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For Nevada coach Polian, Buffalo still feels like home

Brian Polian’s coaching career got its start when he decided to quit the varsity basketball team as a senior at St. Francis High School and coach the St. Francis grammar school’s eighth-grade boys team.

It wasn’t much of a sacrifice. Polian was a backup point guard who says his role was to collect splinters and draw charging fouls late in games. Little did he realize, the eighth-graders would change his life.

“After about two weeks, I was absolutely bitten by the bug,” Polian recalls. “I loved every minute of it. I loved practice. I loved being with the kids. I came home and I told my dad, ‘I absolutely love this.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ ”

Bill Polian, then general manager of the Buffalo Bills, was apprehensive for the second-youngest of his four children because of the low job security and nomadic lifestyle of the coaching profession.

But 23 years later, the career decision has worked out pretty great.

Brian Polian, now 40, has enjoyed a dramatic rise in the college football coaching ranks. He’s in his third year as head coach at the University of Nevada and brings his Wolf Pack team to Amherst on Saturday for a personal homecoming game against the University at Buffalo.

Polian is the seventh-youngest head coach in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. He has had an amazing string of mentors since he finished playing linebacker for Division III John Carroll University in 1996.

That year, Brian worked as a coaching intern with the Carolina Panthers, who had hired Bill Polian as GM. Bill told Panthers linebackers coach Kevin Steele to give his son a “Coaching Bootcamp 101.” Steele went on to become head coach at Baylor and now is defensive coordinator at LSU.

Thus, Brian’s coaching travels began. He was a graduate assistant under Nick Saban at Michigan State. His full-time assistant gigs have included stints under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw at Stanford and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M.

But his first coaching mentor was Bills coach Marv Levy. A young Polian held Levy’s headset wires on the sidelines for most of the Bills’ Super Bowl years.

He couldn’t help but learn.

“To think that I was on the hip of a Hall of Famer is incredible,” Polian said. “I was learning football like anybody would be hanging around there. … Marv would never embarrass a player in front of his peers. If he had something he wanted addressed, he would always do it in private. That’s a lesson I learned at 14 years old that I try to take with me today as a head coach.”

Polian’s best moment on the Bills’ sidelines is no surprise.

“My most vivid memory of a game is the Houston comeback,” Polian said. “I was the guy standing next to Marv. When Steve Christie made the field goal to win the game, Marv turned around. I’m sure he wasn’t looking for me. But I was right there, and we shared a really big hug and both took off running. I was just a senior in high school, but that memory will be with me forever.”

Polian’s first full-time assistant job was at UB as special teams coach under Jim Hofher from 2001 to 2003. (Hofher now is assistant head coach to Polian at Nevada.)

“My wife and I had just met, and we lived in an apartment on Elmwood Avenue in the city,” Polian said. “It was a great time in my life. I learned what it took from Jim Hofher to build a program. Unfortunately Jim never got to see the fruition of all of his work. But Turner Gill won a MAC championship with a lot of Jim’s players.”

Now Polian is trying to recruit players to Reno, Nev., and it’s one of his strengths. As a 34-year-old aide at Notre Dame, Polian’s relentless pursuit of linebacker Manti Te’o convinced the high school All-American to go from Hawaii to South Bend, Ind. Polian flew to Hawaii 11 times over a 15-month period to woo Te’o, who became the cornerstone player in the Irish football revival.

Nevada dropped from 7-6 to 4-8 in Polian’s first year, which was no shock. The team had just 11 returning starters and played a tough schedule. But last season the Wolf Pack improved to 7-6 and went to the New Orleans Bowl.

The star quarterback from last year’s team is gone. But Nevada has a very strong defensive front seven and good skill players. It was picked for third in the Mountain West Conference West Division and is expected to go to another bowl.

Nevada (1-2) is coming off two losses to ranked teams. Polian was fined $10,000 by his own school last week after receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for arguing with officials during a loss to Arizona. Polian vows that he’s done harassing the refs.

It will come as no surprise to Bills fans that the younger Polian is a fiery competitor.

“My mother said something funny the other day,” Brian said. “The age I am now is about the same age my dad was when he took over the Bills. My mom said, ‘I’ve seen this movie before. You’ve gotta take a deep breath.’ ”

Polian loves Reno but always will consider Buffalo home.

“I was joking with my wife, Laura, who is from Buffalo, that when I go back every summer and land in Buffalo, I’m always at ease,” Polian said. “I always feel at home. … Eleven of my 40 years were spent in Western New York, that’s more than any other city, and it’s not even close. The only other place I spent a long time was five years at Notre Dame. So it’s my home, and I’ll always feel that way. So that makes this trip back this week unique.”

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com