No. 25 Nevada’s rivalry with UNLV has storied past
RENO – Three-fourths of No. 25 Nevada’s football team hails from neighboring California so Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault understands why some don’t understand the significance of Saturday’s matchup at rival UNLV.
“I’ll be talking to the kids about the history,” said Ault, who was Nevada’s quarterback from 1965-67 and is now the winningest coach in school history with a record of 210-96-1 in his 26th season.
Nevada (4-0) heads to UNLV (1-3) ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1948 after back-to-back wins against Cal and BYU. The winner claims the Fremont Cannon, a 545-pound replica of the howitzer that explorer John C. Fremont brought with him when he headed west into Nevada in 1843. The trophy cost $10,000 to build 40 years ago.
UNLV won the battle five times in a row from 2000 to 2004 but Nevada has won the last five to take a 20-15 lead in the all-time series.
The rivalry has seen its share of blowouts over the years as the two schools’ fortunes rise and fall. But there have also been some nail-biters, the most recent in 2007 when Nevada quarterback Nick Graziano threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Sammons with 27.5 seconds left in the game for a 27-20 victory.
Emotions were at a peak in the mid-1990s. Ault briefly stepped down as coach to serve just as athletic director in 1993. He hired longtime assistant Jeff Horton as his replacement, but Horton only coached at Nevada a year before bolting for the top job at UNLV in 1994.
Nevada was 9-1 and UNLV 5-4 when the two met in Las Vegas that season but the Rebels scored the upset 32-27 in another contest that went down to the wire.
Nevada extracted revenge the following year with Ault back at the helm in Reno, 55-32, in a game marred by fights and capped by a Rebel throwing a helmet on the ground toward Ault as the teams exited.
In 2003 in Reno, a Nevada fan was arrested after he threw a plastic bottle that hit then-UNLV coach John Robinson in the head while exiting the field at the half of a game Nevada won 16-12.
Both schools anticipate the intensity of the rivalry will grow even more now that Nevada has agreed to leave the Western Athletic Conference to join UNLV in the Mountain West Conference beginning in either 2011 or 2012. That move will guarantee the annual football matchup.
“That Fremont Cannon is a special trophy. It is the largest rival trophy in America. And it is special because it represents the entire state of Nevada,” Ault said. “We have been fortunate to have it for five years and our full intention is to keep it for six.”
The winner traditionally paints the cannon its school colors – blue in the north, red in the south.
First-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said he has heard a lot about the cannon but hasn’t seen it.
“It’s a big week, and if our guys aren’t juiced up for this one, then we’ve got problems,” Hauck said.
Ault remembers a time when the only school in the state with any national visibility at all was UNLV, due in large part to the success of the Runnin’ Rebels basketball teams under Jerry Tarkanian in the 1980s.
“Years ago, we were climbing that ladder trying to catch them, when they built the new stadium, when they had millions of dollars, when they had Gov. (Paul) Laxalt doing a lot of things for them to get their program started,” Ault said.
“They were moving. They advanced. It took us a while to catch them,” he said.
The two teams played each other every season from 1969-79, but UNLV “got permission to drop the series,” Ault said.
They played only three times over the next 10 years before Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, then the chairman of the Board of Regents, stepped in to make sure the rivalry resumed.
“Cashell said we’ve got to play this thing every year and that was the end of the conversation,” Ault said.