PULLMAN – The setting will be familiar but the perspective will be alien when Jim Mastro paces the visiting sideline during his return to Nevada’s Mackay Stadium for Friday night’s game.
Though if Chris Ault – the most influential man in Wolf Pack football history – had his way, Washington State’s running backs coach would be on the opposite side of the field, holding a head coach’s clipboard.
Ault has been the paterfamilias of Wolf Pack football since he became the head coach of then-NCAA Division II UNR in 1976. The former Wolf Pack starting quarterback never had a losing season when he stepped down after a 9-3 campaign in 1995 that saw the team go undefeated in the Big West.
Since 1986 he had pulled double-duty as athletic director, and when the time came in 2004 to dismiss coach Chris Tormey after five subpar seasons, Ault made himself head coach.
When a lack of institutional support and the prospect of having to turn over his defensive staff drove Ault to resign in 2012, Mastro – who left Nevada for UCLA in 2010 after 10 seasons with the Wolf Pack because of similar frustrations with the lack of resources given to the program – was his first choice for successor.
“Jim was the guy I was supporting because he knew the Nevada way,” Ault said during a telephone interview with The Spokesman-Review. “We built this thing from the ground floor up and Jim saw all of it, and he was part of it, so he had a great understanding of where we came from, and that’s pretty important to know where you were and know where you want to go.”
Mastro was a holdover from Tormey’s staff, and within no time he became the head coach’s aide-de-camp. He coached the running backs and coordinated Nevada’s recruiting efforts.
“When we let Coach Tormey go, Jim was the first coach off that staff that I asked to stay,” Ault said.
And after a 5-7 record in Ault’s first season of his second stint as Nevada head coach – the only losing record of his coaching career – he and Mastro developed an offensive system that would eventually put Colin Kaepernick in the national spotlight before he became an NFL star and propel the former second-division program to its first appearance in the Associated Press Top 25 poll in more than 50 years.
The Pistol offense was constructed out of white tape over 10 days in February, when Ault and Mastro would sneak down to the Nevada locker room and conduct two-man walk-throughs, experimenting with different quarterback depths and running back positions and trying to visualize the effects different tape placements would have on a defense.
They came up with a hybrid scheme in which the quarterback lines up 4 yards behind the center, slightly more than halfway as far as a shotgun formation, with the running back 3 yards behind the quarterback.
The offense compromises between opposing shotgun and traditional systems by placing the quarterback close enough to the line of scrimmage to read a defense, but far enough back to give him more time and better vision of passing lanes.
It’s particularly effective with a mobile quarterback who provides enough flexibility to run read-option plays.
Every year after that during Mastro’s tenure at Nevada, the Wolf Pack had a 1,000-yard rusher. In 2009, both Luke Lippincott and Vai Taua crossed that threshold and the team led the nation in rushing.
“The mark he left was that if you were a pistol back at Nevada – we called it a Nevada back – that gave you the title,” Ault said. “When you were a Nevada back that was pretty special.”
So when Ault made the decision to step down as coach, it seemed natural that his successor should be the only coach who understood what made Nevada work like he did.
But the administrators had their own ideas for the future of the program. A search committee was formed and eventually chose Brian Polian, whose team went 4-8 in his inaugural 2013 season.
“I was pretty disappointed in that kind of process,” Ault said. “Whether Jim would be the guy hired or not, that wasn’t the issue. But nobody knew the program like I knew it. Nobody understood what they had to have like I did, and they went so doggone fast to try and get the process done that a guy like Jim didn’t get an opportunity.”
Mastro says that it doesn’t matter that he was never contacted about the job – he wouldn’t have accepted it anyway. Rather than head back to Nevada to coach, he pulled another former Wolf Pack coach to Pullman: linebackers coach Ken Wilson.
The pair have known each other since Wilson joined the Nevada staff in 2003 – his third stint with Ault in Reno. Mastro helped recruit Wilson to Pullman and now they live two doors down from each other.
“When I came up Jim was already living here and when we were separated and he was at UCLA we were still in contact constantly,” Wilson said. “… We’ve known each other a long time and we’re comfortable with each other, and our wives are close.”
Mastro played running back at Cal Poly when WSU head coach Mike Leach was starting his career as a graduate assistant, and the two briefly served on the same staff.
The two had long planned on reuniting, and since Mastro joined Leach’s staff in 2011 he has had opportunities to work in the NFL and rebuffed them. Apart from the chance to work with his friend, Mastro values the institutional support he never felt he had in Reno.
“You have an athletic director who gets it, we’re here for the long haul and we’re going to build this thing the right way,” Mastro said. “For an assistant coach, there probably isn’t a better job in America. I wouldn’t leave this place for anything.”
Ault isn’t the only coach who thinks Mastro would make a good head man. Leach says that if it’s what Mastro wanted to do he would be successful, and that he “knows football well, intellectually and instinctually.”
But Mastro’s return to Nevada for Friday’s game will be a one-time thing, at least for the near future. And that visiting sideline will still feel like home.
“This is the greatest coaching stop I’ve had. I love it here,” Mastro said. “I can’t see myself ever leaving unless there was something so good that Coach (Leach) kicked me out the door.”