Losing a coach, and remembering a rivalry

The Nevada-UNLV rivalry was never better than 35 years ago, when young Chris Ault faced the distinguished UNLV coach, Tony Knap

10/5/2011 - By: John Trent
Nevada UNLV game. The football rivalry between the University of Nevada, Reno and UNLV has grown to include week-long events leading up to the gridiron matchup on Saturday.

He is nearly the same age now as the red-clad, snow-haired coach who stood against him on the opposing sideline more than 30 years ago.

Back then, coaching against UNLV and its professorial head coach Tony Knap for the first time, Chris Ault was the young upstart. Ault had just turned 30 when he coached against UNLV for the first time.

But make no mistake about it. Ault was a coach. A young coach, certainly. But a coach who was on his way to becoming the most successful coach in the history of University of Nevada football.

In December 1975, Ault took over a program that was in tatters, having gone 3-8 the previous season. He inherited a rag-tag team that had ended the previous year with a four-game losing streak, including a 45-7 thrashing to UNLV to end the season in Reno.

Ault’s first season had been a minor miracle. Part Lombardi and part P.T. Barnum, Ault drove his players the same way he drove himself: hard.

And, he did everything imaginable to grab the community’s attention.

His teams were escorted onto the field by armored personnel carriers. Howitzers boomed whenever the Pack scored a touchdown. Attendance grew from a tentative home opener against Hayward State of 5,400 on Sept. 11, 1976, to more than 8,000 for Homecoming.

Through detail-oriented coaching and bold pronouncements and more than a few crazy stunts and strategy that included the occasional opening onside kick, Ault rekindled in the program something that had been missing.

Pride.

The Pack, with players who sometimes seemed so stunned at their good fortune they would literally turn backflips of joy following a great play, went undefeated at Mackay Stadium and had posted an 8-2 record – the program’s most victories in a single season since 1948 – heading into their Nov. 20 game at UNLV.

UNLV’s head coach, 61-year-old Tony Knap, was also in his first season at UNLV, though he was far removed from his first season as a head football coach.

Tony Knap was a native Midwesterner, having grown up in Milwaukee.  As a young man in 1936, Knap had driven a Model T from the Midwest with three friends to Moscow, Idaho. At the University of Idaho, he was a star football player, graduated, and then became a high school science teacher and coach.

At every level, whether it was high school or college or the professional ranks in the Canadian Football League, Tony Knap would taste success.

He established the winning tradition at Boise State University, which, when he took over as head coach in 1968, was just making the transition from a two-year college to a four-year university. He won more games – 71 – during his time at Boise than any other coach, including current Broncos coach Chris Petersen.

He came to UNLV in the twilight of his career. This would be the last stop on a coaching journey that had taken Knap and his family from Potlatch High in Idaho to Pittsburg High in northern California to Logan, Utah, to Vancouver, British Columbia, to Boise, Idaho, to Las Vegas.

He still knew football, still knew how to coach it well. He was just growing older. After more than 35 years of coaching football, Knap was wearing down.

By the time Knap arrived in Las Vegas, he was known as the “Silver Fox” because of his shock of white hair, which was dashingly full and just a little intimidating, like a snowstorm over Everest. He was a taskmaster, to be certain, who also brought a level of sophistication to his coaching that was rare.

Knap demanded perfection, but knew that his players were human. He trusted them in ways that are hard to fathom in today’s coaching world, where college football coaches can seem overzealous, and more than a little controlling.

Tony Knap seemed more like a conductor than a coach. Whenever he wore headphones, you wondered if he was listening to a symphony or the voices of his assistant coaches. He could be stern, but he also knew how to communicate. He was a coach who could make the largest meaning with the simplest pronouncement.

Knap let his quarterback call the plays, because, he reasoned, the quarterback was the team’s leader.  Besides, Knap said, what better way to prepare a young man for the crucible of life? Would you have your coach standing there as you asked your girlfriend to marry you? Would your coach make the play call for you when you weighed a career decision?

Chris Ault was a southern Californian. His eyes were the most uncommon shade of blue, and mirrored his personality: feisty, quick-witted, innovative, passionate. He was always pacing, always a bit impatient, always searching for a competitive edge. Like Tony Knap did as a young man in Idaho, Chris Ault met the one woman he knew he was going to marry and did just that. Kathy and Chris Ault are still married, more than 40 years after meeting as students at the University.

Ault’s tenacity served him well on the football field, first as a quarterback for the University of Nevada in the late 1960s, then as a high school coach at Bishop Manogue and Reno High Schools. He made the transition to the college game easily, joining a talented staff at UNLV under coach Ron Meyer, who would go on to coach the Colts in the NFL.

