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Murray's Mailbag: What's the greatest 'what if' in Nevada athletics history?

Cody Martin
Cody Martin had a great run in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but it could have been "Final Four" great. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

I've got some virtual learning to do with the kids, so let's get straight to the questions. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

(Note: If you're not seeing the tweets, it's probably because you're not using Google Chrome. Use Google Chrome.)

The San Diego Padres are the second-best team in the National League behind the Dodgers and addressed their biggest need (front-line pitching) at the trade deadline by getting Mike Clevinger, so they're certainly a World Series contender considering their offense (5.69 runs per game, second best in MLB) and their second-best run differential in the big leagues (plus-78). As for the Dodgers-Padres three-game series that starts tonight, it doesn't matter much. With eight teams getting into the playoffs in each league, the regular season is fairly immaterial. Yes, I'd like to see the Dodgers win an eighth straight NL West title, but their season is only a success if they win the World Series, which will be more difficult because there are four rounds of playoffs this season, including a ridiculous three-game opening series. FanGraphs gives the Dodgers (18 percent) and Padres (10.9 percent) the two best odds of winning the World Series, and they'll likely face off in a five-game series in the National League Division Series, which shows you how stupid MLB's playoff system is this season.

In terms of Wolf Pack hypotheticals, there are a bunch, but I will focus on three each in football and men's basketball since those are the two revenue sports.

In football:

* What if Kyle Brotzman makes a kick? I know people like to ask "What if Nevada beats Hawaii in 2010?," and I've often written about that (I still think Nevada goes to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and not the Rose Bowl because the four at-large teams selected to BCS bowls that season all ranked in the top eight in the nation). But "what if" Brotzman makes that 26-yard field goal at the end of regulation in the 2010 game to beat Nevada? That changes the reputation of Chris Ault, Colin Kaepernick, et al., and puts Boise State in the Rose Bowl, if not the national championship game. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl most likely never happens, and that's one of the great moments in Nevada history. All because of a missed chip shot.

* What if Rick Schwendinger doesn't miss? Speaking of missed chip shots, Nevada's 1990 team is the only one in program history to reach the FCS title game, but the 1991 team was probably better. That team was 12-0 and spent 11 straight weeks at No. 1 in the nation before losing to Youngstown State, 30-28, in a quarterfinal game after Schwendinger missed a 27-yard missed field goal as time expired that would have won the game. Youngstown State, coached by future Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, went on to win the national title with wins over Samford and Marshall. Who knows what would have happened, but that very easily could have been Nevada's title, and the lack of an FCS crown is the one big demerit on Ault's résumé.

* What if Chris Ault doesn't step down in 1992? Nevada was always a step ahead of Boise State. It beat the Broncos to the Big West. It beat the Broncos to the WAC. And Nevada was roughly even against Boise State in head-to-head matchups early in the rivalry (12-14 after the 1998 game). But the last 20 years created a ton of separation as the Broncos are 16-1 against the Wolf Pack in the last 17 matchups and became a national brand that's in the Top 25 year in and year out while Nevada has been stuck around six or seven wins for the last two decades. And that's what irritates Ault more than anything. "Nevada was Boise State before Boise State," he likes to say. Would Ault have turned Nevada into what Boise State became if he didn't step down after the 1992 season to focus on his athletic director responsibilities? Nevada's coaching hires of Jeff Tisdel, Chris Tormey and Brian Polian didn't work out. If Ault has simply remained head football coach throughout the 1990s and 2000s, could Nevada have become Boise State? That's the biggest "what if" in Wolf Pack football history.

In basketball:

* What if Cam Oliver doesn't turn pro? The 2018 Nevada basketball team is either the best or second-best group in school history (along with the 2004 team), but it could have been even better if Cam Oliver had stayed at Nevada for his junior season. Instead, he turned pro and went undrafted before playing that season in the G League. But a lineup of Lindsey Drew, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Cameron Oliver, Kendall Stephens and Josh Hall would have been ridiculously good. As the 2018-19 season showed us, more talent doesn't necessarily mean more wins, but never seeing Oliver and the Martin twins play together is tough considering what the trio could have done when paired with Caroline.

