Red Defection: 4 days that turned college football in Nevada upside down

Nevada football head coach Jeff Horton during a game in 1993.

Nevada football head coach Jeff Horton during a game in 1993.

For four days in November 1993 the always tenuous world of college football in the state of Nevada was turned upside down.

Nerves were frayed and loyalties were questioned during the Nevadan Coaching Crisis. Generals were sneaking back and forth between North and South in the middle of the night and in the light of day, first ignoring, then blurring and ultimately obliterating enemy battle lines.

And when the silver, blue and red dust finally settled, Nevada’s college football fans didn’t know who to believe or trust.

“I came to Nevada because this was a stable program,” Wolf Pack offensive lineman Mike Breaux said after his junior year in late November 1993. “Now I’m going to have my third coach in three years. Nothing makes sense anymore.”

It would become known as the Red Defection. Wolf Pack athletic director Chris Ault turned down the UNLV Rebels football head coaching job on a Friday afternoon, ending two months of rumors that he was about to be the ultimate traitor and turncoat. That set in motion a whirlwind of espionage and intrigue over the next four days that saw Pack football coach Jeff Horton become the Rebels head coach and Ault return as the Pack head coach.

The Ault-Horton-Rebels-Wolf Pack silver, blue and red shell game nearly 30 years ago is still the most bizarre case of coaching musical chairs between two in-state rivals in the history of college football.

Everything, every sneaky phone call to every cloak and dagger meeting in Reno, Las Vegas and, yes, Arkansas, took place in rapid-fire succession over a period of about 96 hours on the final weekend of the 1993 football season. And it all happened more smoothly, effectively, quickly and perfectly than anything that has ever happened in the history of Rebel or Wolf Pack football before or since.

The entire state was blindsided. The cash-rich Rebels treated the Wolf Pack like their very own coaching farm team and there was nothing Wolf Pack fans could do about it, ending the age of innocence in Wolf Pack and Rebel football forever.

There were, however, warning shots fired long before late November 1993 that should have been taken seriously. Ault, the one-time stabilizing force in Wolf Pack football since the mid-1970s, tried to tell everyone that he was getting antsy, fidgety, restless and, likely, a bit bored almost two years before the dizzying events of late 1993.

Ault, the Wolf Pack’s head football coach since 1976 and its athletic director since 1986, fired his first warning shot in January 1992 that the safe and comfortable Wolf Pack football world he created could soon be disrupted.

By January 1992 Ault’s Wolf Pack, after all, had lost in the Division I-AA national title game at Georgia Southern just 13 months earlier. Just a month earlier another Pack season ended in a shocking loss to Youngstown State in the I-AA playoffs at Mackay Stadium. And now the program, thanks to Ault’s maneuvering, was about to make the frightening jump to the fringes of Division I-A.

“Maybe other people think it is OK to stand still and be content with what you’ve got but I’m not one of those people,” Ault told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 1992.

Ault, coming off those disheartening playoff losses in 1990 and 1991, clearly wanted more in January 1992. And he was having serious doubts that the little school up on North Virginia Street could provide it.

So Ault went down to Southern California to talk to the San Diego Chargers and made sure everyone in Northern Nevada knew about it.

He wasn’t offered a job by Chargers’ President Bobby Beathard and only Ault and Beathard knew for sure whether or not the meeting was anything more than simply a lunch date. But it served its purpose just the same for Ault.

“I don’t know who else you can put in this situation if I leave,” Ault said in January 1992. “I don’t want to sound conceited but this is my program. I’ve been the catalyst to build this thing.”

Ault and the Wolf Pack finished just 7-5 in 1992, the program’s first in Division I-A. The schedule was a mixture of Division I-AA teams and low-level I-A teams but the Pack made history just the same as the first school in NCAA history to win its conference and go to a bowl game in its first season in Division I-A. And the bowl game in Las Vegas in December 1992 gave Ault an opportunity to steal the spotlight in his chief rival’s backyard. It was Chris Ault heaven.

