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September 24, 2007
By John Trent
He is a natural storyteller, so when the talk turns to the annual football game pitting the football teams from the University of Nevada, Reno and UNLV, Chris Ault can’t help himself.
The cadence of his voice, already brisk, increases from a trot to a run. The sentences become sacramental. There is a theater, a knowing sense of what has happened and what is to come – almost all of it good, and much of it too true to have been so good – that brings a special drama to his words.
To Ault, the Nevada head football coach who has been associated with Nevada’s football program in one form or another for parts of five decades, there is no bigger game than when Nevada takes on UNLV.
The two intrastate rivals will meet on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 1:05 p.m. at Mackay Stadium for the ultimate in state bragging rights.
“My mission,” Ault says, the tips of his fingers coming together in a thoughtful steeple, “and I feel very strong about this, is to convey to our players that this is something special for you. Every game is a new year. Last year does not matter. Next year doesn’t count right now. It’s about now. It’s about you leaving a mark for your year. It’s a championship, so to speak.”
Ault has beaten UNLV more than any other football coach in Nevada history. He and the Pack have won games they shouldn’t have won, and lost games they shouldn’t have lost. He’s seen the Pack dominate, and squeak by the most scant of margins.
He is a man who doesn’t like computers, but in an age where information is at one’s fingertips, he can conjure the memories of games 20 and 30 years ago probably faster than you could ever type the words “Google” on your keyboard. The memories are varnished with time, made rich with the color of fact and what is remembered as fact.
As clearly as today is 2007, it is suddenly 1978. The Wolf Pack is on its way to the first undefeated season in school history, and an historic No. 1 ranking in the country.
“We went to that game, our kicker (Fernando Serrano, who had an off-again, on-again relationship with Ault) showed up late at the plane … my earlier two years, we would’ve left him,” Ault says.
You can almost picture the poor young kicker, hustling out of then Cannon International Airport in Reno, praying to the good Lord that his fiery young coach would keep the plane on the tarmac for a few more seconds.
“We stayed,” Ault says of waving off the flight crew for a few moments so Serrano could hustle his way on. His face breaks into a wide grin. “He ends up kicking a big field goal for us. That’s the time we carried the cannon actually back on the plane. They disassembled it, and carried this thing on the plane, and if you did that today, you’d be arrested. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
Ah yes, the Cannon. The prize that both schools covet. The Fremont Cannon. The largest and most expensive sports rivalry trophy in the country.
Recently, Wolf Pack senior defensive tackle Matt Hines thought about the value of the Fremont Cannon, and what it has meant to the rivalry.
Hines is a friendly young man, with dark hair that has a carefree look to it, always seeming to happily blow in the wind. His teammates call him, affectionately, “Dump Truck.” Yet as a senior and a team captain, he feels there is no duty entrusted him more important than passing the knowledge of the rivalry to his teammates.
And the cannon?
“Gosh,” Hines says. “To me it symbolizes the state championship game. We’re the champions in the state, and when we don’t have it, we’re second best in the state, so it means a lot to this team, and to me, personally.”
Years ago, when UNLV was playing big-time competition like BYU and was dreaming of a spot in college football’s Division I upper echelon, Ault felt he had to manufacture some of the rivalry. Nevada was Division II, then Division I-AA.
“In my younger days, we used to set dummies on fire, the whole shooting match,” Ault says, chuckling. “I’ve been down the road. We did it all. The tanks, you name it. We’ve done it. The parachuters. You grow and you learn over the years.”
Today, the game stands on its own.
Two rivals under one state flag.
“Of all the sports on both campuses,” says Chris Ault, the man who should know, “this is the premium rivalry.”
John Trent is senior editor in University Communications.