* What if JaVale McGee and Luke Babbitt play together? There are plenty of "what ifs" when it comes to Nevada basketball players turning pro early, but the one that stings perhaps more than any other is McGee leaving Nevada after his sophomore season instead of sticking around one more year and playing with McDonald's All-American Luke Babbitt. Things worked out well for McGee, so you can't blame him, but a lineup of Armon Johnson, Joey Shaw, Malik Cooke, Brandon Fields, Luke Babbitt, JaVale McGee and Dario Hunt could have done some damage. Likewise, if Babbitt stayed an extra year he would have played with Deonte Burton, Olek Czyz, Malik Story, Jerry Evans and Hunt. Alas, neither happened.

* What if Kendall Stephens hits one three? But the greatest "what if" in Nevada basketball history came in Atlanta when Nevada lost to Loyola Chicago, 69-68, in the Sweet 16 in 2018, a game in which the Wolf Pack, a great 3-point shooting team, went a dreadful 7-of-27 from beyond the arc (25.9 percent). Caleb Martin was 5-of-11 from deep. Everybody else went 2-of-16. Kendall Stephens, who set the MW's single-season 3-point record that year, went 0-of-8. I'm not blaming Stephens by any means. Nevada doesn't beat Texas or Cincinnati in the first two rounds without him, and Stephens had injuries to his thumb and ankle that required surgeries. But one more made 3-pointer and Nevada is on to the Elite 8 where it would have faced an average Kansas State team. Odds are the Wolf Pack makes the Final Four, where it would have played Michigan. Nobody was beating Villanova that season, but Nevada was one made 3-pointer away from potentially hanging a Final Four banner, and it's hard to envision the program gets an opportunity like that ever again.

I did the research recently and only seven players in the last decade lasted all four years at Nevada (Lindsey Drew, D.J. Fenner, Marqueze Coleman, Deonte Burton, Elijah Foster, Dario Hunt and Jerry Evans Jr.), so it's a small number. Part of that is because of Eric Musselman's philosophy for part of the decade, but part of that is the cost of doing business as a college coach these days. Steve Alford's system is much more geared toward recruiting high school players and developing them over the long haul, so his rate of four-year players should be higher than we've seen in recent Wolf Pack history. That said, I can't go too high, so I'll set the over/under at 1.5 on the number of 2020 freshmen (Alem Huseinovic, Tre Coleman, DeAndre Henry, Daniel Foster, Je'Lani Clark) who will remain with the Wolf Pack for all four seasons.

As for the second part of your question, I'll predict Nevada is a 20-win team and MW championship challenger in the 2024 season. That's basically Alford's history. It's not often he has a team that isn't challenging for a conference title, and he'll be on the job for five seasons at that point, so he'll have had time to get his players in place.

I have an update on Nevada guard Je'Lani Clark here, but I don't believe it is an issue of getting academically cleared. He was with the team during the summer working out, which I don't believe would have been the case if he had to make up ground academically. I don't want to get too in depth here because I don't have the full story and some of it is of a personal nature ("Je’Lani Clark is not enrolled at Nevada for the fall semester; due to privacy laws, we cannot comment any further," Nevada said), but I would not rule him out in terms of playing for Nevada in the future. Wichita State transfer Grant Sherfield being cleared to play for the Wolf Pack this season fills a big void in Nevada's backcourt, which helps make up for Clark's loss, although I was high on Clark. He was my second-favorite high school recruit in the Nevada's 2020 class.

Here were my latest Mountain West basketball preseason rankings. I had Nevada at No. 6 and will keep the Wolf Pack there even after the addition of Grant Sherfield, who adds more depth to Nevada's backcourt and raises the team's ceiling. But the five teams ahead of the Wolf Pack in my rankings have more proven Division I talent. Sherfield's addition balances the roster more given most of the Wolf Pack's proven talent was in the frontcourt, so that's good. But there are still big questions on the roster, which I will address later this week. As for the start of the season, it looks like Nov. 25, but that should be determined during a vote from the Division I Council on Wednesday. I wouldn't be surprised if that dates moved up a little. That'd be two weeks later than the original start date of Nov. 10 and would create massive changes to the non-conference season. Honestly, it makes sense to just play a 20- or 22-game conference season. But if they're playing college basketball in November, that's a really good sign.