“If they gave me the chance to go to the Rose Bowl or the first bowl game in Las Vegas, I’d pick Las Vegas,” Ault proudly said a couple days before the Las Vegas Bowl against Bowling Green.

The Wolf Pack lost that bowl game, 35-34, blowing a six-point lead with 22 seconds to play after rallying from a 28-3 deficit. It was the Pack’s third consecutive season-ending devastating loss.

Ault needed a break.

He then dropped a not-so-subtle hint in late May 1993 that suggested that winning the Big West Conference and going to the Las Vegas Bowl might not be enough to keep his competitive juices flowing.

“It won’t be much longer,” Ault said. “It’s becoming obvious to me I can’t continue in both capacities (as head coach and athletic director). I’m not meeting my own expectations.”

Ault gave up his head coaching title two weeks later in early June 1993.

“You know, it would be difficult once you’ve been a general to go back to being a soldier,” said Ault, explaining his decision to give up coaching rather than his athletic director job.

The same day Ault officially announced his resignation as coach he quickly named his replacement. Jeff Horton, 35 years old and an Ault assistant for seven seasons (1985-89, 1991-92) and two years at UNLV (1990-91), was the new Pack head coach.

Sort of.

“I told coach when he hired me back (before the 1992 season) I’d only leave if it was to become a head coach,” Horton said. “I love Reno. I wouldn’t want to be a suitcase coach jumping from job to job every few years. I’d like to finish my career at Nevada.”

Horton’s only previous experience as a head coach was at Bishop Manogue High School in 1983.

“When I went to Vegas (in 1990 as an assistant under Jim Strong) I fully believed I would become UNLV’s head coach,” Horton said.

Then why did he leave UNLV after just two seasons? Was it because Ault promised him the Wolf Pack top job just a year later?

“I never imagined I’d ever get the chance to be the head coach of the Wolf Pack,” Horton said in June 1993. “I never thought Chris Ault would ever leave.”

Strong wished Horton well from Las Vegas.

“I’ll tell you what,” Strong said, “Reno’s hired itself a great new coach. Jeff was raised on Wolf Pack football. It’s in his blood.”

It was also in Ault’s blood.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay away,” the 46-year-old Ault said in June 1993. “I honestly can’t say I’ll never coach again.”

That might have been the only honest thing he said that day.

“Will I ever coach again?” Ault said. “I can honestly say I won’t ever be the coach again at this (the Wolf Pack) university.”

Horton also pledged his loyalty to the Wolf Pack in June 1993.

“I hope another 17 years (Ault’s first tenure as Pack head coach, 1976-1992) goes by before we have another one of these press conferences to name a new coach,” Horton said. “I’ll keep the job as long as you want me.”

How did Ault handle his first fall without a football team to coach? Picture a Grizzly bear trapped in a cage in a zoo. Instead of embracing his new life and settling in as a full-time athletic director tending to the needs of the entire athletic program, Ault spent the fall of 1993 tending to his own needs. He spent the 1993 football season flirting with his No. 1 rival.

It was Chris Ault heaven.

The entire focus of the community that football season was not on Horton and the Pack despite a solid 7-4 season that produced one of the best offenses in Wolf Pack history. Senior quarterback Chris Vargas, the miracle man that Ault never fully trusted with the permanent starting job for three seasons (1990-92), would throw for a school-record 4,265 yards and 34 touchdowns under Horton’s prolific “Air Wolf” attack in 1993.

The focus was on Ault, who was openly cheating with the hated Rebels. The rumors that he was talking to UNLV about its football head coaching job started in late September. Asked at a meeting with the Downtown Rotary Club whether or not he would be interested in the Rebels’ top job, Ault said, “If a position becomes available, who knows? It’s a diamond in the rough. It always has been.”

The 1993 season was now all about Ault.

“If Coach Ault wants the job he can get it,” Las Vegas City Councilman Frank Hawkins said in 1993. Hawkins, the greatest running back in Wolf Pack history (5,333 yards), played for Ault from 1977-80.

Stealing coaches from Northern Nevada, by 1993, was already a UNLV tradition. See Bill Ireland, Fred Dallimore, Chub Drakulich, Bill Daniel and, yes, Ault (1973-75) and Horton.

