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FAQ: Things to know as Nevada searches for its next football coach

Doug Knuth
Doug Knuth will lead the search for the next Nevada football coach. (Byrne Photo/Nevada athletics)

Nevada is looking for its fourth head football coach in the last 11 seasons after Jay Norvell accepted Colorado State's head job Monday. Here is an overview of where Nevada's coaching search will go as it looks to replace Norvell, who went 33-26 over five seasons with the Wolf Pack.

The man doing the hiring

Doug Knuth: The Wolf Pack athletic director since April 2013 has a strong history of hiring marquee sport coaches with what has traditionally been a shoestring budget, most notably Eric Musselman (three Mountain West championships), Jay Johnson (one MW title in two years), T.J. Bruce (two MW titles), Steve Alford and Norvell, who did well enough to get a huge raise within the conference. He also hired swimming coach Neil Harper (one MW title), who was hired by Arkansas after one season at Nevada. Given Norvell has interviewed for Power 5 openings the last couple of years, Knuth should be prepared for this moment and should have a short list of coaches to talk to that would rule out requiring a search committee.

The sales pitch

This one's not easy. The Wolf Pack doesn't put forth the same kind of investment as other MW football programs, as noted by losing its coach to a conference rival, and one that's not even particularly good (although CSU spends liberally). Nevada doesn't have an indoor football practice facility, an essential item given the air-quality and weather issues that impact Northern Nevada. The operating budget does not rank in the top half of the MW, either. But this is a head-coaching job at the FBS level, which is always valuable, and the geography of Nevada's campus is a plus, close to California, one of the nation's top states for high school football recruiting. Plus, winning has happened here. Nevada has 14 bowl berths in the last 17 seasons. Additionally, Nevada has gone 15-6 the last two seasons, and while the Wolf Pack is losing a good amount of talent, the cupboard won't be completely bare unless there's an exodus into the transfer portal. This could be a bowl team in 2022.

The candidates

Given Knuth's hiring history, this one will be played close to the vest with minimal leaks, but here is my list of 25 potential candidates. Here are five candidates I like with different backgrounds: Matt Wells (former FBS head coach), Troy Taylor (former high school coach/Power 5 coordinator now at Sac State), Donte Williams (ex-Pack staffer who was USC's interim head coach), Jay Hill (long-time FCS head coach) and Graham Harrell (Power 5 coordinator experience). I would guess Knuth hires somebody with previous head-coaching experience, although Norvell did not have that when hired five years ago, so it might not be a prerequisite. Of the three finalists for the Nevada job in 2017, only one (Beau Baldwin) had head-coaching experience. Two coaches not on my list of 25 candidates who could be options are ex-Nevada associate head coach Angus McClure, the Cal offensive line coach who still owns a home in Reno, and recently fired Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

The finances

Nevada has long paid below the MW average for its head football coaches with Norvell beginning his Nevada career at $450,000 in 2017 and getting a raise to $625,000 starting with the 2020 season. That $625,000 is the most a Nevada football coach has ever made, although it pales in comparison to other MW football coaches. The average in the conference is just shy of $1.3 million, but don't expect Nevada to go there. It obviously depends on the candidate, but the Wolf Pack will likely be handing out a deal in the five-year $4 million to $5 million range with lots of bonuses (Norvell earned $115,000 in bonuses for the 2021 season). The Wolf Pack has hit the $1 million annual mark with two coaches in recent years (Musselman and Alford), but those were both in men's basketball. Nevada has not shown that kind of commitment in football to date. A deal around the $1 million annual mark for the next football coach could be in the works, but nothing higher than that.

The timeline

The timing on this wasn't ideal (but when is it?). Norvell left Nevada nine days before national signing day, and ideally the Wolf Pack would have a replacement by next Wednesday when recruits put pen to paper. That's a quick timeline. Nevada's last major hire, swapping Musselman for Alford, only took four days, but this search will not go as quickly. Nevada zeroed in on Alford almost immediately and sealed the deal with a 10-year pact. In 2016, it took Nevada 12 days from the firing of Brian Polian to the hiring of Norvell, a process that included on-campus interviews. The most important thing is hiring the right coach, but there is a quick timeline to get this deal done before signing day, which would mean hiring a coach by next Monday so that coach can try and keep the Wolf Pack's verbal commitments on board (full list of commits here). Getting a hire done in seven days seems exceptionally speedy. My best guess is the coach is in place early next week.

The team inherited

Nevada is losing a lot of talent this offseason with QB Carson Strong, WR Romeo Doubs and TE Cole Turner leaving eligibility on the table to turn pro and eight other starters out of eligibility. In total, that's 11 of 22 starters lost, including six who won All-MW first- or second-team honors in their careers. But that doesn't mean there's no talent on this team if the new coach can hold the roster together. The offense has a solid amount of talent, including RBs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, WRs Tory Horton, Justin Lockhart and Melquan Stovall and OL Aaron Frost and Jacob Gardner. The defense could return LB Daiyan Henley and almost its entire secondary. The offensive and defensive lines are a concern and quarterback is a question, although the combination of Nate Cox and Clay Millen should be solid. But with players now eligible to transfer without sitting out a season, keeping the team in place won't be easy. If the next coach does accomplish that, a bowl season in 2022 is realistic.

The importance

With all due respect to every other coach on Nevada's campus, this is the most important on-field job in the athletic department because a successful football program helps fund the other sports on campus, sans men's basketball. Knuth's hiring of Norvell turned out well on the field, although the Wolf Pack still struggled to draw at Mackay Stadium, so the next coach must not only put a winning product on the field but build a relationship with the community that draws higher attendance figures, especially if that person is looking to get a raise down the road. Knuth's record of hiring big-sport coaches is almost flawless, and he'll be put to the test again in replacing Norvell.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at cmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.


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