Nevada has a new face at head coach
It didn't take former NFL general manager Bill Polian very long to figure out his middle son's future career path.
In 1993, Brian Polian was playing on the varsity basketball team during his senior year at St. Francis High School near Buffalo, N.Y. School officials asked him to coach the eighth grade team.
"I think after the second day of practice he came home and said he wanted to be a coach," said Bill Polian, a former general manager with the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts, who now works as an NFL analyst for ESPN. "My wife and I cringed a little bit because we knew what he'd be in for. But he found his place in the world."
Two decades later, Polian's dream will come to fruition as he's set to begin his first season as a head coach at Nevada. Unlike most first-year coaches around the country, Polian earned his first head-coaching job without working as an offensive or defensive coordinator or head coach. He worked last season as special-teams coordinator and tight ends coach at Texas A&M, after previously coaching special teams and other positions at Stanford, Notre Dame, UCF, Buffalo and Baylor.
"I skipped a step, so I know there's pressure on me," Polian said.
Few new coaches around the country will face as much pressure as Polian this coming season. He replaces Chris Ault, who guided Nevada to 233 victories during three head-coaching stints from 1976 to 2012. Ault, who created the Pistol offense, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
"He recognized the challenge right from the outset," Bill Polian said. "When they called him for an interview, he recognized right away that he was replacing a legend and someone who built the program. It's a mixed blessing -- it's a great program but he's replacing a legend."
Polian has prepared the past 15 years to walk the sideline as a head coach and he'll get his opportunity when the Wolf Pack open the season at UCLA on Aug. 31. After playing linebacker at John Carroll University, Polian worked as a graduate assistant for Nick Saban at Michigan State in 1997. After working as an assistant at Buffalo in 1998, Polian spent the next two seasons as a graduate assistant for Kevin Steele at Baylor, where he earned a master's degree in education.
Along the way, Polian was determined to create his own identity, instead of riding the coattails of his father and older brother. Chris Polian was general manager of the Colts from 2009 to 2011 and is currently director of pro personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. His younger brother, Dennis, is a special assistant to Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak.
"I'd be naive to think my dad's relationship with Nick Saban didn't help me get a job," Polian said. "But from that day forward, I built my career on my own name. To be frank, that's what I'm most proud of. I've never worked in the same organization with my dad or brothers. People that doubt that can go back and look at my track record. I've been with some bad football teams. I love my father and he's been the single most important influence in my life. But I've done it on my own, and I'm really proud of that."
Bill Polian said his son never asked him for help in landing a job.
"He charted his own path and did it without any help at all," Bill Polian said. "From the time he was 11 or 12, he's been to training camps and been a ball boy. He and his brothers like to say they grew up in the locker room and there's some truth to it. He's spent a lot of time around a lot of great players and coaches. The people he ended up working for were people he knew. He was a ball boy for Kevin Steele. Everyone that's hired him along the way got good recommendations on him or knew him."
Polian isn't interested in completely rebuilding the Nevada program that Ault built during his 28 years as head coach. He'll keep the Pistol offense that made former Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick a household name. Last season, Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl while running a version of the Pistol offense.
Polian was able to retain offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, who helped junior Cody Fajardo become one of the country's most efficient quarterbacks last season. Fajardo completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,786 yards with 20 touchdowns, while running for 1,121 yards with 12 scores in 2012.
"It wasn't even a thought," Polian said of ditching the Pistol for another offense. "The hardest question for me was were we going to be able to keep Nick Rolovich to run it? When I was first approached about the job, I didn't even consider changing the offense. It's very effective and distinguishes us from everyone else. With the amount of exposure Kap got, you can walk into any high school and mention Nevada and recruits immediately say, 'Pistol.' Plus, I'm a believer in it, philosophically, so it made sense."
Polian has made more subtle changes to the Nevada program. He has remodeled Nevada's football offices -- putting Kaepernick and other former Wolf Pack players in the NFL front and center -- and added players' names to the back of jerseys. Music is pumped into practices to make them more fun. Near the end of spring practice, Polian changed an early-morning workout to 10 p.m. When the players arrived, the coaches surprised them with the "Wolf Pack Games," which included a water balloon toss, relay race and an opportunity to record a "Harlem Shake" video.
"Philosophically, a lot of it comes from [Texas A&M coach] Kevin Sumlin," Polian said. "You can work hard, be accountable and grind it out, but it can still be fun for the players and coaches. I've tried to make the process fun here. I think sometimes coaches forget that football is still a game and that it's played by kids. I've tried not to forget that."
This coming season, Polian plans to introduce the "Wolf Pack Walk," in which his team will walk through tailgating areas en route to the stadium to try to energize fans. After games, players will join the student section in singing the alma mater.
"There isn't a lot of tradition here," Polian said. "That's the feedback I've gotten from the fan base. We're going to try to establish some tradition around here. We're going to try to engage the student body and sing the alma mater after football games."
So far, Nevada's students and fans have bought into the changes. The school announced last week that it has sold nearly 1,100 new season tickets and retained 86 percent of its season tickets sold last season. It's the largest increase in school history.
"Excitement and energy in the stands is a pivotal part of game day," Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth said in a release from the school. "This is an exciting time for Nevada and we're focused on pushing those numbers higher and higher."
Like Polian did throughout his career path, he will make calculated decisions and changes in his first season as a head coach. He has consulted with Ault, the man who built the program. Ault currently works as an offensive consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"One of the misconceptions out there is Chris and I don't get along," Polian said. "He's made himself available, and I've reached out to him. Every job is unique and presents its own set of challenges. There is no one on this campus who knows the ins and outs of this program more than Chris. He built it from the ground up. More than anyone, he built Nevada football."
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- Winston not charged in sexual assault case
- Duke's Cutcliffe wins Camp coach of year
- Clearing Winston creates financial benefits
- Source: Wash. lines up Bama OC, Petersen