LAS VEGAS — Nick Toth got fired from his first coaching job.
He was 8.
Fresno State's future defensive coordinator had one simple task to carry out for his father, the head coach at Central Catholic High in Toledo, Ohio: Carry the flip card with the defensive plays and stay close to Dad.
And little Nicholas failed.
"In the second quarter my buddies come running over. 'Hey, we're going up to the hill,' " Toth recalled in between game-planning sessions for Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against USC.
"I'm like, 'OK.' So I ran up the hill and took the card with me. And when they got back on defense my Dad doesn't have the card."
Toth and his friends were playing on one of the grassy areas that used to occupy the upper corners of the Glass Bowl when he heard someone shouting his name.
"I look down and it's one of my Dad's players. 'Come here, your Dad wants to see you.' I'm all, 'Uh oh,' " Toth said. "So I go down there and Dad takes the card and says, 'Go sit with your mother.'
"So I did, and after the game he broke it down and said, 'You're fired, and you need to earn it back.' It was brutal. Changed the rest of my life."
Nick Toth III (his father is Nick Toth Jr.) had to draw upon that lifetime of coaching lessons recently while up against the biggest challenge of his two-year tenure.
How would his defense respond after it was primarily to blame for the 62-52 loss to San Jose State that halted Fresno State's undefeated run?
Extremely well, actually.
The Bulldogs are not Mountain West Conference champions because Derek Carr passed for an obscene number of yards and touchdowns. Fresno State's offense committed five turnovers in that 24-17 victory over Utah State, including two Carr picks, and kept putting the defense in tough spots.
No matter. Toth's unit didn't allow a point until the fourth quarter (don't blame the defense for that wacky 86-yard fumble return just before halftime), held Utah State to 304 yards and sacked the quarterback eight times.
How did Toth do it? First he and coach Tim DeRuyter, a partnership that's in its third stop, moved strong safety Charles Washington to cornerback and benched Curtis Riley. Those decisions were finalized that weekend, before the next practice, and the players involved were called in and given a full explanation.
"Absolutely we were concerned," Toth said. "We were concerned about how it affects the guys who aren't starting and the guys who are. If those guys don't have success, they're going to have doubt about being put in that position.
"You worry about what it's doing to the rest of the locker room and how guys are perceiving it. We're a pretty solid, stable program, and to make changes like that before the championship game is pretty drastic."
Besides patching holes in the secondary, the 38-year-old coach had to mend his players' psyches.
The defense knew it was largely responsible for the loss, but Toth didn't want his players swallowing all the negative comments they were reading and hearing.
"It be real easy for a player to jump on board that thing and say, 'Hey, we stink,' " he said. "I couldn't let that happen."
Instead, Toth told his players he knew they were hurting. He told them it should hurt. But he implored them to take that hurt and use it to drive them during the next week of practice. If they did, things would get back to how they were before.
"I wanted to make sure they understood that," Toth said.
If there's one thing I've learned about Toth this season, it's that he's seldom misunderstood.
The guy has an animated, infectious way of talking, with just the right amount of rasp in his voice, that makes you believe every word he's saying.
"I thought (Toth) did a great job reminding our players, 'Hey, we're a good defense when we play the right way and with the proper technique,' " DeRuyter said. "And he says it with such conviction they believed that we could."
Senior defensive end Nikko Motta was among those who listened.
"He brought our spirits back up," Motta said. "He just told us we were better than that, and that's something I took to heart."
A football coach's work is never done. Since the MW championship Toth's focus has been on recruiting -- he typically tweets when the Bulldogs pick up a commitment -- and preparing for USC.
While most of the build-up centers around how Carr will fare against the Trojans' defense, it won't matter much if receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor are tearing through the secondary.
"The challenge for us is matching their skill and winning the one-on-one tackles," Toth said. "Forget the coverage. There's going to be a guy with the ball in his hand somewhere, and we need to be able to tackle. Because those guys have the ability to go if you miss it."
This is what Toth does. Football is in his blood. It's been that way since the day he ran off with Dad's flip card.
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.