Nevada rivalry deserves respect
November 25, 2016
Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .
College football in the state of Nevada simply gets no respect. The Nevada Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels have the heaviest and most expensive rivalry trophy in college football. The Battle for the Fremont Cannon is filled with history, wild games, colorful players and memorable moments. One coach once wore his team's jersey on the sideline. One team took apart the cannon and took it on the flight home as carry-on luggage. One winning team dropped the cannon and broke it on the field. One coach got hit in the head by a plastic beer bottle thrown by a fan. One player once tossed his helmet toward the opposing head coach on the field. One school engraved some trash talk ("University of Notta Lot of Victories") right on the cannon. But nobody outside the state lines seems to care about Pack-Rebels. There will be 33 Division I-A games on some sort of national TV on Saturday. The Pack and Rebels are on the internet's ESPN3 along with Arkansas State-Louisiana Lafayette, Florida International-Old Dominion, Troy-Texas State, Appalachian State-New Mexico State and South Alabama-Idaho. That's what Pack football has become. It's Florida International and Old Dominion. It's nice that the Pack and Rebels are playing on rivalry weekend but it's sort of like playing golf with your buddies on a neighborhood course in rural Georgia while the Masters is going on in Augusta.
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This year's Battle for the Fremont Cannon might be the most important in the history of Wolf Pack football. UNLV, which has won two of the last three games in the rivalry, believes it is building an elite program and is about to dominate the rivalry. The cannon is already red. UNLV is looking for its first two-game winning streak in the rivalry since it won five in a row from 2000-2004. It is looking for its first win at home since 2004. A Wolf Pack victory on Saturday would remind the Rebels that they are, well, the Rebels. It would stop the Wolf Pack bleeding. Wolf Pack fans are already seeing red and seething because UNLV came to Mackay Stadium last year (and in 2013) and stole the cannon. This rivalry game means the world to Wolf Pack fans. It means even more to former players, coaches and alumni. Another loss to the Rebels would be a disaster.
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The Wolf Pack, now 4-7, still believes it has a legitimate chance at going to a bowl game with just five victories. Anything is possible in the laughable and meaningless world of college football. Three five-win teams (Nebraska, Minnesota and the Mountain West's San Jose State) went to a bowl last year. Of course, nobody but the players and coaches, who get gifts, meals and contract bonuses, wants to see the Pack in a bowl this year. The last thing most Pack fans want to see is coach Brian Polian lifting a bowl trophy over his head with a goofy smile on his face in some empty stadium next month. It would have absolutely no meaning or significance except for Polian, who is a guy that was born on third base and is convinced he hit a triple. But, again, meaning and significance aren't as important in college football as collecting money from sponsors and television.
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Is Polian going to be coaching his final game for the Wolf Pack on Saturday? There are a lot of wild rumors circulating around the Pack and Polian right now. Take your pick: Polian already knows that he is going to be fired, Polian is already gone and he's the only one who doesn't know it, Polian can save his job by beating UNLV. There are even rumors that the Pack didn't even wait until Black Friday to start shopping around for a new coach. A bowl complicates things even more. Can Polian save his job by beating UNLV and then by winning a bowl game? Will the Pack fire Polian on Sunday even if he beats UNLV and the team gets a bowl invite? If you are athletic director Doug Knuth and you've already made your decision to fire Polian, can you fire him if he wins his last three games (Utah State, UNLV and the bowl)? And you thought there was nothing interesting about this Pack football season.
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Things to think about this weekend: A Wolf Pack coach (Jeff Tisdel in 1999) has already been fired after a season in which he beat UNLV. Just four Wolf Pack coaches (F.F. Ellis in 1898, James Hopper in 1900, Jim Aiken in 1946, Gordon McEachron in 1958) have ever left the program (for any reason) after winning at least their final two games. Jerry Scattini is the last Wolf Pack coach to get fired after losing to UNLV in the final game of the season (1975). Scattini, who coached from 1969-1975, is the last Pack coach not named Chris Ault to coach the team for more than four seasons in a row. Every Wolf Pack head football coach since 1969 (Scattini, Ault, Jeff Horton, Tisdel, Tormey) has finished his Pack career with a winning career record except Tormey and Tormey was fired after his best season (6-6 in 2003). Polian is currently at 22-27.
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The Wolf Pack can certainly beat UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium. The Rebels, also just 4-7, aren't as good as they think they are and they will be playing the game without their best player (wide receiver Devonte Boyd). This is a Rebel team that has already lost to Idaho and San Jose State so they've proven they can lose to anybody. Of course, there are many more numbers and reasons that point toward a Rebel victory. The Pack is 0-5 on the road this year and they have played well in just one game all season (a win over an awful Buffalo team at home two months ago). But this is a rivalry game. The most desperate and angry team with the biggest chip on its shoulder usually wins. UNLV is feeling good about itself and its future. They are not desperate and angry. They are fat and happy. The Rebels are celebrating their four-win season. Their head coach can run for mayor in Las Vegas right now and win and he might not even need the boosters to buy the election like they bought him his Rebel job. The cannon is red. The Wolf Pack, on the other hand, is embarrassed by its four-win season. Its future is anybody's guess. Its head coach couldn't get a job right now re-stocking the Peppermill buffet. And the cannon is red. That's all adds up to a chip on their shoulder the size of Mount Rose.
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The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame (located in Kansas City) inducted its latest class this past week that included Dominique Wilkins, Mark Aguirre and Doug Collins. No Wolf Pack players or coach has been named to the Hall, which first opened its doors in 2006. But there is one Pack player who is worthy of the honor. Nick Fazekas had one of the greatest careers in college basketball history. The former Pack center scored a school-record 2,464 points, averaging 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game for his career. He shot 53 per cent from the floor and 82 per cent from the line. He played in the NCAA Tournament all four years of his career, winning four games and going to the Sweet 16 once. His teams won two conference tournaments. He was his conference's Most Valuable Player three times and was named to 14 All American teams in his career. Fazekas epitomizes what college sports is all about, a young man that was overlooked coming out of high school who turned himself into one of the greats.