Chris Ault was already a College Football Hall of Famer when he returned to the sideline in 2004 for his third head-coaching stint at his alma mater, the University of Nevada, Reno. But his biggest contribution to the game was still ahead of him.
In 2005, Ault installed his Pistol offense, a hybrid of the traditional shotgun and single-back sets. Two years later, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick deftly piloting the offense at UNR, the Pistol took off, and today it can be found at every level of football, including the NFL.
On February 3, Ault’s creation—once thought to be a gimmick—will be on display for the world to see when his former pupil Kaepernick leads the San Francisco 49ers against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Ault, the only college football coach whose team has led the nation in passing offense (1995) and rushing offense (2009), resigned from UNR on Dec. 28, days after his Wolf Pack gave up a 13-point lead with less than two minutes left in the New Mexico Bowl, losing 49-48 to Arizona. That defeat left the 66-year-old Ault with a 233-109-1 record in 28 seasons with the Wolf Pack.
How gratifying is it to see an offensive scheme that you created gain legitimacy at football’s highest level?
It’s unbelievable. The last three years, the Pistol has branched tremendously at the college level; it’s all over the country. And I really thought, “They’re looking at it as a college offense, and that’s great.” I really never gave it much thought for the NFL, because that league is pretty much a copycat, and you don’t do things like this. I’m so excited. When I saw the Washington Redskins and the 49ers run it, I just thought, “Boy, it’s a new era.”
When did you first realize that Kaepernick was a perfect fit to run the Pistol?
When we recruited him—2006 was his [redshirt] year—that was only our second year running the Pistol. So he was recruited like we recruit every other quarterback, to come in and learn the system and see if he’s growing into it. When he came here, he was a decent player but wasn’t anything that you’d say, “Boy, that’s the next guy.”
In his redshirt freshman year, he was the backup to Nick Graziano, who broke his foot in the fifth game. Kap went into that game and played extremely well for not playing one snap prior to it, and he’s never looked back.
Even with Kaepernick’s accomplishments at UNR, did you think he would be this successful in the NFL?
I felt that if he got a chance he would be. This successful and this fast? No, nobody could have known that. And that’s a tremendous compliment to [49ers offensive coordinator] Greg Roman and [head coach] Jim Harbaugh of recognizing his talents and athleticism, and putting him in an offense that he can understand and can manage. He looks comfortable in what he’s doing.
With the success of the Pistol in the NFL, should we expect to see you on an NFL coaching staff next season?
We’ll see. It certainly has opened some dialogue with some people—nothing serious, nothing concrete—but if I could help somebody and be of value to them on the offensive side of the ball or wherever, I certainly would be interested.
How much bearing did the way last season ended have on you stepping down as head coach?
Well, quite a bit, to be honest with you. Our resources here just aren’t very good, and our product has clearly exceeded our resources through the last seven, eight years. And not having the money you’ve got to have to hire people and retain them, it finally wore on me. Our defense here through the years, even when we’ve won championships, it’s been very inconsistent. And when we lost that last game to Arizona, that was the final straw. You get 659 yards on offense and score 48 points and lose the ballgame—and, you know, I’m the head coach; I’m responsible for that—but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get my defensive staff to clearly mandate what we had to get done defensively. And I think what happened is they became so reliant on the Pistol scoring points and taking care of business that—I don’t want to say there wasn’t a sense of urgency, because I had some good defensive coaches—I just don’t think the demands on how you have to play defense were met. And I take responsibility for that. But under the circumstances, I took the program as far as it could go.
As someone who has bled Wolf Pack blue most of your life, how much do you revel in UNLV football’s struggles?
You know, there was really no competition when I came up here. When I was at UNLV as an assistant (1973-74), we would kick the dog out of Nevada. Nevada wasn’t ready to compete, but that playing field has been leveled—and then some.
I really feel strongly about this, and I’ve said it many times: There are only two universities [in Nevada]; you want both those programs to be strong, because then when you play, it’s certainly more meaningful. Absolutely, I want to beat them every time we play, but I’ve been through eight coaches there. And the difference between our program and theirs is stability, there’s no question about it. The one thing I admire about UNLV is they’re trying to improve the program. I’m just one of those guys who feels it’s better for both teams to be good than to have one side dominate the other.
Why does the UNLV-UNR rivalry seem to mean more to Northern Nevadans than Southern Nevadans?
I’ll be honest with you: I’ve made it that way. When I came back here—I’m an alum—there wasn’t much up here in terms of tradition. … Before I came back, [the Wolf Pack] were struggling, even to the point that UNLV dropped us [as a football opponent in the early 1980s]. That really set me off, and it took us a few years to get it back. To me, it’s very important to understand that every time you play, you’re playing for a championship, and it’s grown from there. I’ve been fortunate that it is a big part of our program up here, and the people of Northern Nevada certainly have bought into it in terms of the game itself and the Fremont Cannon.
As someone who is recognized as a Hall of Famer in his sport, what are your thoughts on Jerry Tarkanian not yet being recognized as a Hall of Famer in his?
I thought he already was. Well, I can’t answer to that, but he’s had my vote.
Is there anything about Las Vegas or UNLV that you will admit that you like?
[Laughs.] Let me tell you something, and I speak publicly about this, even in Reno: UNLV gave me my first opportunity [to coach] at the collegiate level. And that was Bill Ireland, who was the athletic director, and [head coach] Ron Meyer. And I have never, ever, ever forgotten that. I have never been disrespectful—oh, I’ll say some funny things [about UNLV], but I have always appreciated that opportunity. And when that 1974 team went into the UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame—I was an assistant coach [that year]—I was very proud to be a part of that. So deep down inside, yeah, I’m about rivalry and all that stuff. But I have never, ever forgotten what UNLV gave me an opportunity to do.