When Ault was named head coach at his alma mater in the waning days of 1975, then-Nevada State Journal Wolf Pack beat writer Dan McGrath recalled in the Reno Gazette-Journal years later, “I was about to ask him if he was excited about his dad’s new job when fellow sportswriter Steve Sneddon told me the kid was Nevada’s new football coach and introduced us. I thought he was 14. Chris Ault was 29 on that December day in 1975, and I learned a valuable lesson: Underestimate him at your peril.”

Beginning in 1976, Chris Ault and Tony Knap would coach against each other four times.

In November 1976, Nevada closed the gap considerably with its southern Nevada rival. In less than a season under Ault, the Pack could now say they were no longer UNLV’s doormat, losing to Knap respectably, 49-33.

The next season, Knap, dubbed “The Professor” by Reno sportswriter Sneddon, got the better of Ault again, 27-12, before the second-largest Mackay Stadium crowd ever, 11,512 fans.

Both losses were crushing to Ault. He admired Knap, and liked Knap personally.  

But being the second-best football team in a two-football-team state?

Simply unacceptable to Ault.

In 1978, in a September matchup at UNLV, the one-sided rivalry turned.

The Wolf Pack, which would go on to finish ranked No. 1 in the country among Division I-AA teams with an 11-0 regular season record, manhandled UNLV, a pre-game 20-point favorite, 23-14.

Just as the 1976 season had reawakened a football program, the 1978 victory over UNLV was perhaps the most important moment – at least from the University Nevada, Reno’s perspective – in the state’s most important sporting rivalry.

Possession of the Fremont Cannon immediately following the victory by the Wolf Pack players took on comical proportions. The Wolf Pack hadn’t possessed the cannon since 1973, and didn’t quite know what to do with it. It seems quaint, in our post-9/11 world, to think about a bunch of excited young men who simply wheeled a  545-pound cannon through an international airport, chanting and singing and hugging one another. But that’s how the Pack celebrated.

The next season, in Reno, Knap returned the favor and regained the cannon for Las Vegas: UNLV 26, Nevada 21.

Two years later, in December 1981 at the age of 67, Tony Knap retired as football coach at UNLV. He retired as – and still is – the most successful coach in UNLV history , with a career record of 47-20-2.

On Sept. 24, 2011, at the age of 96, Tony Knap, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, passed away in a Pullman, Wash., rest home, where he had been living with Mickey, his wife of 70 years.

Former players from across the country recalled Knap’s fairness, the genuine interest he had shown in their lives. They remembered the trust that Knap had instilled in all of them; trust in themselves, trust to make the right decision in a world where timeouts are few and far between, and where a coach’s expert, flawlessly scripted play-calling is often hard to find.

In an age of instant information, where Google has replaced the dog-eared sets of World Almanacs that used to be the primary source of important dates, important events, and important people, it might be surprising to note that it took a few days before word reached Chris Ault that his old rival had passed away.

Ault got the news late last week as the Pack was preparing to play Boise State – Knap’s other “old” school.

Ault was clearly saddened to hear of Knap’s death. Yet, he remembered Knap with a smile. He recalled Knap as a good friend, a good rival … and a good man.

They were words of respect that normally aren’t uttered very often when northern Nevadans and southern Nevadans get together to talk about the state’s big football game.

It’s hard to believe, but today Chris Ault is three years older than the distinguished, white-haired man who could’ve been mistaken for his father, when the two coached against each for the first time back in 1976.

On Saturday at Mackay Stadium, Chris Ault will look across the field at the blond-haired, hawk-nosed face of UNLV’s second-year coach, Bobby Hauck.

Thirty-five years ago, UNLV was the successful program, the program that Nevada needed to knock from its pedestal to reach a new level.

The rivalry has moved on since then, found new heroes and villains, as all rivalries do.

In the 35 years that have passed since Chris Ault met Tony Knap, a young rivalry has gotten older. The words between the fans of the two football teams have grown stronger and sometimes more heated.

The one constant through it all has been Ault.  On Saturday, for the 20th time, Chris Ault will coach against UNLV. Hauck will be the eighth UNLV coach he has faced since 1976.

And yet, it’s hard not to flash back to the rivalry 35 years ago, to slip into the easy-chair comfort of memory, and to think of the rivalry and how it was.

How, in many ways, the rivalry was then at its very essence: inexperience and exuberance and experimentation against experience and calm, seasoned, trust; a time that is soon to come against a time that, though aged, still holds the respect of the present; blue against silver; son against father; friend against friend.

The passage of time has helped blur the edges of the contrasts between two great coaches, one young and one old, one entering and one exiting.

And as with any rivalry that is worth caring about, the similarities come into greater focus.

The ground shared by those two memorable coaches, between their two teams, between them and us, between our university and their university, has become are all the more meaningful with the passage of time.

They are our enemy. But maybe just as importantly, they are our friend.

(John Trent, senior editor for News & Features at the University of Nevada, Reno, is a former two-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year who covered six Wolf Pack-Rebels football games.)


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