I'll take the two GOATs: Chris Ault (football) for my son and Jian Li You (diving) for my daughter. Both are among the best coaches to teach their sport, but their impact goes far beyond the playing field. Ault's former players rave about the life lessons and dedication to craft he instilled in them. The same goes with You, who like Ault can be hard on her athletes during training but who also shows a genuine care and love for her pupils beyond the pool deck. Nevada has been lucky to have both of those coaches call Reno home for a long time.

That's between four boxers: Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong or Sugar Ray Leonard. Johnson won "The Fight of the Century" in a makeshift arena on Fourth Street Reno in 1910. Dempsey beat Jack Moran at Reno's Moana Springs Arena in 1918. Leonard beat Bruce Finch at Reno's Centennial Coliseum in 1982. Armstrong won two bouts at Reno's Chestnut St. Arena in 1935 when he was coming up in the sport.

I am partial to Johnson given his societal impact as the first black heavyweight champion, but you can't go wrong with any of these four. In these rankings, Leonard is 10th all-time in the pound-for-pound rankings, Dempsey is eighth, Johnson is seventh and Armstrong is second. I'm taking Johnson, but boxing historians largely rank Armstrong as the best of these four. It's pretty cool four of the 10 best boxers ever had at least one bout in Reno. Fun Fact: Dempsey also fought in Reno, Ariz., which is now a ghost town.

If I had to bet on it, I'd agree the Big Ten plays football games in 2020. Things seem to be trending in that direction, and commissioner Kevin Warren is getting crushed, so he has motivation to make it happen. I don't think it's a slam dunk the Big Ten plays in the fall, though, and COVID still remains a major issue. It's postponed a number of games already, with Memphis having 20 positive cases (with 20 more people quarantined). Ohio State, from the Big Ten, just had two preseason first-team All-Americans opt out of the year. But to get to the root of your question, I don't think the Mountain West will automatically follow suit if the Big Ten plays, although the conference opened the door a little with a vague statement last week that I'm still trying to decipher what it means. Unless the MW gets access to affordable daily testing, I don't see how it plays (either in the fall or spring). That's a huge hurdle until an effective vaccine is created. The MW does not operate in the same financially area as the Big Ten or Pac-12, so that affordable daily testing is key.

How dare you mention the Mountain West's California schools and not include San Jose State, which is the crown jewel institution in the conference.

Well, Craig Thompson didn't have a vote on whether the Mountain West played football this fall. That came down to the university presidents within the league. That doesn't mean Thompson doesn't have influence on the decision as the face of the conference. But blaming him, just as Big Ten fans have blamed commissioner Kevin Warren, seems misguided. I guess it's easy to blame a familiar face rather than the university presidents (or the federal government decisions that led to the continued outbreaks), but I'm not sure that's the correct decision.

In 2017, I wrote a long feature on Craig Thompson because I couldn't find any information on his life story, so I figured I'd dig in and do it. Here's that feature. I think he's largely done a good job in the Mountain West, first forming the conference out of the ashes of the WAC and then killing the WAC in a battle to the death during conference realignment in the early 2010s. The American Athletic Conference, created out of the ashes of the Big East, has passed the MW as top Group of 5 conference in my opinion -- at least in prestige, money and getting to a New Year's Six bowl -- on Thompson's watch.

Given the fact he's been on the job for 20 years, sometimes it's good for fresh blood and new ideas, so I wouldn't oppose a conference commissioner change, but Thompson has seemed like a convenient target for fan bases over the years. With so many changes in a mid-major conference, continuity at commissioner is a good thing. From 1999-2017, the MW had 48 university presidents, 69 athletic directors, 45 head football coaches and 81 head basketball coaches (48 in men’s hoops and 33 in women’s hoops). It had one commissioner. I believe Thompson has been an asset for the MW over the last 20 years, but a change in the near future could be good for the MW.

