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What's gone right and what's gone wrong in Wolf Pack's Mountain West era

Jordan Caroline
Jordan Caroline and the Wolf Pack basketball team revitalized a dormant fan base. (Photo by Jonathan Devich/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, we took a look at the 10-year anniversary for the Wolf Pack agreeing to join the Mountain West with Nevada's top 55 moments in the conference. It's crazy how fast a decade can go by, although the Wolf Pack hasn't actually called the MW home for a decade since it took two years to join the conference after agreeing to do so. Nevada has won seven MW championships since joining the league in 2012, and those seven titles rank eighth out of 11 MW schools since the current membership was formed in 2013. San Diego State leads the way with 28 titles while Colorado State and New Mexico are second at 24 and Boise State fourth at 23. UNLV is fifth with 17, and Nevada leads only Air Force (6), San Jose State (5) and Wyoming (2). The Wolf Pack has had its successes and struggles since joining the MW. Here are five things that have gone right and five things that have gone wrong during Nevada's MW era.

What's gone right

Hiring Eric Musselman: The trajectory of Nevada athletics changed when the Wolf Pack hired Musselman after firing David Carter after the 2014-15 season. Musselman won at least 24 games in each of his four seasons with the Wolf Pack, which included a CBI championship and three NCAA Tournament berths, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2018. Nevada's 2018-19 season might have been a disappointment, but the team ranked in the Top 25 the entire season and hit a program-record fifth in the national rankings. Musselman's success also paved the way for a practice facility being completed (thanks to a $1 million donation by Ramon Sessions) and record attendance in each of his last three seasons on campus. Many Wolf Pack fans were not pleased with his departure to Arkansas (or how it happened), but Musselman is responsible for four of the Nevada's seven MW titles and he drove record hoops revenue.

Nevada swim and dive: As good as the Wolf Pack basketball program has been in the school's MW era, it hasn't been the best team on campus. That'd be Nevada swimming and diving, which won the only MW title for a Wolf Pack women's sport in 2016 and has finished on the podium (top three in the conference) seven times in its eight seasons in the league. The only year Nevada didn't finish in the top three was its first season in the MW when it placed fifth. Since then, the Wolf Pack has had one first-place finish, two second-place finishes and four third-place finishes. And that's happened with three head swim coaches (Jian Li You has been the constant with her divers). You has had three All-Americans during the MW era, too, with Sharae Zheng winning two national titles in 2016. While many Wolf Pack women's sports have struggled since moving to the MW, swimming and diving isn't one of them.

Reaching bowl games: I didn't know whether to put Wolf Pack football in the "what's gone right" or "what's gone wrong" category. On one hand, the Wolf Pack has reached five bowls in its eight seasons in the league. On the other hand, it's yet to reach a MW championship game and is 48-53 overall and 30-34 in conference play since joining the league. It's been an average program, but the Wolf Pack's five bowl appearances since joining the MW rank tied for fourth in the league behind only Boise State, San Diego State and Utah State. Considering the Wolf Pack has one of the conference's lowest budgets in football, ranking fourth in bowl appearances (out of 12 teams) isn't bad. There's just been a lot of 7-6 seasons mixed in (four of Nevada's five bowl seasons ended with a 7-6 mark), which doesn't excite fans. Plus, the Wolf Pack has had a winning record in MW play just once in its eight seasons in the league.

Wolf Pack men's golf: We've highlighted the Nevada men's basketball and swimming programs, but we should mention men's golf, which has taken a step up in the MW. In 2018, the Pack reached its first NCAA Regional in 2007. It returned to a Regional in 2019 and was five strokes shy of reaching nationals. In 2017, it sent Grant Booth to the NCAA Regional as an individual. So the Pack has been a national-level team the last couple of seasons and was on pace again to reach Regionals in 2020 if not for the COVID-19 shutdown. It took coach Jacob Wilner a little while to get his program to that level, but it's here now, and it kept chugging along last season despite losing its top player, Joey Vrzich, to transfer to the nation's No. 1 team, Pepperdine. In the last 3.5 seasons, Nevada has won five team tournaments and had five individual tournament winners. It can legitimately claim to be the Wolf Pack's top sport.

Individual track and field athletes: The Wolf Pack has had 17 All-Americans since moving to the MW, a healthy number, with seven of those coming in women's track and field. Nevada has been up and down in track and field as a team, depth being a constant issue in terms of placing on the podium during the conference's indoor and outdoor meets. But it has had some stellar individual performances, most recently by multi-athlete Nicola Ader, who has won five All-American honors in the last two seasons (and it would be closer to 10 if not for the 2020 spring season being canceled). She's the most decorated Wolf Pack women's track and field athlete ever, but she's not alone. Nicole Wadden and EmKay Myers both earned All-American honors in 2017 and the 4x100 squad of Samantha Calhoun, Angelica Earls, Tanisha Hawkinsand Kashae Knox did the same in 2013. It's worth noting the excellence of these athletes.