“If they do make a change in the coaching staff, today, right now, my position is I would say yes,” Ault said in early November 1993. “I feel the resources and the intangibles you need to be successful at a place like UNLV are there.”

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in early November 1993 that Ault was offered the Rebel top job at $300,000 a year, roughly three times what he was earning at Nevada.

“I want to see what he looks like in red,” Horton said with a smile.

After the Pack blitzed the Rebels 49-14 on Oct. 2, 1993 at Mackay Stadium, Vargas commented, “If Coach Ault goes down there next year we’ll go down there and beat up on him, too.”

The Wolf Pack win over the Rebels all but sealed Strong’s demise in Las Vegas.

“It’s going to be real tough for him now,” Horton said.

Ault met with the Wolf Pack football team on Thursday, Nov. 18, the day before the Pack was to leave for Jonesboro, Ark., for its season finale against Arkansas State. The meeting between the athletic director and the players seemed to be Ault’s way of saying goodbye to the program he built and many of the players he recruited.

“It was going to be the last time he ever addressed our players,” Horton said. “We all thought it was his farewell song. I thought he was going (to UNLV) for sure.”

“It was a farewell type of thing,” Wolf Pack assistant coach Jim House said at the time. “He was tying up loose ends. He was telling (the players) how proud he was of them.”

Ault then told UNLV athletic director Jim Weaver the next day (Nov. 19, 1993) that he was declining their offer to coach the Rebels for $300,000 a year. The man who was always looking for a new challenge, who was scared to death of standing still and merely settling for contentment, was now, apparently, standing still.

The news was felt across the country, all the way to Jonesboro, Ark., where the Pack and Horton were sitting down for their team dinner the night before the final game of the season.

“It surprised me,” Horton told the Gazette-Journal. “But it’s good it’s all behind us.”

But what was in front of the Pack? The events of the next four days remain to this day one of the greatest mysteries in the history of Wolf Pack football.

It turns out UNLV really wanted a Wolf Pack coach. And any old Wolf Pack coach, apparently, would do.

The Wolf Pack lost at Arkansas State 23-21 on Saturday, Nov. 20, 1993 but it’s likely football was the last thing on the minds of Horton and his staff. The very next day (Sunday, Nov. 21) Weaver supposedly called Ault asking for permission to talk to Horton about the Rebel job.

Horton flew to Las Vegas to accept the job on Nov. 22 and flew back to Reno the next morning (Nov. 23) to tell Ault face to face that he was leaving the Wolf Pack.

It was the weirdest most unbelievable Las Vegas heist since Ocean’s 11.

Horton was in Las Vegas the afternoon of Nov. 23 standing in front of microphones as the newest Rebel head coach. Just 72 hours earlier he was in Jonesboro trying to beat Arkansas State.

“My wife and I always agreed that we looked better in red than blue,” Horton said for the whole state to hear.

Ault played the role of jilted athletic director for one day almost perfectly. Horton, after all, not only abandoned the Wolf Pack in the dead of night, he took almost all of the Pack assistants (except Jim House, Ken Wilson and Ken Mizell) with him.

Ault was never more loved by the Wolf Pack community than he was the day Horton turned into the suitcase coach he once vowed to never become.

“I haven’t had time to have anyone in mind,” said Ault on Nov. 23, referring to any possible candidates to replace Horton. “I just got back from informing the president (Joe Crowley) and picking him up off the floor.”

What Ault failed to tell anyone is that Crowley, if he indeed did fall to the floor, was likely floored because Ault told him he wanted Horton’s old job.

“I wish Mr. Right would walk in the door right now because I’d hire him,“ Ault said on Nov. 23. “But that’s not going to happen.”

Mr. Right, as far as Ault was always concerned, was always the guy looking back at him in the mirror. The next day he was officially the coach of the Wolf Pack once again because, well, he wanted to be.

“We’re ready to launch an attack,” Ault said the day he reclaimed the Pack’s head coaching job.

Nobody was surprised Ault named Ault as head coach.