Here's an exhaustive breakdown on the NFL noise policy this season, but the basic gist is teams were given curated audio from the NFL and can't play it through the stadium’s PA system above 70 decibels, except during approved times when music/audio prompts can go up to 75 decibels. That's basically the level of a vacuum cleaner, so it's not going to make much of a difference for the home team, although recent numbers show the home-field edge in MLB is at its highest level since 2009, so perhaps home field does make a difference despite no/minimal fans.

As a fan, I don't mind it. It's better than no noise at all. I don't like the virtual fans that have been implanted into some broadcasts, but the fake crowd noise for MLB and NFL games adds to making it a more normal fan experience. That's my take as a fan. But as a journalist, I'm not a big proponent. Journalists are supposed to present an event as it happens, not add crowd noise to make it more entertaining. There's a blurring of lines when it comes to covering events as journalists versus entertainment partners when you own broadcast networks that I don't like.

From worst to best.

1. Laugh track on comedy show (Fake laughs are horrible)

2. Lloyd's "most annoying sound in the world" in Dumb and Dumber (I coundn't handle that for more than 15 seconds)

3. Elevator music (Spotify has a channel dedicated to it, so it can't be that bad)

4. Fake crowd noise at NFL games (Addressed above)

5. Bill Walton (I actually enjoy him)

Sam Cassell is reportedly one option. I remember when Cassell turned me down for an interview at the Las Vegas Summer League for a story I was working on about JaVale McGee (McGee was playing for the Wizards' summer league team coached by Cassell). So I will be rooting against him. I've seen Gregg Popovich's name, but I don't see that happening. You have the usual retreads like Nate McMillian, Vinny Del Negro, Alvin Gentry and Tyronn Lue. But I'd like to see Spurs assistant Becky Hammon get the job as the first female coach of an NBA team. She's put in the work to get a head job. Ultimately, coaches don't have a ton of impact in the NBA. Look at Frank Vogel, who was fired twice in the last five years and now is on the verge of winning a championship with the Lakers. You need the players in the NBA. The Rockets are a good job because Daryl Morey is a good general manager, so I'd like to see Hammon land there because Morey will give her the players to compete in the top half of the Western Conference. But I think they'll hire Lue.

That was something NBA commissioner Adam Silver was pushing pre-pandemic, but it didn't seem to get much traction. "The NBA has sent a proposal to teams calling for a 78-game regular season, along with an in-season tournament for all teams and a reseeding of the playoffs when the field is cut to the final four clubs," the AP reported prior to this season. That's modeled after European soccer (or even overseas basketball). I'm not a huge fan of the idea because I don't think players would be all that motivated by an in-season tournament, but it was a way to try and increase TV ratings during the regular season and keep teams from resting players that didn't have injuries. The tournament called for a $1 million per player prize, which is a good chunk of money, but I'm not sure that's enough incentive to get players to care about a new tournament.

Rudyard Kipling, who wrote "The Jungle Book," was an imperialist who wrote that Filipinos were "half-devil and half-child" in his 1899 poem "The White Man's Burden," which led students at Manchester University to paint over one of his poems that served as a mural at the student union. As you mention, he's a controversial figure in the literary world. Per a story in the New Yorker: "In recent years Kipling’s reputation has taken such a beating that it’s a wonder any sensible critic would want to go near him now. Kipling has been variously labelled a colonialist, a jingoist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a right-wing imperialist warmonger; and — though some scholars have argued that his views were more complicated than he is given credit for — to some degree he really was all those things." I've long not been a fan of the pre-game reciting of "The Law of the Jungle," and I'd be fine with that being retired.

No real baby. But I did just eat some pizza for lunch, so I do have a pepperoni pizza baby. I will name him "Mario." I must go give birth to Mario, so see y'all next week!

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to finish. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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