings that are going up, the classrooms, the parking, everything about this campus, the greenery, you know, the walkway on campus and they're all zipping around those electric scooters now up and down this campus. It's really one of the nicest campuses that anywhere on the West Coast for sure and in the country. Once you're in this community, people just fall in love with it.
President Brian Sandoval: So now that you're back, what do you think you missed the most?
Coach Ken Wilson: Oh, shoot, I mean, I missed the people, I missed all my all of our friends. I missed this campus community, and like I said, I missed, you know, I miss getting to go to all these different functions and go to the Reno Rodeo and you can drive right up, walk right into all these different events that go on. And my family grew up doing the balloon races and going to Lake Tahoe and camping and biking and all the different things that we’re re-learning as we’re around here now. It's been so good for my wife. Her family’s all from here. She was born and raised here. So, you know, we were going to go on a vacation somewhere. We’re like, ‘We don't need to go anywhere. We're at vacation right now.’ So, we haven't we haven't been out of town a whole day this whole summer. We're just getting reinvested in the in this area here.
President Brian Sandoval: So, we're winding up any final comments you'd like to make coach?
Coach Ken Wilson: Well, I just hope that people give us a chance. Come out, watch us play. We're going to do everything we can to put an exciting program out on that football field win some big football games. I’m going for 20 straight or 20 bowl games in my career. We're expecting to get that done. Be a factor on the West Coast and in the Mountain West Conference and we can't wait to get going.
President Brian Sandoval: Oh, thank you, Coach. We're proud of you. We're proud of your team, we’re proud of your coaching staff and we're very excited about the fall. Thank you.
Coach Ken Wilson: Yeah, Go Pack.
President Brian Sandoval: Go Pack. Next month, we will bring you another episode of Sagebrushers and continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval, and go Pack.