Forget everything you think you know about Nevada Wolf Pack sports.
The Wolf Pack as you knew it is gone. Think vanished Park Lane Mall with El Pollo Loco wrappers blowing across the parking lot. The Wolf Pack you grew up with is gone.
Deserted. Abandoned. Melted away like the Wicked Witch of the West.
No, nobody had to toss a house on anyone. A couple of them simply retired. But it was time. Change, judging by all the empty seats at Mackay Mausoleum and Laid-Back Lawlor lately, was mandatory. Wolf Pack sports, after all, has become as stale as aerating your lawn.
The Wolf Pack is currently shedding its skin. If you look close enough, you may still see some slivers of dried up old skin around campus. You know, a slice of Chris Ault there. A chunk of Cary Groth here. But that’s only until the next wind blows in off Peavine.
And then it will all be gone.
There has been a true silver and blue metamorphosis over the last 12 months. No, the campus hasn’t moved to Fernley. The school colors are still silver and blue. Wolf Pack is still two words. Alphie hasn’t been replaced by the KBUL bull.
But that’s about all you’ll recognize come this fall.
Walking around the Nevada campus these days is sort of like coming home from college for the summer to find out your mom and dad moved to Ohio. It’s the same house you grew up in. But new people will be sitting across from you at the breakfast table. The Pride of the Sierra, we’re sad to report, has been changed to the Pride of the Never-Ending Search Committee.
Over the past year the university named a new president. It found a new head football coach. It picked a new athletic director. It changed conferences. It was less confusing when Bewitched changed Darrins. At least Samantha still called him Darrin.
The times, they have a changed. The White House didn’t have as much turnover in the last election as the Wolf Pack in the last year. The Silver and Blue House, though, now has a new family sleeping in the Jake Lawlor bedroom and working in the Chris Ault Oval Office.
Meet the new Pack. Nothing like the old Pack.
Ask your great grandfather what it’s like not to have either the Wolf Pack athletic director or the head football coach -- or both -- holding a degree from the University of Nevada. Your father never experienced it. And his father only heard the elders tell stories about it.
But that’s where we find ourselves up on north Virginia Street now for the first tie in about six decades. Strangers have moseyed into town and taken over the mayor’s office and the jail.
The Wolf Pack, on purpose or not (we can’t tell), has now made its biggest problem -- trying to engage an apathetic community -- even bigger. A community that has all but abandoned the university’s sports teams now feels more distant than ever before from the silver and blue.
“It’s going to take time,” new athletic director Doug Knuth said Thursday.
You bet it will.
The Wolf Pack, Knuth will find out, is not an easy fix. There’s just been too much change at the university over the past 20 years for the community to feel like it truly belongs there anymore. There’s no community feel at the university anymore.
The University of Nevada used to be merely the biggest school in town, sort of an overgrown Reno, Sparks or Bishop Manogue High. Most of the athletes were Nevadans. The connection between the university and the community was the same connection one had with his or her uncles and cousins.
But now the university is looked upon as nothing more than another giant mall with bad parking that is simply trying to sell you things whether you want them or not. The connection between the community and the university is about the same as the connection between the community and Meadowood Mall. The mall doesn’t give you a diploma but you can get a really neat cell phone.
Knuth did the best he could to get everyone excited on Thursday. And the folks who were there, loyal Wolf Pack supporters and employees, were either paid to be excited or too nervous not to be.
“I wish I could move here tomorrow,” said Knuth, who still works at the University of Utah, “but my wife wouldn’t like that.”
Knuth is the new breed of athletic director. He says all the right things, shakes all the right hands, tells all the right jokes at all the right times, schmoozes all the right boosters. He didn’t end his little pep talk on Thursday with a ‘I’m Doug Knuth and I approve this message,’ but you wanted to vote for him and have him pose for a photo with your baby just the same.
That’s an athletic director these days. The era of the athletic director as the crusty, two-fisted, beer-drinking old football or basketball coach who grunts at people in suits and ties, is long gone. Those guys, unfortunately, didn’t know how to raise any money. They just knew how to coach your son or daughter and win championships.
The Doug Knuths of the world know how to raise money. It’s what they do. Well, at least that’s what their resume says they do. And if they don’t, well, there’s always another Doug Knuth to replace the one you have. They are simply smooth used car salesmen who will toss in a new life insurance policy if you buy the car. They could be running Meadowood Mall just as easily as they could run an athletic department.
Knuth’s used car is the Wolf Pack athletic department. Oh, he’ll put new tires on it. Might even give it a new paint job and tune it up. But it’s still the same car. You know it. He knows it. His job, though, is to make you forget it.
Knuth talked about things like comprehensive excellence, the power of positive athletics and how he wants to invite and energize people to support the program. He said the student athletes will be put at the top of the Wolf Pack organizational chart and he doesn’t want any of them to leave school without a degree or a championship.
“It’s symbolic but it’s real,” Knuth said.
It was a nice speech. But it didn’t mean anything. Then again, it’s not supposed to mean anything. All it’s designed to do is to make you feel good about Wolf Pack athletics. Boosters all over the state will hear the same little talk. It’s the same little talk all athletic directors give. If you go on YouTube and find Doc Martie’s first press conference back in 1923 you’ll probably hear the same things.
It’s what you say if you are the athletic director. It’s what you say when you interview to become an athletic director. Athletic directors, after all, are always in interview mode. They don’t have to actually do any of the things they talk about. They just have to say them.
It’s symbolic. Not real.
Knuth, though, will find out that not all of his student athletes will get a degree. Even fewer will win a championship. And the day a student athlete can fire a coach is the day the student athlete is truly at the top of the organizational chart.
Knuth, though, is a salesman. His job is to sell you things.
Whether you want them or not.
That’s never going to change.