After his second season as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s head football coach, a 31-year-old Chris Ault was suddenly one of the hottest young coaches in college football.
The Air Force Academy caught up with Ault on a recruiting trip in Los Angeles in December 1977 and talked with the Pack coach for over three hours about becoming its new head coach.
“I told them I still had a job to do in Reno,” Ault told the media just over 34 years ago. “I really mean that. I’m very loyal to Reno. I owe everything to the university.”
After his second season as the Wolf Pack’s defensive coordinator, a 38-year-old Andy Buh — like Ault a former Pack player — abruptly left Nevada last week to become the linebackers coach at Wisconsin.
“That was a big surprise to me,” said Ault, who added that Buh also was offered the defensive coordinator’s job at Washington State and turned it down. “I knew he went to interview with (Wisconsin) but when he told me he was going to take the job, it caught me off guard.”
Ault then uttered some familiar words when discussing Buh’s sudden departure, words that he spoke just over 34 years ago when he told Air Force he wasn’t interested (the Falcons eventually gave the job to a 36-year-old Bill Parcells).
“The job is not done yet,” said Ault, referring to the present-day task of building the Pack defense. “He (Buh) left here too early. No question. We made nice strides on defense with Andy the last two years. But the job isn’t done. No question about it. When I hired him I never thought he’d leave in two years.”
The last thing Ault thought he would have to do this off-season — after finishing 7-6 and getting ready to join the Mountain West Conference in the fall — is find a new defensive coordinator.
“I’m very concerned about this,“ Ault said. “This sets us back. I hated to lose Andy. I felt we were building something here. In all my years of coaching Andy was the most complete coordinator I’ve ever had. He was very accountable. I could go to him and talk about anything.”
The average tenure of a Wolf Pack defensive coordinator under Ault is slightly less than two years. In Ault’s 27 seasons as head coach, a total of 15 men have held the title of defensive coordinator.
Ken Mizell did it for five years (1988-92). Marty McGuffey (1976-78), John Smith (1979-81) and Barry Sacks (2004-06) did it for three. Mike Dolby (1982-83), Bill Miller (1984-85), Don Wnek (1986-87), Tim DeRuyter (2005-06), Nigel Burton (2008-09) and Buh (2010-11) did it for two. Five only did it for one year. Don Dunn and Steve Caldwell shared the job in 1994, Mike Gillhamer did it alone in 1995, Dave Fipp was a co-coordinator in 2004 with Sacks and Ken Wilson took over in 2007.
“Coach Ault hasn’t been too involved with the defense the last two years because he trusted Andy and our staff,” said Wilson, the current Wolf Pack Associate Head coach as well as defensive ends and special teams coach and a Nevada assistant for 18 seasons. “His involvement with the defensive coordinator all depends on his comfort level. He hasn’t been too hands on lately because he had a great comfort level with Andy. There have been years when he’s been more hands on, like with Dave Fipp and Nigel (Burton) but that’s only when he feels things aren’t going well.”
Ault just smiles when asked about his relationship with his defensive coordinators down through the years.
“If I was a defensive coordinator I’d love to coach on my staff,” Ault said. “With the way our offense controls the football, if I was a defensive coordinator I’d love to be a part of that. I leave those guys alone. I let the defensive staff take charge of the defense. I had a great relationship with Andy and we still do.”
Ault, who also has to find a new offensive line coach (Cameron Norcross, who doubled as the running game coordinator, also left last week for Fresno State), said he can go a few different directions with his two new openings.
“We are rare in Division I college football in that we have five defensive coaches and four offensive coaches,“ Ault said. “Most schools have five on offense, four on defense.”
The Wolf Pack has had five defensive coaches since 2006 when Sacks and DeRuyter were co-coordinators, Wilson coached linebackers, Marty Long took care of the defensive line and Kim McCloud coached the secondary.
“I did it because I wanted to put extra emphasis on the defense,” Ault said. “I invested more resources in the defense. But I haven’t gotten the results on defense that I expected.”
Ault hinted that he might go back to four defensive coaches and five on offense, possibly hiring a quarterback’s coach to relieve some of his own duties on offense. Ault is currently the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and spends all his time on the practice field with the quarterbacks.
“That’s kind of where my mind is at,” said Ault of the possibility of adding an addition offensive coach. “That’s something I’d like to do eventually, possibly hire an offensive coordinator/ quarterback coach. That is not what we are offering right now, but it is something I’m thinking about. But a lot of things have to happen before we can do that.”
A switch back to five coaches on offense and four on defense would mean that one of the four remaining defensive assistant coaches would take over as defensive coordinator. And there are plenty of qualified candidates because all four have been a defensive coordinator at some point in their career.
Wilson was the Pack coordinator in 2007 under Ault and from 1996-98 under head coach Jeff Tisdell. Sacks, who now coaches defensive tackles, was a co-coordinator from 2004-06 under Ault. Secondary coach Mike Bradeson was UNLV’s defensive coordinator from 2000-04 and cornerbacks coach James Ward was Idaho State’s defensive coordinator from 1999-2003.
Sacks said Friday that he doesn’t want the job.
“Not at all,” Sacks said. “Everybody has to have a defined role on a staff and I love my role right now.”
Wilson said he would “do whatever Coach Ault thinks is best for the program.”
“The job as coordinator is a lot of fun,” Wilson said. “It’s exciting, designing different defenses. That last time I did it (in 2007) we had a lot of injuries and our defense just depended each week on who was healthy. We were scrambling that year. But the first time I did it (1996-98) we had things going pretty good.”
Wilson’s defenses from 1996-98 included such standout Pack players as linebackers DeShone Myles and Mike Crawford, defensive tackle James Cannida and defensive back Don Morgan. It was Wilson’s defense that turned in one of the top defensive performances in Pack history in an 18-15 victory over Ball State in the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl.
Ault, though, said Wilson is much too valuable in his current role.
“He’s my Associate Head Coach and that’s where I want him,” Ault said. “He does a great job with that.”
That leaves Bradeson or Ward as Ault’s top candidates if he decides to stay in house to find his next coordinator.
“Hopefully one of the guys on the staff gets it so that we can keep that continuity,” Wilson said. “Mike (Bradeson) would make a great coordinator. He knows our defense inside and out. James would also be very good. We have a very unique staff in that all four of us have been coordinators. We have a lot of good minds on that side of the ball.”
Continuity, Wilson and Ault both said, is the key on defense.
“We have to do what’s best for our players and the best thing would be to keep our continuity on defense,” Wilson said. “It’s important that we don’t force our kids to have to learn a brand new defense.”
Buh’s departure has definitely threatened the Pack’s defensive continuity.
“Continuity and longevity is the key factor in college coaching,” Ault said. “Our offense has been successful for many years because we have that continuity and longevity on that side of the ball. It’s been me. We haven’t had that on defense.”
Giving the job to Bradeson or Ward would guarantee the continuity that Buh started to build the past two years would continue. And it would also allow Ault to tinker with his offensive staff.
“I love Andy Buh,” Sacks said. “We were on the right track with Andy.”
Ault said he expects to name a defensive coordinator by Feb. 15.
“Probably sooner,” he said.
“Coach Ault knows what he’s looking for,” Sacks said. “He always finds the right man for the job.”
And just like in 1977, that job isn’t close to being finished.
“We are going into a very critical era for this football program,” Ault said. “We’re going into a new conference and that is always a tough thing to do. We need to get the right people in here.”