Football: Nevada-UNLV rivalry a cherished event for Ault |

Football: Nevada-UNLV rivalry a cherished event for Ault

by Joe Santoro

Chris Ault is the heart and soul of the Nevada Wolf Pack-UNLV Rebels football rivalry.

“I cherish this game,” the Wolf Pack head coach said this week. “It’s extremely important to me, to this university and to this community.”

Nobody has lived and breathed the rivalry like Ault.

The man has been a direct part of the Silver State Showdown for 31 of the 35 games as either an assistant coach, head coach or athletic director. He had just turned 27-years-old when he experienced his first Rebel-Pack game first hand in 1973. He will be 63 on Saturday night when the 36th game of the rivalry features the 4-0 Wolf Pack against the 1-3 Rebels at Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium.

“I’ve lived this rivalry,” he said. “Nobody else can say that. It’s different when you’ve experienced it yourself. That’s why it’s important to me.”

This year’s game will be Ault’s 20th as a head coach in the rivalry. Rookie head coach Bobby Hauck will be the eighth different UNLV head coach that Ault has faced.

No UNLV coach has coached against more than three different Pack coaches.

“Everyone knows how important this game is,” Ault said matter-of-factly this week.

The winner gets to take home the Fremont Cannon, the heaviest (over 500 pounds) and most expensive (it cost $10,0000 to build 40 years ago) trophy in college football.

The trophy has resided in the Wolf Pack’s Cashell Fieldhouse and has been dressed in blue for the past five years, a longer stretch than even explorer John C. Fremont owned the original howitzer on his journey through Nevada almost two centuries ago.

“We want to keep it painted blue,” said Ault, who is also well aware that a victory on Saturday will give the Pack a record six consecutive victories  in this rivalry.

He says that every year. And he usually backs up what he says.

“It’s an important game,” said Ault, who owns a 12-7 record in the rivalry as head coach.

Bill Ireland, the first Rebels coach (and ex-Pack coach) who helped create the Fremont Cannon in 1970, is widely considered the Grandfather of the Pack-Rebels rivalry. Ault, though, is clearly the father. That’s why he lives this rivalry 365 days a year and not just during cannon week.

No University of Nevada employee (or any visitor to a Pack practice), for example, will dare wear any piece of clothing that has even a hint of the color red. And it doesn’t matter what shade of red you wear. To Ault, it’s all Rebel red. And while nobody can prove that Santa Claus is afraid to shimmy down the Ault family’s chimney on Christmas Eve wearing his traditional Rebel red suit, nobody can disprove it, either.

Yes, the man hates the color red more than the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, unhappy bulls and guys who want Pete Rose to pay off a bet.

“I have a lot of fun with it,” Ault said.

Ault, in many ways, is a living, breathing human version of the Fremont Cannon.

Like the cannon, he looks better in blue and spends more time than anyone (or anything) in Cashell Fieldhouse. Like the cannon, he is quick to tell a UNLV joke. The cannon, thanks to an unknown artist, once sported the phrase “University of Notta Lotta Victories.”

Like the cannon, Ault is the trophy that UNLV once had (he was a Rebel assistant from 1973-75), once lost (he left for Nevada in 1976), once tried to lure back (they offered him their head coaching job in 1993) and once failed to recapture (he turned them down).

And, like the cannon, UNLV once tried to break him into little pieces. UNLV players, after all, lifted the cannon on their shoulders in 2000 and promptly dropped it, causing nearly $2,000 worth of damage. A few years before, a UNLV player tossed his helmet at Ault after a game. The damage was considerably less than $2,000.

There is, however, one very important difference between Ault and the cannon. The cannon, after all, does not fire after every touchdown anymore. It has been quiet since 1999. Ault, on the other hand, still has plenty of gunpowder that he isn’t afraid to ignite, as evidenced by this conversation after a Pack practice this week . . .

Question: Why is this rivalry so important to you?

Chris Ault: “When I came back here in 1976, the rivalry was only for football. And it wasn’t really that big of a deal in football. As a young coach (he was hired by Nevada at the age of 29), I just thought the best thing I can do to get the community involved and excited was to talk about this rivalry.”

Question: Do you have a real hatred for UNLV? It is personal?

Ault: “Oh, no, not at all. I have a great many friends down there. It’s not personal at all. In fact, I will always be grateful to that university for giving me my start. This university (Nevada) didn’t do that. And I asked, believe me. UNLV gave me my first job in college coaching. I will always be grateful to them for that and I will never forget it.”