“Ault will replace Horton,” New Mexico coach Jim Hess told the Gazette-Journal, a day before it became official.

“The first thing that popped into my mind when I heard Jeff was leaving was that we were getting back on the roller coaster,” Ault’s wife Kathy told the Gazette-Journal on Nov. 24. “I knew he was the next coach probably before Chris knew.”

You can bet Chris Ault knew it before anyone else. The only question is when, exactly, he knew it.

There are many questions about the events of Nov. 19-23, 1993, that will always remain and likely will never be truthfully answered. But one thing is clear. The entire chain of events, from the moment Ault turned down UNLV to the moment he took over the football program again, worked perfectly for Ault almost as if he orchestrated and planned the entire thing.

Hiring Chris Ault as head coach was the best football head coaching hire Chris Ault ever made as athletic director. Ault would go 18-3 in two seasons (1994-94) as head coach before stepping down again when it was apparent that the Big West was on its last legs.

Ault was now even more beloved than ever before. He turned down UNLV to stay at Nevada for far less money. He stepped in and saved the football program when Horton turned turncoat. Horton then became Public Enemy No. 1, the ultimate red devil, in Northern Nevada. And Horton played the role perfectly, as if he was the villain in a staged pro wrestling bout.

Some Horton gems after he took the Rebel job…

“When (Ault) addressed the team before we left for Arkansas State he told our players he was surprised we did as well as we did without him,” Horton said. “I took that as a slap in the face.”

Ault, Horton said, made life as the Wolf Pack football coach unbearable.

“I didn’t want to leave Nevada,” Horton said in 1994. “But I no longer thought I could work under Coach Ault. I never felt he really respected me. One of the reasons I left is because no matter what I would have done, it never would have been my program.”

It was his program for roughly six months. Ault, after all, respected Horton enough to give him the Wolf Pack’s head coaching job.

“If he’s looking for excuses as to why he left, don’t hang those things on me,” Ault said in 1994. “If Jeff didn’t want to coach here anymore, that’s fine. If he felt uncomfortable here, that’s fine. But don’t use me as a scapegoat, don’t use this program as a scapegoat and don’t use this university as a scapegoat.

“I didn’t look over his shoulder. I didn’t second guess him. I wasn’t out at practice. I never stepped foot on the sideline (during games). What changed since June?”

Ault and Horton went head-to-head on the field on Nov. 19, 1994 when the Pack headed to Las Vegas with the Big West title and a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl on the line. Horton’s Rebels won 32-27.

It would be Horton’s greatest day as Rebel coach. He would spend five seasons in Las Vegas, winning just 13 of 57 games. He never became a full-time head coach again.

After leaving UNLV he coached in the Big Ten for eight seasons at Wisconsin and Minnesota, five years in the NFL and the last nine at San Diego State as an assistant.

Ault got his revenge against Horton the next season in 1995, beating UNLV 55-32 at Mackay Stadium. The game, though, was marred by ugly brawls before and after the game as the Rebel-Wolf Pack and Ault-Horton rivalry reached a dangerous level. The fans started to take part in the Ault-Horton pro wrestling event, throwing things at Horton and his players. A Rebel player tossed a helmet at Ault.

Wolf Pack football, which once competed for national titles in Division I-AA, was now nothing more than a circus sideshow competing for the right to paint a replica cannon blue and the head coach dodging helmets on the field.

Ault stepped away from coaching for the second time after the 1995 season. UNLV dumped Horton after the 1998 season and then set its sights a bit further away than Northern Nevada, hiring a coach (John Robinson) who thought the Rose Bowl was a bigger prize than the Las Vegas Bowl. Ault came back to the Pack sideline in 2004, whipped UNLV eight consecutive times in a row (2005-12) and retired for the final time in December 2012. And nobody tossed a helmet at him even once.

Two decades earlier, back in August 1992, Ault talked about the direction in which the Wolf Pack was headed as it entered Division I-A.

“Everything is in place for this athletic department to take off, with or without Chris Ault,” Ault said.

Without Chris Ault was never a good thing for the Wolf Pack. Chris Ault knew that better than anyone else.


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