Ken Wilson sat down with Nevada Sports Net last week for his first full-length interview since getting the Wolf Pack football head-coaching job last month. Among other topics, Wilson discussed finishing the bowl season with Oregon before switching full-time to Nevada, landing his dream job in Reno, hiring his first assistant staff, what drew him to Nevada in the 1980s, his offensive and defensive scheme, the roster he's inherited and his sales pitch to new recruits. You can read our Q&A below are watch the full interview at the bottom of the page.
On why he coached Oregon through the bowl game
I felt very strongly that I finish what I started with my players up there. And I felt like I was in their houses, I promised a lot of really good men up there that I would be there for them, and we grinded together through a lot, COVID restrictions and testing every day and traveling and N95 masks. We did a lot of things to make sure that we could have the best season we could possibly have. And I didn't see in my life that it would be a good thing for me (to leave them before the bowl). Other people can make their own decision, but it wasn't something I felt good about as a human being and as a person that talked to a lot of parents that I could leave them before the end. We would complete that season and I could leave with a clean conscience of, "I did what I had told them I would do."
The emotion he felt when Nevada first called about the job
Disbelief and excitement and just memories flooding back in and thinking about getting to come home. My wife's from here, my son graduated and played at Nevada and graduated from Nevada. My daughter spent the first 16 years of her life here, so all those things were just flooding back and how fast it all happened. I got a call, "Would you be interested?" And obviously I was. And the next day I got a call at 8 o'clock, 9 o'clock at night saying, "Can you be on a 5 o'clock flight to meet with the president?" And by 8 o'clock the next night, I was the head coach at the University of Nevada, so I didn't really have a chance to even think about what was happening. I was trying to find a tie and an interview suit and get down here and put my best foot forward and hope that I would have a chance to take over this program and be where I'm sitting right now.
The feeling when he was offered the Wolf Pack job
It was incredible, and we turned around and I was by myself. I didn't even have a chance to bring my my wife on the visit and come down, so we got her on the phone and told her over the loudspeaker and we were all yelling and. It was an exciting time for me and I think everybody that was involved in that, and then I went back up to my room and sat down to call my wife back and it was, like, 'Can you believe this? Here we go.' There's all different emotions, but so much fun, excitement and her getting ready with my daughter, my son getting here for the press conference the next day and just everything going on and what Nevada has done for us, and the president and everybody just getting us down here and taken really good care of us and our staff.
What he was looking for when hiring a staff
The No. 1 thing is I wanted guys that wanted to be here. Guys that weren't worried about all the other things. They wanted to be great coaches. They wanted to be here with us. They wanted to build with me. They were the guys that I knew, coached with, I'd watched how they worked, I knew what kind of people they were. I knew that they would be good in this community, raising a family. They're all family guys and guys quite frankly that when they got here wouldn't be immediately looking to leave here. They would be here to help me build this, and because we've done a great job building this, they have a chance to go on to other things, they would have that chance and would hit those bridges when they got to them, but not guys that would immediately come here and because they were 30-year coaches, 20-year coaches would immediately be looking to go to another school because they've been to different schools. I want guys I want to come to work with every day and recruit with and grind with and that would have smiles on their faces and be positive with my players and our players and we would just get guys that would really work hard and not worry about all the outside stuff.
On Nevada's offensive and defensive scheme
On defense, they could watch what we've been doing at Washington State and Oregon. It's going to be a lot of those same things. A lot of pressure, a lot of movement, a lot of different coverage looks out there. They're going to see a lot of that pre- and post-snap movement on the front and try to get a lot of tackles for loss. We led the Pac-12 in the regular season this year in rush defense. I think we've done that two of the last three years up there. So we'll stop the run. That's going to be a priority. And then on offense, they asked me that when I was being interviewed, I said as a defensive coach, I want to bring in guys that will run an offense that is really a pain for me to defend every day. And that's guys that have done the Oregon offense, the UCLA offense, the Utah offense, those Pac-12 teams that give you multiple personnel groups, use a lot of different players, run the football, they're able to to take what the defense gives them, either with a wide receiver or a tight end or a running back and really put a lot of pressure on defenses not being able to sub with them because they can break out into open sets and all those different things. And when I was looking at that, the guys that I was talking to, 'That's what they do. That's where they're from. And that's what they know.' Obviously Vai (Taua), he's one of the best to ever play here, so he knows what it looks like. I tell recruits when I'm working with them all the time. I was here when we led the nation in passing in the Air Wolf, and I was also here when we had three 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield. So we're going to do whatever we've got to to put a lot of pressure on offenses. And I think people will enjoy watching. It's not just going to be a pass every play. We're going to be able to do a lot of stuff in this offense.
