Wolf Pack-Rebel rivalry: We're all Nevadans
Perhaps more similarities than differences in state's biggest sporting rivalry
Football rivalries, like great dramas, usually come in three acts.
The first act, with all of its exquisitely timed pretense and portent, sets the stage for what is to come.
For UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno, the first act was a doozy. The first football game played in the series in 1969 was determined on a last-minute field goal by the Wolf Pack's John Barnes. The Wolf Pack won, 30-28.
The game was held so long ago there were no lights at Mackay Stadium. Some UNLV players claim Barnes' kick disappeared into the dead of the Mackay Stadium night and never actually split the uprights. Some Wolf Pack participants claim that the only thing foggy about that game are the memories of the UNLV players who claim Barnes' kick was no good.
Royce Feour, the legendary Las Vegas Review-Journal sportswriter (and University of Nevada graduate), wrote vividly about the game in his blog, "Going the Distance," a couple of years ago:
"I covered the first UNLV-Nevada football game in 1969 for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The inaugural game was at Mackay Stadium in Reno. I wish I could have seen the game.
"OK, I exaggerate. I wish I could have seen the deciding play of the game. Actually, there was about a minute remaining in the game when Nevada's John Barnes kicked a 33-yard field goal which lifted the Wolf Pack to a 30-28 victory. The trouble was by the time Barnes attempted the field goal it was so dark (and Mackay Stadium didn't have lights) that nobody in the press box could see well enough to know if the kick was good.
"The stadium was enveloped in darkness and not only nobody in the press box could see if it was good or not, nobody I talked to who was in the stands could see if it was good, either ... I couldn't swear it wasn't good, but I could say that it was, either."
The fact that Wolf Pack and Rebel football players from 44 years ago still debate the accuracy of Barnes' boot shows that from the very beginning, the rivalry would be intense, brimming with memorable moments.
The second act establishes the characters. And there have been plenty. In many ways, the complexities of the Rebel-Wolf Pack rivalry reside here, where the richness of character and institutional familial connectedness seems almost Shakespearean.
Consider former Wolf Pack football coach Chris Ault, who has come to personify the rivalry perhaps more than any other individual. He coached in more than half of the 38 Wolf Pack-Rebel games and ended his College Football Hall of Fame career with the Wolf Pack by reeling off eight straight wins over UNLV. And yet, Ault began his collegiate coaching career ... at UNLV. Ault is not only a member of the Wolf Pack Athletic Hall of Fame, he's a member of UNLV's Athletic Hall of Fame for his role as an assistant coach with the undefeated Rebels in 1974.
Then there is Bill Ireland, in many ways the "founding father" of Rebel athletics as UNLV's first football coach in 1968. "Coach I" was a 1952 graduate of the University and was a Wolf Pack coach before he ever ventured off to Las Vegas. It was Ireland's idea to create the nation's largest - 545 pounds - and most expensive rivalry prize, the Fremont Cannon. Ireland, like Ault, is a member of both the Rebel and Wolf Pack Halls of Fame.
The third act is where the two universities stand today. Both institutions have matured. The siblings now stare each other in the eye. Both have football players who have grown up, graduated, and gone on to do notable things in their professional lives.
Perhaps this is why Regents Kevin Page and Rick Trachok issued a letter to fans of both teams earlier this week.
Both men realize that for all the differences there are between the two universities, there is an important common ground: Both institutions are proud emblems of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Cooperation marks the dealings of the administration, academic faculty, staff and students of both institutions.
So this is where the third act of the rivalry now stands. Two mature universities are asking their student bodies and their fans to show a similar type of collegiality and maturity on Saturday.
Or, as Page and Trachok wrote: "As our two outstanding Nevada universities approach their always highly anticipated gridiron competition, please join us in celebrating this cherished rivalry with excitement, passion, and the paramount priority, sportsmanship. Athletic fields are extensions of our academic halls and the values of respect and ethical behavior prevail in the contest as well as in the classroom. Sportsmanship applies to players, coaches, students and fans from both institutions, before, during and after the game."
This third act in Nevada's greatest sports rivalry could be the most memorable. Because ultimately, great dramas are best played out on the stage, or on the gridiron. Mackay Stadium on Saturday will provide a mirror that both universities hope will reflect the best of the finest sports rivalry the state of Nevada has ever seen.