Brian Polian starting to make Nevada program his own

Thursday June 6th, 2013

Formerly an assistant at Stanford and Texas A&M, Brian Polian was named Nevada's coach in January.
John Byrne/Nevada Media Services

The process of replacing a legend is never neat, but for some, redecoration is the biggest hang-up. Pictures upon pictures of Nevada's football past dominated the wall space upon Brian Polian's arrival, some dating back to the 1980s and early 1990s. Fundamentally, there was no problem with that. A guy who worked at Notre Dame and Texas A&M can understand the stranglehold of tradition. Polian just couldn't understand what tradition Nevada was celebrating, other than all of it, in a cacophonic mosh pit of memory.

"It was all good stuff," Polian said. "But there was no rhyme or reason to it. It was just, 'Hey, this was a really big win, here's a four-by-two foot collage of it, we're going to jam it up on the wall.'"

This being a state university, work orders were commissioned. In a week or so, the pictures came down. Polian's idea was to feature the current players on a semi-regularly changing basis, so that they'd visit to see what's new -- an idea he pilfered from Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. But what's new can inspire spasms of rage when everything was the same for just about 40 years, and here came the wailing that the new guy had no respect, that this was change for change's sake, a symbolic tearing-down of everything former coach Chris Ault had built.

Polian, the first-time head football coach at Nevada, kept The Pistol and a coach who coached it. He kept the strength coach and equipment guy and the trainer. Some images of great players past, like Colin Kaepernick, still grace the halls. Sometimes a coach changes things to change them. And sometimes a guy replacing a legend just wants his offices to look a certain way so his players will come hang out more, so he takes down some pictures and puts up new ones.

"There was a thought around here that I changed stuff for the sake of change," Polian said. "I really had no insight as to how things worked on a day-to-day basis around here. There were things around here that were done very well that I'm not going to touch one bit.

"But there are some things I believe in philosophically that I want done a certain way. I respect coach Ault and every assistant that came through here -- the job that they did was amazing. If I try to be coach Ault -- if I just try to replicate that, A, I'm not being true to myself. And B, it won't be successful. Because you can't be somebody else. You have to be who you are."

This fall, Polian will become the fourth person since 1976 not named Chris Ault to lead Nevada. Polian is a gregarious, candid up-and-comer who spent none of his previous 38 years on this planet as a head coach. So much about this is odd, and some of it makes more sense than you'd think, but the part about Polian being himself is the least surprising or remarkable bit.

He did his time at places like Buffalo and Central Florida instead of trading on his family name. He wouldn't be beholden to someone else's. "Brian and I are fortunate to have the full support of coach Ault as we start a new era," said athletic director Doug Knuth, a newcomer himself, having just started his gig on April 22. "No one knows more about the program and how we can achieve excellence than Chris. We are not starting with a broken program. Brian has a great football mind and will only build on the foundation Chris is leaving for us."

Still, Polian had no choice but to make Nevada his own, because every new coach must. The effect is relatively more modish, a little infusion of youth gone styled. A seldom-used media room became a player's lounge outfitted with a Pop-A-Shot machine and Xboxes and flat screens, all donor-generated. Heeding to Kevin Sumlin's model at Texas A&M, practices are brisk and energized, and music is pumped throughout from Polian's iPod. He does take requests, downloading any song a player desires as long as it's appropriate for tender ears, not to mention a state employee.

"We never even came close to that [before]," Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said. "It's less tense of a practice. You hear a song you like, and you're actually grooving to it, instead of hearing all these coaches yelling."

The idea is to meld fun and games. Just before spring break, a Friday morning conditioning session was changed by Polian, ominously, to a 10 p.m. workout that night. What the hell are we doing? Fajardo recalled players asking one another. Then they showed up and found a water balloon toss, a relay race with football gear, a dance-off and, yes, a chance to record a "Harlem Shake" video.

It is all so new that sometimes even Polian doesn't know what he's changing. As he made the standard head coach speaking engagement rounds this spring, he discovered that the decision to put player names on the back of jerseys was something of a hot-button issue.

