The State of the Program Entering I-A
When the Nevada Wolf Pack left the I-AA ranks in 1992 to join the Big West Conference, they were a burgeoning power that had grown in stature during the past sixteen years of Chris Ault’s leadership in Reno. Under Ault, who took over the head coaching role from Jerry Scattini in 1976, the Wolf Pack had won Big Sky championships in 1983, 1986, 1990 and 1991.
They reached the quarterfinal of the NCAA tournament in 1983, losing on the road to Furman, and were downed by Georgia Southern in the semifinals in 1986. After losing again to Georgia Southern in the 1990 championship game, the Wolf Pack entered the 1991 postseason undefeated after an 11-0 regular season. They would face a scare against Weber State in the opening round, reversing a 35-point halftime deficit to win 55-49 on the strength of 41 unanswered points from backup quarterback Chris Vargas. But the fairy tale would fail to come to fruition, as Nevada finished their time at the I-AA level with a quarterfinal loss to a Youngstown State team en route to Jim Tressel’s first national championship as a head coach.
The First Season
While they had never won a national championship at the I-AA level prior to to the I-A ranks, Nevada nevertheless was positioned well to be a solid contributor to the Big West immediately upon entering the league. After losing in Laramie to Joe Tiller’s Wyoming Cowboys in their inaugural game in the top ranks, the Wolf Pack won their conference opener 20-14 at home against Pacific, knocked off I-AA McNeese State 31-21, and stumbled on the road to a Tulane team that would finish the season 2-9 to enter conference play at .500.
Their second Big West game was a shutout, as Nevada went to Cal State-Fullerton and won 19-0. The Titans were on an opposite trajectory from the Wolf Pack, playing the final season of the school’s 18-year history of sponsoring top-level football. The following week, Nevada traveled south to face state rival UNLV at the Silver Bowl. A tense contest ensued, with the Wolf Pack winning 14-10 in a defensive struggle. Returning home, Nevada dispatched New Mexico State 35-21, but Weber State exacted revenge for last season’s comeback to beat Nevada 23-21, and their first conference loss came the following week when their trip to San Jose State ended in a 39-35 defeat.
It all came down to the final conference game of the season, a matchup against 5-5 Utah State. The Aggies’ record was deceptive, as their losses had come against four bowl-bound teams and also against San Jose State. But the Spartans had knocked themselves out of Big West contention with an inexplicable loss to UNLV, and failed to control their own fate. Their later loss to New Mexico State in the season finale turned the Utah State-Nevada matchup into the de facto Big West championship game.
The contest played out like a championship classic. Down 23 points with just over five minutes remaining, Ault once again turned to Vargas for some magic off the bench. The quarterback delivered once again, mustering a 24-point turnaround that gave Nevada a 48-47 victory and the Big West title. In the process, Nevada became the first school to win their conference in their first season at the I-A level.
Their reward was a return to Sin City for the Las Vegas Bowl against 9-2 MAC champion Bowling Green. Against the Falcons, Ault’s crew ended up on the wrong side of a one-point game as the visitors from the east beat the Wolf Pack in their home state 35-34.
How Have They Fared Since?
Nevada has proven resilient over the years. After finishing second in the Big West in 1993 with another 7-4 regular season, the school watched Jeff Horton — Ault’s successor as head coach — defect to state rival UNLV after just one year. Ault promptly returned to the leadership role, and Nevada surged from 1994 to 1996 with three straight nine-win seasons to complete a run of dominance with four conference titles in the school’s first five years at the I-A level. In 1996, Ault’s crew final won the school’s first bowl game in their third Las Vegas Bowl try, knocking off Ball State 18-15.
The team would taper off in the late 1990s, winning a share of their fourth straight Big West title in 1997 but with a 5-6 record. They would finish 6-5 in 1998 before 1999 culminated in another losing campaign at 3-8, their reign in the conference interrupted by the entrance of other I-AA powerhouses into the fold. Nevada bolted after 1999 for a WAC desperate for viable programs after the defection of their oldest members to found the Mountain West, just ahead of the Big West’s decision to stop sponsoring the sport after the 2000 season.
After 1995, Ault retired once again from coaching. Jeff Tisdel drove the team to the diminishing returns of the late 1990s, and Chris Tormey guided the team to a 16-31 record in the team’s first four WAC seasons. So Ault the athletic director fired his head coach, dusted off his playbook, and returned to the sideline. After another losing season in 2004, the ship started to right. In 2005, a win over #16 Fresno State in the conference finale gave the Wolf Pack a share of their first WAC title and a trip to the Hawaii Bowl, where they would claim the second bowl victory in school history with a 49-48 overtime win over fellow I-AA transplant UCF.
The victory was the catalyst for a run of eight straight bowl appearances, with just one losing season (a 6-7 campaign after losing the 2007 New Mexico Bowl). The run culminated in their upset of rival Boise State in the 2010 season, another WAC championship and a top-12 finish in the final AP poll of the year on the strength of senior quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s arm as well as his legs. With the field general gone to the 49ers the next season, the Wolf Pack fell to second in the WAC behind Louisiana Tech before moving on to the Mountain West.
After an up-and-down first year in the MWC, Nevada reached the postseason once again. Up against Arizona, they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as the Wildcats pulled off a comeback 49-48 stunner in the New Mexico Bowl.
Despite losing in the contest he hopes concluded his last run as head coach in Reno, Chris Ault was the defining force for the Wolf Pack’s I-A personality. The architect of the Pistol offense, Ault won at the I-A level at a .629 clip (95-56) and was in charge for five of the school’s seven I-A conference championships.
Every other Nevada coach to guide the Pack at the I-A level? Between Horton, Tisdel and Tormey, the other three Wolf Pack leaders have won at a .447 rate. With a 46-57 record between the trio, it took them just nine seasons to lose one more game than Ault suffered in 12. The task of maintaining the momentum Ault built up a third time now falls on the shoulders of Brian Polian, the son of the former NFL executive who previously served as the special teams coordinator at Notre Dame (2004-2009), Stanford (2010-11) and Texas A&M (2012) and has never previously been the head coach at any level.