Nevada vs. UNLV: The Battle Born rivalry
By Paul Andrew
Red v.s. Blue! North v.s. South! Reno wilderness vs. Vegas glitz! The Fremont Cannon! Good vs. Evil! (OK, maybe I’m going too far here).
When the great rivalries of college football are discussed on a national scale, Nevada-UNLV is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Michigan-Ohio State, USC-UCLA or Cal-Stanford. For Nevadans, there is no more colorful or intense rivalry than the “Battle for the Fremont Cannon,” between the only two universities in the state: Nevada and UNLV.
Chris Ault once said that the color red reminded him of three things; communism, the devil and UNLV. If they were to need coach Ault to donate blood, no one would be surprised if a blue liquid were to be extracted from veins of the “Little General.”
Throughout the years, the annual battle has contained controversy, animosity, defections and enough fuel to ignite a feud that makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like a friendly game of checkers.
The rivalry began in 1969, when the University of Nevada, which had competed in football since 1898, had their inaugural meeting with “the new kids on the block,” the Rebels of UNLV, originally born under the moniker Nevada Southern University.
That initial game, played in late November before 7,000 fans at Mackay Stadium, started the rivalry with controversy. Two thousand additional grandstands had to be brought in to meet the demand of fans and alums who were on hand to witness the birth of this bitter feud.
This inaugural battle was won by the Wolf Pack on a last-second field goal by John Barnes as dusk was settling in. It was so dark, fans in the stands weren’t certain of the results of the 32-yard kick. Of course, Rebel players all insisted the ball missed, though referees planted under the posts signaled “good,” giving Nevada the 30-28 victory.
The following year, Rebel coach Bill Ireland felt the upstart rivalry needed a trophy to symbolize the game that determined bragging rights in the Silver State. The Fremont Cannon, a replica of the howitzer used by John C. Fremont, one of America’s foremost trailblazers, as he headed west into Nevada in 1843, was born. Legend has it that Fremont violated U.S. War Department policy by taking the cannon with him on his westward journey without permission, then abandoned the weapon in a Sierra Nevada snowstorm.
In 1978, Frank Hawkins and Pack traveled to Vegas and re-claimed the cannon with a 23-14 win over the Rebels. Not wanting to wait for the cannon to be transported north, the team disassembled the weapon and carried it on the plane, with the Hawk responsible for carrying the barrel. With today’s security measures, can anyone fathom carrying a cannon on a plane?
At the conclusion of the 1993 season, Nevada head coach Jeff “Benedict Arnold” Horton, deserted the Wolf Pack to take the reins of the Rebel program and took eight assistant coaches with him. Chris Ault was forced to return to the head coaching helm for a second term, while continuing his duties at athletic director.
Both teams were in the Big West at the time, with the season finale between the schools determining the conference championship. Horton and the Rebels ended that 1994 season edging Nevada 32-27, securing the Las Vegas Bowl bid for the hometown team. In a show of class, Ault made a point of shaking Horton’s hand after the game, despite the backstabbing the former coach had administered to Nevada and their fans.
The following year, a record 33,391 fans jammed into Mackay Stadium in hopes of seeing Ault and the Pack getting revenge. They were not disappointed, as Nevada won a game that turned out to be one of the most heated, intense confrontations in the series.
In warm-ups prior to the game, Rebel players purposely encroached the 50-yard line, jawing with the Pack, which started a pregame brawl between the squads.
The Pack controlled the game from the beginning, ensuring that the cannon would again be painted blue. As the clock was running down, Nevada quarterback Mike Maxwell threw a touchdown pass to rub salt in the wound of the 55-32 victory. Like Grant’s army in the Civil War, Nevada players stormed to the UNLV sideline to claim the cannon that they rightfully earned.
Angered by the final touchdown, and the site of Nevada players stampeding to their sideline, infuriated Rebels began another verbal confrontation with the Wolf Pack. As the teams left the field, Ault and UNLV safety Quincy Sanders, a product of Reed High School in Sparks, who spurned Nevada to play down south, were jawing. When Ault told Sanders to get off his field, Quincy hurled his helmet at the coach, which again started a scuffle between the two sides. Luckily, Sanders was a bad shot, and didn’t hit Ault, and the helmet was never recovered by UNLV. Rumor has it that this latest trophy of the great rivalry is somewhere in a local Reno bar and brought out only during rivalry week.
The image of the Fremont Cannon being torn apart by Rebel fans after the 2000 game is one that turns the stomach of any Wolf Pack fan. After reclaiming the cannon after a 38-7 victory in Las Vegas, UNLV fans stormed the field, tore the spokes off the wheel, and spraypainted it red. The photo of the destroyed cannon laying on the ground after the game is a sad reminder of the lack of respect that Rebel fans displayed for this great artifact.
The score of this rivalry, now at 17-15 in favor of the Wolf Pack, has been a series of streaks. From 1984 until 1993, UNLV took six out of seven matches. (There were no games between the two colleges in 1980-1982). Nevada controlled the series beginning in 1989 until the end of the millennium, winning 10 out of 11, the only loss being the 1994 game won by the Horton-coached Rebels.
The John Robinson-coached UNLV teams from 2000 until 2004 had their way with Nevada, winning five straight. After the 2003 game, a fan in Mackay Stadium threw a beer bottle and hit coach Robinson as he was leaving the field. The infuriated coach cast a general insult toward Northern Nevadans by insinuating that it was thrown by another “toothless Reno fan.”
Behind an efficient passing attack led by Jeff Rowe, and two Robert Hubbard touchdowns, Nevada regained the cannon, winning 16-12 in the 2005 game. A 31-3 stomping of the Rebels last year in Las Vegas, led by the running of redshirt freshman Brandon Fragger, guaranteed that the cannon would remain blue for this year’s tilt.
With the great games and colorful history of this rivalry, we can only imagine what controversy, stars and stories will come out of future battles between these two great interstate rivals.
So Nevadans, when plays UNLV in the annual “Battle Born” game on Saturday, which side are you on? Are you red, or are you blue?