Brian Sandoval was in attendance for the Nevada football team's first FCS playoff game, a 44-21 loss to Massachusetts at Mackay Stadium in 1978. He was in attendance for the Nevada basketball team's first home NIT matchup, a 67-64 loss to Texas A&M at Centennial Coliseum in 1979. So when Sandoval says he's a big Wolf Pack fan, he has the bona fides to back it up.
Sandoval, of course, is more than just a big sports fan. He's also Nevada's former two-term governor who in September was hired as the University of Nevada's president, a job that will have its share of difficulties as the state and country digs out of the economic hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among his list of things to accomplish, and certainly not at the top of that list, is improving a Wolf Pack athletic department that has had its ups and downs since moving to the Mountain West in 2012.
Sandoval said athletics plays a big role on a university's campus, and he's excited to try and help the Wolf Pack continue to grow athletically as well as academically.
"It's part of the university DNA; it's the experience," Sandoval said on Monday's NSN Daily about the role of athletics. "As I go around campus, I talk to students and I was chatting with some of them in the The Joe and I said, 'What are you most looking forward to?' They said, 'Going to football games, 'and 'Going to basketball games.' I know for me having attended here and having grown up in Washoe County, I have great memories from that. It's part of the university experience. It's very important in connecting the community.
"In terms of moving forward, we're in the difficult time right now with COVID. We have no fans. We know the day will come when we will have fans. We aren't getting as much money from the conference as a result of reductions associated with football and not having an NCAA Tournament, so it's going to be a little difficult. But here's an opportunity for me when we can have funs, and I'm hoping it is this fall, for everybody to come to Mackay Stadium and watch the games. And when it's basketball, come to Lawlor and support all of our sports and support our student-athletes. I'm looking forward to us doing even better. We're anticipating a good football season in the fall, and hopefully that brings a lot of attendance as well."
Since Nevada moved to the MW, the Wolf Pack has won seven conference championships in nine years, which ranks eighth out of 11 teams in the league (San Diego State leads with 28 titles). Four of the Wolf Pack's seven MW crowns came under Eric Musselman in men's basketball, and while football has generally been solid, too, with six bowl berths in nine seasons, Nevada's non-revenue sports have often struggled. Sandoval, who graduated from UNR in 1986 with an English degree, said the non-marque sports are important to invest into as well as Nevada has lost seven of the eight Silver State Series competitions with UNLV, a series created by Sandoval when he was governor.
Nevada annually ranks in the bottom of the MW in athletic budget, and pumping up those figures won't be easy given the debt the athletic department has. But Sandoval, who toured the Wolf Pack's athletic facilities last week, said investing into athletics is something he'd like to do.
"It's investment in our facilities, and they are dated," Sandoval said. "Those are some of the things we're talking about, making very strategic investments, but also something we should talk about is being respectful of Title IX. I want to make sure our women athletes have the same opportunities and benefits that the male athletes have. That's a conversation we've had in not just making investments in the marque sports in football and men's basketball, but also providing better opportunities for the other student-athletes. That's part of the conversation we've had. The other piece is consistency."
Sandoval said that consistency comes from coaching continuity, which can be difficult for non-power conference schools like Nevada if their programs have success. Musselman, for example, was poached by Arkansas, from the money-rich SEC, and other Nevada coaches have been plucked by power conferences in recent years, including Jay Johnson in baseball as well as two swimming coaches since the move to the MW. But Musselman's successor, Steve Alford, signed a 10-year deal with the Wolf Pack and football coach, Jay Norvell, still has four years left on his contract, albeit as the lowest-paid coach in the MW.
"That's one of the things I like about Coach Alford's contract," Sandoval said of its length. "It's a 10-year contract, so we know that we're going to have a really strong great coach for a very long time. With Coach Norvell, the same thing. But even the other sports. It's really hard when you change coaches every three or four years. And I think the student-athletes we're recruiting, they look at that."
Sandoval has pinpointed athletics as a way to build unity and enthusiasm between campus and the community. It worked with him as he grew up in Reno and became a fan of the Wolf Pack before attending the university to obtain his undergraduate degree.
"I went to Little Flower School and played for the Little Flower Colts and then at Manogue High School I played football and basketball, but even as a boy I was coming up here watching games," Sandoval said. "I was telling a story (recently) saying I still have a very specific recollection of when the Wolf Pack played UMass and they were the No. 1 team in the country and it was a big game and it snowed. I went to the first NIT game when we played Texas A&M, so I've continued that passion and really enjoy the games and rooting for our teams. I'll continue to do so. It's not just about football and basketball. I was at the swim and dive meet against UNLV. I'm going to attend a women's basketball game. I talked to the volleyball coach and I'm going to attend that. I really want to show support across the board for all of our athletes."
Given his love of athletics, many Wolf Pack fans are hopeful Sandoval helps build the infrastructure for long-term Wolf Pack success. Sandoval admitted the budget issues the university faces will create some difficult decisions but termed his first few months on the job as "spectacular" and "inspirational." He's also been proud of how the Wolf Pack has been able to continue to play sports through the pandemic, including football and men's basketball teams that haven't had to cancel or postpone a game due to positive COVID-19 cases.
"I'm proud of that," Sandoval said. "Some of the credit goes to the coaches and athletic department and the faculty as well as making sure with administration that the campus is available to all of them. We're going to continue to work hard to make sure our student-athletes and all of our students have the best possible experience they can have. I'm really excited about the fall. I'm really hoping and am optimistic that it's going to be a rebirth, that the vaccine will be out there, that we'll start to have fans in seats and get people back to really enjoy the experience we're having here."
You can watch President Sandoval's full NSN Daily interview below.