Here is how Polian, generally, characterizes how that choice came to be:

Despite making changes since taking over, Brian Polian plans to keep The Pistol at Nevada.
John Byrne/Nevada Media Services

Coach, do you want names on the back of the jerseys?


"I'd love to tell you that I gave that a ton of thought," Polian said.

The biggest football decision and non-change he made, ironically, required just as little consideration.

Nevada still will run The Pistol, the offense pioneered by Ault. For one, as Polian wants to expand the program's recruiting footprint to Texas and the Pacific Northwest and even Hawaii, the Wolf Pack's identity is guaranteed word association: Nevada is The Pistol. And, for another, it works, and Fajardo (3,907 total yards in 2012) is the ideal quarterback to run it. In fact, Polian called Fajardo for the first time as Nevada's head coach and asked just one favor: That his future signal-caller recruit offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich to stick around.

"How dumb would that be?" Polian said. "People say, 'Are you going to change The Pistol?' No. Why would I? It works."

The university recently announced that Ault's stamp literally will be put on the football program, unveiling Chris Ault Field at Mackay Stadium on Sept. 7. So the offense isn't the only link to that era. (Ault, now a consultant with the Kansas City Chiefs, politely passed on an interview request.)

But whatever discomfort bubbles up here and there, an in-with-the-new feeling is inevitable. Nevada announced on May 29 that 1,100 new season tickets had been sold for 2013 season, the largest amount of new tickets ever sold in an offseason by the school. The season ticket renewal rate, meanwhile, was 86 percent.

"I think it would be different in my mind if Chris had been fired," Polian said. "But coach Ault retired. He came out and said, I don't want to do this anymore. If there's back story to that, if there's history to that, certainly I'm not privy to it. So it'd be one thing to come in and have to replace somebody if after 27, 30 years, they ran him out of town. Coach made the decision voluntarily he didn't want to do it anymore. That dynamic has factored into it a little bit.

"He was a pretty polarizing figure. There were some people that loved him, and rightfully so. And those people have not been quick to embrace me, and I don't think it's got very much to do with me. I think it just was whoever was going to be next. The flipside of that, there were some people that wanted a change, a population that wanted a change -- not because they didn't like coach, but they just felt like it was time. Those people have embraced me. It goes back to before -- I'm not sure if it's because of me, or just because I'm the new guy."

Polian was driving up I-35 to the Cotton Bowl as Texas A&M's tight ends and special teams coach, with an Elmo DVD playing for his kids in the backseat, when consultant Todd Turner called and said Nevada was interested in talking. Nevada was interested, it turned out, because Polian was impressive in an interview for another job that he didn't get. Which, frankly, was not as good as the job he did get.

He's thrown himself into it, because as Polian says, it may be the only head job he ever gets. So this fall, for the first time, Nevada players will live in a dorm for preseason camp. When they arrive on game days, they will pull into the main tailgating area and do "The Wolf Pack Walk," a ritual aimed at energizing the home crowd by allowing them to identify with the players, shaking their hands and wishing them good luck as they walk by.

When the team runs onto the field, it now will run to the band and the student section to gather before kickoff. When the game ends, the Wolf Pack again will walk to the student section and sing the alma mater. "The energy he's bringing is pretty awesome," Fajardo said. "Definitely there's a bit of intrigue. A lot of Reno natives, they only know coach Ault football. The community is pretty fired up to see where we're going."

That, partly, was addressed in a last meeting before finals and a short summer break. Polian told his team he was tired of students and even his players thinking they'd rather be at UCLA, but you know, Nevada is OK. "I said, hey, I couldn't be prouder to be here," Polian said. "I couldn't be happier to be here. We need to conduct ourselves the same way. We need to bow out and little bit and puff our chest a little bit when we wear a Nevada football T-shirt back home. This is a special place. I'm not afraid to compare it to anybody."

After all, it was just a few short months earlier that he was an assistant recently spurned for three head jobs, taking a call in his hotel room at Dallas' Hilton Anatole, agreeing to take the Nevada gig while his wife, Laura, jumped up and down. He then walked across the hotel grounds to share teary embraces with his mother and father. Brian Polian fulfilled a vision he'd had since he was 22 years old. His first head coaching job, making it his own in the wake of a legend. No place he'd rather be.

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