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November 24, 2010

Nevada packs a punch with Ault's 'Pistol'

When Chris Vargas quarterbacked Nevada in the early 1990s, he asked his coach why the Wolf Pack never used the shotgun.

At the time, coach Chris Ault had transitioned from a two-back, run-heavy team to a one-back set that provided more balance.

"We don't run the shotgun," Vargas recalls Ault saying at the time. "Too many bad things can happen with the snap. Your eyes aren't on the defense because you're looking for the snap."

True to Ault's word, Nevada never has run the shotgun. At the same time, Ault has not been stubborn when it comes to changing offenses. He morphed his system from the Wing T to a single-back set before inventing the "Pistol" formation -- a variation of the shotgun -- five years ago. Now, Ault's offense is the last real barrier between Boise State and an unbeaten season that could end in the national title game. The teams meet Friday night in Reno.

Ault is college football's forgotten Hall-of-Famer and an overlooked innovator. Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002, Ault and Penn State's Joe Paterno are the only active FBS coaches enshrined (Florida State's Bobby Bowden was a member of that elite fraternity until his retirement last year).

Ault, 64, has 212 wins at Nevada, helped tweak the overtime format during its infancy, invented the so-called "jailbreak screen" and, finally, developed the "Pistol," which has carried his program to new heights.

"He wants to continually move forward," says Vargas, Nevada's quarterback from 1990-93 and now the Wolf Pack's radio analyst. "He feels like if you're standing still, things are going to pass you by."

Ault was a Wing T quarterback at Nevada as a player from 1965-68. When he was hired as the Wolf Pack's head coach at age 29 in 1976, he installed the same system he used as a player.

"He'd beat you to death with a big offensive line and a great running back," says Ron Stephenson, a former Big Sky commissioner and a former associate athletic director at Boise State, which was a Big Sky rival of Nevada.

Ault still ran two-back sets into the 1980s, and Nevada won two Big Sky championships and made the Division I-AA playoffs seven times before moving up to Division I-A (now called FBS) in 1992. Ault's teams also passed enough to catch the eye of Vargas as a recruit in Sacramento, Calif. A quarterback at a rival high school, Eric Beavers, had gone to Nevada, and newspaper reports at home cited Beavers' passing numbers.

The numbers were aided, in part, by Ault's version of the wide receiver screen. In 1981, a Nevada wide receiver running a broken slant pattern still picked up about 15 yards. While watching film, Ault and his offensive staff drew up a screen that resembled the broken play. Voila -- the "jailbreak screen," also called a middle screen, was born.

Not that Vargas had much of a choice where he'd play college football, anyway. Like Nevada's current quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, Vargas received only one serious scholarship offer -- from Ault at Nevada. Vargas became the school's No. 4 career passer and the school's first I-A quarterback.

After the 1992 season, Ault stepped away from the field to serve solely as athletic director (he was football coach and AD from 1986-92). But Ault returned to the sideline in 1994 and '95, leading the Wolf Pack to the Big West title in each season with a single-back offense. He again stepped aside after the '95 season to focus on his AD responsibilities.

Ault returned to coaching after the 2003 season, when he fired Chris Tormey. He guided Nevada to a disappointing 5-7 record in 2004, and Ault knew he needed to improve the Wolf Pack's rushing attack; he also knew he wanted the quarterback to be more involved in the running game while still able to use play-action passes and occasional drop-back passes. Still not a fan of the shotgun, he instead asked his quarterback to line up closer to the center, in a modified version of the shotgun he dubbed the "Pistol." In his formation, the quarterback lines up 4 yards behind the center, rather than the 7 yards in the shotgun.

"There was nothing to look at. There was no film. There was no one to talk to," Ault says. "When I talked to other coaches, they thought, 'He's losing it.' "

His coaching colleagues weren't the only ones. The first Nevada quarterback to run the pistol was Jeff Rowe, who thought the formation was "a joke" at first. Spring practice in 2005 wasn't easy.

"He wanted to see if the center could make the snap, and the ball kept getting snapped over my head," Rowe says. "I was thinking, 'We're never going to get the snap.' "

But Nevada eventually learned the nuances of the new formation and went 9-3 overall and 7-1 in the WAC to share the conference title that season.

In two seasons with Rowe in the "Pistol," Nevada rolled up 5,392 yards in 2005 and 4,648 in '06, when Rowe battled injuries. Then Kaepernick took over midway through 2007, and the offense reached a new level.

Kaepernick made the first start of his career in Game 6 that season -- against Boise State. He passed for 243 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns before the Wolf Pack fell short 69-67 on a failed two-point conversion in the fourth overtime.