On what has changed most about Reno over the last decade
I was really amazed at the campus, all the stuff that's been built on the campus. And quite frankly, all the stuff that's been built around the campus, the apartment living, the student housing, all the ancillary stuff that they've put in for the students on this campus, the new fitness center. All those things are right around the campus have been really cool to get to know and see where the players live. All that stuff has been really cool just to see the growth right out toward Spanish Springs, out toward Carson City, up above McQueen High School, all the new buildings that are here. The place has just expanded so much.
On what drew him to Reno when he first got a job at Nevada in 1989
I finished up my my work at New Mexico as a graduate assistant, and I had actually taken a job at the University of New Hampshire. I'd accepted a job but not signed anything. And a coach that was here, John Pettis, who'd been with Coach (Chris) Ault for a long time, they had a volunteer position up here, and Coach Ault actually called me. Johnny called him and Coach Ault called me and said, "We may have some interest." I told him what was going on and John called me and said, "Here's what you have to do." They don't have a lot of money. We're going to collect all the money we've got, and you call Coach and you tell him you bought a plane ticket and you're flying into Reno and will he interview you? So I actually did that. I collected the money I had as (graduate assistant), which wasn't much, and John helped me, and we got a roundtrip plane ticket and I called Coach and I said, "Hey, Coach, I'm flying into Reno tomorrow night. If you want to interview me, I'll be at the office." He's, like, "Why are you flying in?" I'm, like, "So you'll interview me." So I flew in here, and I didn't really want to move back to the East Coast. I really liked it on the West Coast, and Coach gave me a chance to come up here, and I flew back to Albuquerque, got in my car and drove the 20 hours or whatever it was to get back up here and start coaching, and I was here from that time on (until 2012).
His assessment of the Nevada roster he's inherited
We're trying to get guys in positions how we're reconfiguring the offense and defense. Tight ends, right? We're looking for tight ends right now. There weren't a lot of tight ends in the program. We're looking for more linebackers and edge guys. We're a high movement, a lot of volume, velocity defense, so you need a lot of fast guys on the edges and perimeter. So we're looking for those kind of guys, and they have some guys in this program, there's always the guys that were in the program and weren't getting the exact shot they want or they weren't an exact fit for the scheme that was here. It's a brand new playing field for them, so there's a lot of excitement with the guys that are here because they've got new coaches, new people to help them develop. And then there's also positions where the offensive line, we've got some transfers come in, but we've got some pretty good players there. We've got two really good running backs here (Toa Taua, Devonte Lee). We've got a quarterback (Nate Cox) that just played really well in the bowl game. With wide receiver, we're a little thin at. A lot of those guys had left before we got here, but we'll hit those as we go. A lot of interest from area guys that want to have a chance to play again, want to walk on here just to get a chance. And we're trying to make those as many as we can to get Northern Nevada guys with that Northern Nevada toughness that I was used to in my previous career to get them in this program and let them earn a spot or get a scholarship maybe down the road and or get one now. So we're looking at all those things, hitting the state of Nevada hard in the recruiting area and staying on the West Coast mostly to bring this program back to this side of the country and most of our players the people will know from their high school careers.
His sales pitch to recruits
A lot of it is the guys who have left here and the senior class that they had, there were a lot of really good players that were leaving. So there's a lot of opportunity now for guys. And in college football now, freshmen play right away. JC guys play. Portal guys, they play right away and we've got a lot of opportunities for these guys to come in and compete. I told my players that are here now, "We're not bringing players in to put them on the first team ahead of you. We're bringing guys in that are quality football players, so you're going to have to compete and competition will make us all better." So we're trying to surround the guys here with guys who want to be here and want to be competitive. All that competition is going to elevate this program, and we'll just keep doing it every year, bringing more competitors in here. Sooner or later, you've up it and you just keep bringing the program up. The places we're thin, we'll use walk-ons. We'll give guys coming in a chance because we've got some roster attrition around here.
You can watch Coach Wilson's full Wolf Pack All Access interview below.