The most significant figure in the history of Nevada Wolf Pack sports is no longer associated with the university.
Head football coach Chris Ault, who spent four decades as a Wolf Pack athlete, coach and administrator, announced his retirement Friday afternoon at Legacy Hall.
“Change is inevitable,” Ault said, fighting back his emotions in the Hall of Fame room of Legacy Hall, the building he helped build as athletic director from 1986-2004. “It is with great humility and mixed emotions that I’ve decided it’s time for me to step down and move on.”
Ault, who said he didn’t tell anyone of his decision to retire before Friday but his wife Kathy and university president Marc Johnson, said he had taken Wolf Pack football as far as it could go given the current athletic budget problems at the university.
“Wolf Pack football has gone about as far as it can go under these circumstances,” Ault said.
Ault, who led the Wolf Pack to a 7-6 record in his final two seasons, finishes his Nevada coaching career with a record of 233-109-1 in 28 seasons. Ault led the Wolf Pack to 10 bowl games (2-8 record) in his 12 seasons as a Division I-A coach and to six appearances in the Division I-AA playoffs in his first 16 seasons.
“I have been very privileged to have been here as a student, a coach and an administrator my whole adult life,” the 66-year-old Ault said, “and everything I value in life has revolved around this university.”
Ault’s 1990 team advanced to the I-AA national championship game against Georgia Southern and lost 36-13. He also had a .500 record or better in 25 of his 28 seasons including six seasons of 11 or more victories.
“It’s been an incredible journey and one, I think, will stand the test of time,” Ault said.
Ault’s 233 victories are the most by far of any of the 24 head coaches in the 116-year history of Wolf Pack football. In second place is Dick Trachok, who won 40 games from 1959-68 and was the coach who brought Ault to Nevada to play quarterback from Pacific High in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1965.
“It’s a sad day,” said Reno mayor Bob Cashell, a long-time Ault supporter. “It’s a very sad day. But I can understand why he made his decision. It was time.”
Ault leaves a program after what is likely his most frustrating season as head coach. The Pack lost five of its last six games after a 6-1 start to finish 7-6, including a last-minute 49-48 loss to the Arizona Wildcats in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15 in Albuquerque.
The next head coach, though, will inherit Cody Fajardo with two more years of eligibility at quarterback, all of the starting wide receivers and senior running back Stefphon Jefferson, who is currently second in the nation in rushing.
“I’m excited for the next guy who comes in,” Ault said. “Whoever takes the program over will say, ‘You know what? There’s something here. The cupboard is not bare.’”
Ault, who began his coaching career at Churchill County High School in 1968, had three distinct eras as Wolf Pack head football coach. He was hired in December 1975 as the youngest head coach in the nation at 29-years-old. He retired the first time after the Pack’s first season in Division I-A in 1992 to concentrate on his duties as athletic director. His second era lasted just two seasons when he went 9-2 in 1994 and 9-3 in 1995. His third and final era began in 2004 and lasted through this past season. Ault’s Pack teams were 70-46 from 2004-12, 18-5 from 1994-95 and 145-58-1 from 1976-92.
“I will never forget the players and coaches who became my extended family for 28 years,“ said Ault, who came back to Nevada in 1976 after three seasons as an assistant at UNLV. “Any success I’ve enjoyed has been because of the efforts of others.”
Wolf Pack athletic director Cary Groth, who has said she will retire from the university this spring, praised Ault.
“If it wasn’t for what he did as athletic director and football coach here I wouldn’t have come to this university,” said Groth, who replaced Ault as athletic director in 2004. “I don’t know if I’ve ever worked for a finer man.”
Ault denied that he has any interest in the Nevada athletic director position. But he didn’t rule out the possibility that he would return someday to coaching at another university or the NFL.
“I haven’t ruled it in, either,” he smiled. “Who knows? This has been my life. I’m not going to use the word retire because it’s not in my vocabulary. Do I have anything waiting for me? No.”
Cashell said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Ault coaching as soon as next year.
“Somebody will offer him a job, that’s for sure,” Cashell said.
Politics, Cashell said, is probably not in Ault’s future.
“He’s not crazy,” the mayor smiled.
Whatever his next challenge turns out to be, it won’t be with the Wolf Pack, Ault said.
“For the University of Nevada, this is it for me,” he said.
Ault said the university’s budget concerns are the main reason he felt the time was right for him to step away. “I want to be a Top 25 program,” he said. “There are so many intangibles here that I feel have affected that. Those variables have come into play. The time is just right for me to do this now.”
Ault is expected to be an advisor to Johnson and Groth concerning the hiring of the new football coach and athletic director.
“I don’t want to pick the next coach,” Ault said. “But I would hope that the university would take advantage of my knowledge. I will certainly lend my support in any way they need.”
Ault’s influence on Wolf Pack football won’t soon be forgotten.
“His greatest strength was his ability to fit whatever talent he had at the time to his system,” said former Wolf Pack quarterback Jeff Rowe, who now works for the university in fundraising for the football program. “He was always able to adapt and use his talent to the best of their abilities. I’m not Colin Kaepernick and Cody (Fajardo) is not Colin Kaepernick. But all three of us were successful in the pistol offense under coach Ault.”
Assistant football coach Ken Wilson, who began his Wolf Pack career in 1989 under Ault, said the program is sort of in limbo right now.
“There will be changes on the staff,” Wilson said. “How much, I don’t know. I’m happy for Coach Ault and the decision he made. I believe he’s at peace with it. But what happens now, I don’t know. I do know that a lot of great coaches will want this job.”
The Wolf Pack coaching changes won’t be limited to the head coaching position.
Defensive line coach Barry Sacks has already accepted a similar position with California. Tight ends and offensive tackles coach James Spady has been connected with open positions at Southern University (head coach) and Louisiana Tech (offensive line). Ault also expects offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich to take the same position at Temple in the next few days.
“This program isn’t decimated,” Wilson said. “The head coach wasn’t fired or anything like that. So I do feel that some of the assistants will return.”
Wilson added that he would hope that Johnson and Groth would consider someone with a Wolf Pack football background for the job of head coach.
“Hopefully someone with a knowledge of the program will be able to get a look,” said Wilson, who wouldn’t say whether or not he would be interested in the job.
Ault said he didn’t start to think about retirement until after the bowl game loss to Arizona.
“The last two weeks has given me time to think about where we’re at with this football program and where we’re going,” Ault said. “I didn’t discuss this with anybody but Kathy and I only met with President Johnson twice. The first time he told me to take a week to think about it. I just felt that this was the best time to do it.”
Ault said the future of Wolf Pack football will be in good hands.
“This is an exciting time for the community,” Ault said. “A new vision will come into Wolf Pack football with a new coach and a new athletic director. I believe Wolf Pack football has a firmly established blueprint for success that can be sustained.”