Wayne Nunnely is part of that group of football coaches that for years has attempted to turn UNLV into a winning program, or at least one in which a mere mention of the Rebels doesn’t always end in a punch line. It is a colossal challenge for whomever happens to be in charge at the time.
It’s nothing, though, compared to what Nunnely must prepare a group of players for today.
Signing enough talented recruits and beating the likes of Fresno State and Utah State proved difficult enough in the mid-to-late 1980s, but now Nunnely must produce from an NFL defensive line results most consider impracticable: finding a way to pressure and contain Tom Brady enough to deny the Patriots a berth in the Super Bowl.
Under Nunnely, UNLV lost to Houston 69-0 in opening the 1989 season, which probably doesn’t seem all that dreadful now when he looks at tape of Brady and Randy Moss and Wes Welker and fill-in-your-weapon-of-choice-here.
“This is my 13th season in the NFL and by far the furthest I have been in the playoffs,” said Nunnely, defensive line coach for the Chargers and the fourth-longest tenured position coach in team history at 11 years. “I tell our young guys all the time — especially the rookies — not to think of this as habit.
“It doesn’t happen every year. To get this far, it’s huge for all of us.”
The Chargers are two-touchdown underdogs in the AFC Championship Game at Foxborough, Mass., to stop New England’s continued pursuit of perfection, a rematch of the NFL’s second week when the Patriots rolled 38-14 in the same venue and Brady threw for three scores. It’s different now, the Chargers promise. Eight straight wins prove that. Early season adversity has made them stronger, wiser, better.
It’s also not the first time Nunnely has tried conquering that which is perceived impossible.
He once lived another kind of coaching dream — playing fullback for UNLV in 1972 and ’73 and later returning as a Rebels assistant before being named head coach in 1986. Four years later, though, he had one winning season, an overall record of 19-25 and was gone.
He doesn’t understand the consistent failure, but who does? UNLV coaches since Nunnely departed are a combined 64-142. No one has proven capable of changing the culture, only of knowing how to lose.
“I know Mike (Sanford) and his staff are working hard to make it happen,” said Nunnely, who at 55 has worked on staffs with UNLV’s current head coach at Southern California and the Chargers. “But to think it still hasn’t taken off under anyone since I left …
“My record wasn’t by any means successful, either. And yet it’s disappointing as an alum the program hasn’t gone in a winning direction. You always want your alma mater to do well. Graduating from UNLV was one of the highlights of my life, and coming back as its head coach was the greatest point in my career at the time.”
Today is different because there is no greater goal for an NFL coach than to reach a season’s final game, and just the idea of being 60 minutes from those Roman numerals XLII causes one to prepare in ways unlike a normal Sunday.
When he wasn’t wishing lineman Igor Olshansky hadn’t momentarily lost all faculties by ignorantly stating the Patriots were the more concerned bunch about today’s game, Nunnely this past week was taping large action shots of New England’s offensive players to a board that also lists each opposing player’s height and weight.
Then, on individual evaluation forms his linemen fill out weekly on whoever will be crouching across from them, Nunnely placed a mug shot of that particular Patriot.
Get the idea?
“I want them to see the guy they’ll be going against,” Nunnely said. “I want them to see his face and look into his eyes.
“As a team, we really just have to do what we have done the last eight to 10 weeks. To compare either team from the season’s second week to now, it’s hard. They were the better team that night. We’re a much better team now than then.”
Wayne Nunnely used to recruit Las Vegas when the valley had fewer than 10 high schools. He used to drive down Maryland Parkway, turn on Tropicana Avenue, cross Boulder Highway and see nothing but desert landscape. No houses, no strip malls, no anything. He used to think there might not be a more imposing hurdle to scale than making UNLV football a winner.
Today — if you can believe it — he and the Chargers encounter one.
Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.