What's gone wrong

Keeping the Cannon: While Nevada has owned UNLV in men's basketball since joining the MW, it's been a more dicey proposition in football. Wolf Pack basketball is 12-6 against UNLV since joining the conference, the best run for Nevada against its hardwood rival ever. That same isn't true in football. Chris Ault won his only game against UNLV in the MW era in 2012 to run the Wolf Pack's win streak over the Rebels to a record-best eight consecutive victories, but UNLV has had the upper hand since then. The Rebels are 4-3 against Nevada in the last seven matchups after going 6-18 in the previous 24 Fremont Cannon games. The cannon has been red far more in recent seasons. Jay Norvell is 1-2 against UNLV and Brian Polian was 2-2 against the Rebels. UNLV has won three of its last four games at Mackay Stadium, and if there's one thing you don't want to do as a coach it's lose to the Rebels at home. To make matters worse: UNLV is 25-54 in the last seven seasons against non-Nevada teams and 4-3 against the Wolf Pack. Nevada has been losing to some really bad Rebels squads.

The budget: When Nevada joined the MW, it jumped into a conference with teams that had much larger budgets. The Wolf Pack was above average in the WAC in annual expenses and revenue, but that's not been the case in the MW, which has made winning more difficult. Nevada has been in the red in five of its eight seasons in the MW, including two $2 million shortfalls (in FY17 and FY20). Overall, the Wolf Pack has generated a $4.972 million deficit from FY13-FY20, which marks the team's time in the MW, and that's before a $10 million-plus deficit projected for this year, although that COVID-19-induced hole isn't the Wolf Pack's fault. The previous $5 million in debt can be laid at the feet of the Wolf Pack, which couldn't get out of the red despite having record ticket sales in men's basketball while also getting a $1 million buyout from Arkansas when it hired Eric Musselman.

Football attendance: If you want to know the biggest reason the Wolf Pack has had a budget issue, look no further than the seats at Mackay Stadium, which have largely been vacant in recent seasons. When Chris Ault stepped down as Nevada's coach after the 2012 season, the fan base was eager for something new (and naïve in thinking Ault was somehow holding the program back). That resulted in a record 12,783 season tickets being sold ahead of the 2013 season, the Wolf Pack's second in the MW. But that figure has cratered since then with only 7,877 season tickets sold entering last year (that's more than 4,906 fans dropping their season tickets in a six-year period, just shy of 40 percent of the base). Nevada's total football attendance has fallen from 149,635 in 2013 to 97,080 in 2019 (and that 2013 figure was actual attendance, not tickets distributed, which is the current counting method). It's not fair to blame all of the attendance issues on current coach Jay Norvell as the Brian Polian era drove away a good chunk of fans, but this is one of the biggest issues looming over Nevada.

Mackay Stadium renovation: AD Doug Knuth has done a better job at facility building than his predecessor Cary Groth. He's built an on-campus tennis facility, a basketball practice facility, a track and field practice area and renovated Peccole Park, but the biggest-ticket item in the recent upgrades came at Mackay Stadium, and that's been rough. The original renovation cost about $14 million if you include a new video board and sound system, and it added a much-needed club level with loge boxes and chair-backs throughout the stadium. But the stadium required not one but two ADA-compliance renovations at a $3.9 million price tag, which also led to UNR suing the Worth Group, which renovated the stadium. If UNR wins that suit it could recoup a good chunk of that money and turn the renovation into less of a disaster, but even as is, Wolf Pack fans clearly haven't bought into Mackay Stadium being a more fan-friendly place given the decline in attendance, which included losing a record 1,331 season-ticket holders the year the renovation debuted (fans don't like being re-seated).

Women's sports: We applauded Nevada women's swimming and diving above, but most Wolf Pack women's sports have struggled in the MW, which is why the school has just one conference championship in women's sports since 2012. In the traditional women's college team sports of basketball, tennis, soccer, volleyball and softball, Nevada is 491-681-13 overall (41.4 winning percentage) and 190-366-5 in conference games (33.9 percent) since moving to the MW. During that time, the Wolf Pack has just four winning seasons in conference games in those five sports (once each in basketball, tennis, volleyball and softball). That's out of 38 conference seasons. So Nevada has posted a winning record in conference games in just 10.5 percent of its MW seasons. By team, the records are as follows: basketball (98-152 overall, 49-93 MW); tennis (74-74, overall, 15-19 MW), soccer (36-106-13 overall, 15-63-5 MW); volleyball (82-156 overall, 41-103 MW); softball (201-193 overall, 70-88 MW). Progress must be made in the Wolf Pack's women's sports.

What's gone right and wrong

Wolf Pack baseball: Here's a bonus category just for Nevada baseball, which is one of only three Wolf Pack programs to win a MW title (and it's done that twice). Nevada won the MW regular-season crown in 2015 and 2018. Since joining the conference in 2012, the Wolf Pack has a winning record, both overall (214-204) and in MW play (115-92) to go with those two championships. But it still hasn't gotten to an NCAA Regional since 2000, a 20-year drought that's head-scratching considering how many good players have come through the program in the last 20 years. The Wolf Pack is 9-14 in seven MW Tournaments and is 0-4 as the tournament's top seed, so postseason play remains a bugaboo for a solid Pack program.

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