Question: You coached at UNLV for three years as an assistant and have seen this rivalry from both sides. Is this rivalry as important to UNLV as it is to the Wolf Pack?

Ault: “It’s a little bigger for them than most games and when I was there (head coach) Ron Meyer tried to make it a big deal. But they’ve never really cared about it all that much. They just don’t have our tradition, especially in football. It’s a different element down there. They don’t have the alumni base and the wonderful tradition that we have. That’s why this game isn’t as important to them as it is for us.”

Question: Is it true that UNLV didn’t want to play this game every year?

Ault: “They passed us by in the 1980s. They wanted to play other schools. They wanted to leave us behind. They had all the money, the big school and the nice stadium. We didn’t play them that much (in the 1980s). I think it was three years we didn’t play (1980-82) and then we only played them every other year for a while (1983, ’85, ’87). After that when the contract ended in 1988 I just lobbied the state and said, ‘We have to play this game every year. It’s important to both schools, it’s important to the people of this state.’ And we’ve been playing every year since (starting in 1989).”

Question: How close did you come to becoming the Rebels head coach for the start of the 1994 season?

Ault: “Very, very close. About two days away. In (UNLV athletic director) Jim Weaver’s mind, I think he thought it was a done deal. But I just told him, ‘I need to go back home and talk about it with my wife and think about it.’ So that’s what I did. But I’m sure he (Weaver) thought I was going to be their next head coach. The Las Vegas Review-Journal even had a big headline the next day, that said something like, ‘Ault accepts job.’ I still have it somewhere.”

Question: You’ve said all along that your wife Kathy is the reason you didn’t take job. Is that really what happened?

Ault: “Kathy was very supportive. She just said,  ‘If you think this is the right thing to do, the right thing for our family, then we will support you in whatever you decide.’ And then the tears started.  I just thought, ‘Oh, God, are you kidding? How can I do this?’ I just knew in my heart right then that family was more important than another job. At that point we hadn’t even told the kids yet. But I knew right then. I just called Jim the next day and told him, ‘Jim, I just can’t pull the trigger.’ He was very professional. He understood.”

Question: And the next day he hired Jeff Horton and almost your entire staff, preventing you from taking another offer from another school?

Ault: “That’s exactly what happened. And before I knew it I was back coaching (at Nevada) again. That was a crazy time. I can’t tell you the school because the athletic director is still at that school but, yes, I had another offer waiting for me when I turned UNLV down. But a day or two after I turned UNLV down, that other school hired another coach. And then the whole thing with UNLV happened (with Horton) and I was back into coaching anyway.”

Question: Was the UNLV job much more attractive than the Wolf Pack job at the time?

Ault: “No question. UNLV was thinking very aggressively at that time. They had all the money, they had all the budget you needed to be successful. They were thinking big. They were doing things and we weren’t. And we were kind of struggling and kind of stuck where we were. UNLV would have paid me more than twice what I was making here. That was a great job at the time.”

Question: Could you have actually seen yourself wearing red, standing on the sideline and coaching against the Wolf Pack in the Fremont Cannon game?

Ault: “I’m not sure. To tell you the truth, I really don’t know. It would have been a big deal for me. I would have had to get my mind working in a completely different direction. But it would have been tough and I don’t know if I could have done it.”

Question: Quincy Sanders has always insisted that he didn’t throw his helmet at you (after the 1995 Pack-Rebels game), that he just threw it into the ground and you were close by. Did he throw it at you?

Ault: “No question. He threw it at me and almost hit me. He was standing right in front of me. If he would have hit me I would have picked it up and thrown it back at him. That’s how close he came to hitting me.”

Question: Did that ugly day (there were fights before and after the game) sour you on coaching and motivate you to step down for the second time after the 1995 season?

Ault: “No, not really. It didn’t sour me on coaching. When that happened, I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s low class.” It was the low point of this great rivalry.”

Question: Will playing in the same conference (the Pack will join the Rebels’ Mountain West Conference in 2011 or 2012) help or hurt the Fremont Cannon game?

Ault: “I think it will help it. When we were in the same conference before (the Big West in the 1990s), it made the game more important. It was not only for the state championship and for bragging rights, it was an important league game. So it will make it an even better game for both teams. I like it.”