Last season, Nevada became the first team in NCAA history with three 1,000-yard rushers as Kaepernick and running backs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott each reached the plateau. In addition, Ault last season became the first coach in NCAA history to have his team lead the nation in rushing offense and passing offense (1995) in a career.

California coach Jeff Tedford, whose team was torched for 316 rushing yards in a 52-31 loss to Nevada earlier this season, said the system's amount of "moving parts" makes it difficult to defend. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who installed the formation this season, described simply it as a veer offense run from the shotgun.

"There's some jerk to it," Neuheisel says. "There's some counter to it -- people are trying to keep track of where the ball is. Schematically, there's nothing really complex, but keeping track of the ballhandling and who's got the potato, so to speak, is a little bit more difficult than you can get ready for."

UCLA and Indiana are the other programs that run their offenses exclusively out of the formation. Alabama, Arkansas (where former Nevada offensive coordinator Chris Klenakis is line coach), Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and even Boise State are among the other schools that have incorporated parts of the formation in the past few seasons.

While the "Pistol" has contributed to Nevada's success since Ault's return to coaching, he did his part earlier in his career, as well.

He was coach when the Wolf Pack moved from Division II to Division I-AA in 1979, from I-AA to Division I-A in 1992 and to the WAC in 2001. Earlier this year, it was announced that Nevada will join the Mountain West in 2012.

As a coach in the Big Sky Conference, Ault helped shape college football's current overtime format. At the time, the Big Sky had the teams start each OT possession at the 15-yard line. In a 1980 coaches' meeting, Ault proposed moving the starting point back to the 25 because it was too easy to score from the 15. All divisions eventually adopted that format.

Stephenson was in the Big Sky when the overtime format changed; he also took some heated phone calls from the coach as league commissioner.

"During the season, Chris can be a little fireball," Stephenson says. "He's got a temper, no question about it."

But Stephenson also says Ault is a great guy in the offseason. Ault doesn't mind spreading the "Pistol" gospel, frequently welcoming coaches to Reno to explain the nuances of the offense and also giving clinics.

Joe Crowley arrived at Nevada in 1966 as a professor, and was elevated to university president in 1978. When Dick Trachok, Ault's former coach, retired from the AD position, Crowley turned to Ault. Even when Ault was a player, he made an impression on the future president.

"He was clearly not a tall fellow, but he had this great in-charge attitude," Crowley says. "I talked to guys who played with him, bulky linemen who said there was never any doubt who was in charge of that football team."

When Ault was hired as athletic director in 1986, former or current coaches were more likely to serve as ADs. He served as both coach and athletic director until 1993, when he stepped down to focus more on fundraising. He promoted Jeff Horton from wide receiver coach and the Wolf Pack went 7-4. But at the end of that season, Horton -- now the interim coach at Minnesota -- stunned and irked Ault by leaving for the coaching job at UNLV.

Ault returned to the sideline and took Nevada to its first bowl game in 1995. He stepped down again after that season to serve as full-time athletic director.

Nevada athletics operated on a small budget, and Crowley says Ault spent more time worrying about Nevada's finances than his own.

"I don't think he knew what his salary was," Crowley says. "In my time as president and his as coach and athletic director, I cannot recall a single conversation about salary. It's not at the top of his agenda."

As AD, Ault helped improve the basketball program by hiring Trent Johnson, who led the Wolf Pack to its first NCAA tournament in 19 years.

After the football program slipped under Jeff Tisdel and Tormey (a combined 47-53 in seven seasons), Ault fired Tormey and started a search for a new coach in 2003. A day before Ault left Reno to interview coaching candidates, boosters and community leaders pressed then-school president John Lilly to ask Ault if he would be interested in a return to coaching.

"I said I'd like to," Ault says. "I'll end my career here on the sideline at Nevada."

Ault has his critics, though. There's that temper, and some boosters were not pleased at the way 2009 finished, with a 45-10 loss to SMU in the Hawaii Bowl. Nevada went 8-5 overall and 7-1 in the WAC, but the Wolf Pack weren't competitive in high-profile non-conference games and suffered their 10th consecutive loss to Boise State. And despite all the gaudy numbers and the winning seasons, Nevada hasn't produced what could be called a "signature win" in Ault's third stint as coach. Friday's game in Reno against Boise State certainly would count in that regard.

And even if Nevada loses, this could turn out to be the best season of Ault's long career. He has his own flexibility to thank.

"Some guys get stuck only being one way," Vargas says. "He's been able to roll with the times and be able to be open to making changes and adapt to the game."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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