Nick Rolovich and Tom Mason will give homecoming a new meaning on Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium.
Nobody will blame Rolovich, the Nevada Wolf Pack’s offensive coordinator, or Mason, the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors defensive coordinator, if their thoughts wander for just a moment or two to the opposite sideline during this Mountain West homecoming game in northern Nevada. Both coaches, after all, not only played but also coached for each other’s team before landing in their current job. Mason played linebacker at Nevada during coach Chris Ault’s first two seasons in 1976 and 1977 and then returned to the Pack in the late 1990s as a defensive coordinator under coach Jeff Tisdel, his former quarterback at Nevada. Rolovich played quarterback at Hawaii in 2000 and 2001 and also was the Rainbow Warriors quarterback coach and offensive coordinator from 2008-11.
Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian is well aware of Rolovich’s strong ties to Hawaii.
“Nick Rolovich is like an honorary Polynesian from his time at the University of Hawaii,” Polian smiled. “Sometimes I think he thinks he’s Polynesian.”
Polian saw Rolovich’s connection to Hawaii up close last year when the Pack played the Rainbow Warriors in Honolulu. “Rolo is the only guy I know from the Bay Area that can walk around Hawaii and people just stop and recognize him,” Polian said. “I’ve said this before but it’s like walking around with Elvis.”
Even better, it’s like walking around Hawaii with a former Rainbow Warriors quarterback who once threw for 500 or more yards in three consecutive games. Subbing for injured starter Timmy Chang in 2001, Rolovich won eight of nine games. In one of those games he completed 29-of-52 passes for 543 yards and eight touchdowns in a 72-45 victory over BYU on Dec. 8, 2001, one day after the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Mason, in his first year at Hawaii, was already two decades into his coaching career by 2001, his first of seven seasons at Fresno State.
“I know Nick really well,” said Mason, who was SMU’s defensive coordinator in 2009 when the Mustangs, coached by former Hawaii head coach June Jones, dominated the Pack 45-10 in the Hawaii Bowl. “I have a lot of respect for him. He’s one of the outstanding young coordinators in the country right now. He does a great job with that offense.”
Mason, though, knows all eyes will be on his defense on Saturday as it tries to contain Rolovich’s offense.
“We’ll be ready for them,” Mason said. “We’ll have a little something for Nick, too.”
The war of wits between Mason and Rolovich will likely go a long way in determining the final score on Saturday. The numbers, though, suggest Rolovich will be the one smiling after the game. Hawaii’s defense is 12th in the 12-team Mountain West, allowing 429 yards a game while the Wolf Pack’s offense is sixth at 389.4 yards a game. Hawaii is also 10th in points allowed at 32 a game while the Pack’s offense is 8th at 27.7 a game. Hawaii’s defense also allows the most first downs each game in the Mountain West (25.1) while the Pack’s offense is third in the league at 21.7.
Though Mason and Rolovich have never squared off before, Mason facing the Wolf Pack and Rolovich facing Hawaii isn’t anything new. This will be Mason’s 14th game against the Pack and Rolovich’s fourth against Hawaii. Mason is 8-5 against the Pack while Rolovich is 3-0 against Hawaii. Much of Mason’s success at Nevada came while he was at Fresno from 2001-07 (6-1 record). He was 0-2 against the Pack while at Eastern Washington from 1981-85 and 1-2 while at Boise State from 1993-96 in addition to the bowl victory while at SMU in 2009.
He now brings all of that experience to Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors have lost four games in a row to the Pack. “We were very fortunate to get a coach of his caliber,” Hawaii head coach Norm Chow said of Mason.
Mason’s SMU defense held the Pack to just 137 yards rushing in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl. The Pack that season, thanks to 1,000-yard rushers Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott, had averaged 360 yards a game on the ground entering the game. It helped Mason and SMU, however, that SMU jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead and the Pack had to all but abandon the ground game in the second half (the Pack averaged 4.0 yards a carry on 34 attempts). The Wolf Pack was also without Lippincoott and Taua in the game.
Rolovich’s offense has scored 126 points in three games against Hawaii, though 69 of them came in 2012 when he had a little help from Ault and Stefphon Jefferson’s seven touchdowns.
This game, though, might have deeper meaning for Rolovich and Mason than just how it affects the current Mountain West standings. Chow, now in his fourth season at Hawaii, has just a 10-34 record and is 1-21 on the road. Chow is also just 4-23 in Mountain West games. Both Mason and Rolovich will be among the first candidates mentioned if and when the Hawaii job opens up. Mason, who was an interim head coach at SMU and at Boise State, was interested in the Wolf Pack top job when Ault retired after the 2012 season. And the Hawaii boosters might like to see Elvis take over the program and restore the glory years.
Rolovich, though, needs to restore the glory years of the Wolf Pack offense before he worries about Hawaii. Polian has made no secret of the fact in recent games about his disappointment in the Pack offense. The Pack scored just 17 points aganst UNLV and 21 at Wyoming in stunning losses and 24 in a narrow win at Buffalo.
“We’ve got to finish drives,” Polian said. “We need to stop stalling in that no-man’s land around the 30-yard line. We have to stop the self-inflicted wounds ans finish drives and find a way to keep going.”