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What if Nevada hired Nick Rolovich instead of Brian Polian to replace Chris Ault in 2013?

Nick Rolovich
Nick Rolovich spent four seasons at Nevada as the team's offensive coordinator. (Byrne Photos/Nevada athletics)

A day after Nevada football coach Chris Ault resigned in December 2012, I made a call to a prominent figure in the Wolf Pack family to probe whether anybody on Ault’s staff deserved an interview.

“Nobody,” the source told me.

“What about Rolo?” I responded in reference to then-offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich.

“Nope,” was the response. “Not head-coaching material.”

Relatively young in the game and talking to somebody who knew college athletics far better than I, I took the person’s word for it without pressing forward. So, too, did the Wolf Pack’s brass, which was led by UNR president Marc Johnson and outgoing athletic director Cary Groth, who had announced a few months prior she was retiring at the end of the athletic year. They never gave Rolovich an interview.

Instead, Johnson, Groth and Todd Turner, whose hit-and-miss search firm Collegiate Sports Associates spearheaded the process, settled on Brian Polian among five candidates interviewed. But what if Nevada had instead hired Rolovich, who brings his Hawaii Rainbow Warriors to Mackay Stadium on Saturday?

It was a pivotal hire for Nevada, which had to replace the legendary Ault, the program’s godfather and sole reason for almost all of the Wolf Pack’s football success. Nevada had plummeted the previous time he had stepped down only for him to build the program back up. The selection of Polian wasn’t a complete disaster, but it would be hard to categorize his four seasons at Nevada as a success, too.

Polian recruited good kids and his team did wonders in the classroom with historically good Academic Progress Report scores. But it also went 23-27 in four years, failed to break the seven-win barrier, failed to post an above-.500 conference mark and missed the postseason twice while losing at home two times to UNLV, the only two home losses to the Rebels since 2004. The bigger hit came in the stands.

Nevada sold a program-best 12,783 season tickets prior to the 2013 season, the community’s interest being piqued by what the post-Ault Wolf Pack would look like. Seven years later, that season-ticket base is down to 7,877 fans, a whittling away of nearly 40 percent of the once tried-and-true Pack supporters.

That gets me back to my hypothetical: What if Rolovich was considered a legitimate candidate for the Nevada job back in 2013? What if Rolovich, who served as Nevada’s offensive coordinator in 2012 under Ault, succeeded the Hall of Fame coach? Would it have changed anything? As is, Polian was able to retain Rolovich as the Wolf Pack’s offensive coordinator, but he never truly got to run his offense.

Instead, Rolovich spent three more seasons at Nevada as a coordinator before being hired as Hawaii’s head coach in 2016, which ended up being the last season of Polian’s tenure at Nevada (Rolovich’s Rainbow Warriors drubbed Polian’s Wolf Pack in their lone matchup, a 38-17 Hawaii win on the islands).

Rolovich, who is as beloved a football coach by his players as anybody I've been around, has turned around Hawaii, which went 10-36 overall and 4-26 in the Mountain West in the four years preceding his hire. In Rolovich’s four years on the job, the Rainbow Warriors have been much more competitive at 21-23 overall and 10-14 in the MW with two bowl berths in three full seasons.

The Rainbow Warriors are off to a 3-1 start this year, including two wins over Pac-12 teams. Equally impressive has been Rolovich’s ability to stop the bleeding attendance numbers at Hawaii, a task teams across the nation are dealing with as fans turn to television and phones to watch games more than ever.

The year prior to Rolovich taking over at Hawaii, attendance plummeted from 30,988 fans per home game to 23,433 fans. Rolovich’s teams have averaged 24,710 fans, which isn’t a huge number but is an increase over what he inherited rather than the cratering numbers we saw at Nevada during Polian’s tenure as the Pack went from 24,939 fans per game in 2013 to 18,500 in 2016, a decrease of 25 percent.

While some fans might not care about attendance numbers, it was cited as a major reason Nevada moved on from Polian. And let’s be real: tickets sales are nearly as important as wins these days.

That attendance bleed has continued post-Polian with season tickets falling every year since that 2013 high-water mark. This year’s first two home games drew a combined 34,318 fans, marking the second-lowest two-game home opening to a season since the Wolf Pack moved to the FBS in 1992, and that included a game against Big Ten foe Purdue, which drew the lowest crowd for a Power 5 foe since 2006.

What if Nevada went from Ault to Rolovich, who is one of the most charismatic and goofiest coaches – he hired Britney Spears and Elvis impersonators to follow him at MW media days – in the nation? Would Northern Nevada have latched on to his personality and his run-and-shoot offense, which would have had a much better chance of keeping the Wolf Pack offense near the exciting level Ault’s teams always had?

We’ll never know, but we do undeniable know two things: (1) Nevada football fans were eager for the post-Ault era, as evidenced by the record season-ticket sales following his resignation; and (2) Wolf Pack fans were frothing at the mouth for a program to have success and mobilize their interest, which was ultimately activated by Eric Musselman and the basketball program with record sales the last three seasons. Could that have been Rolovich and the football team if he was given the chance in 2013?

He was never given the chance, but he's shown during his tenure at Hawaii he at least deserved an interview when Nevada’s job opened after the 2012 season. A quality candidate was sitting right there on campus.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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