Recalling days of Nevada’s ‘Wild West’
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Three men have served as Nevada Interscholastic Activies Association executive director since the position was created in 1974: Eddie Bonine, Jerry Hughes and Bert Cooper. Bonine announced earlier this month that he is stepping down in early 2015 to accept the same position as chief of interscholastic sports in Louisiana and recently took time to review his eight years on the job and some issues the successor will face. To provide further insight on what the job entails, Cooper and Hughes shared some of their experiences on the job.)
Between them, Bert Cooper and Jerry Hughes represent more than 40 years in the role of executive director for the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association.
The NIAA was officially founded in 1922 although Cooper became the state organization’s first executive director in 1974 and served 17 years. Hughes came on board in the fall of 1990 and remained until his retirement in 2006.
In between, sort of like a Clint Eastwood western, they saw the good, the bad and the ugly. There have been some good laughs along the way, too.
Hughes remembers his introduction to Nevada sports being a 1973 basketball game at Whittell High School in Zephyr Cove, where he was assigned to work with Ray Gonzalves. It didn’t take long to realize he was no longer back home in Ohio.
“I had just moved here and this guy is giving us a hard time from the stands,” recalled Hughes, now retired and living in Reno. “All of a sudden, Ray blows his whistle, stops the game and walks over to the guy and says, ‘You open your mouth one more time and it’s you and me in the parking lot. And I’m going, ‘Wow! This is the Wild West!’ I think Ray was the football coach at Wooster at that time; needless to say, the guy settled down, but I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Cooper is able to smile now when he recalls a state basketball tournament during the 1970s in Las Vegas when the NIAA was the victim of a holdup.
“We got robbed and lost $5,000,” he said. “We had these little booths set up outside, so you didn’t go in the building to buy your tickets. That was a mistake.”
“What other state tournament has been robbed? … Like a stagecoach,” Hughes added with a laugh.
Cooper, now 81 and living in retirement in Carson City, served as state director of curriculum before he accepted the NIAA post. Before that, he spent 11 years as a teacher and coach in Nevada and Colorado. The 6-foot-4 Cooper graduated from White Pine High School and helped the Bobcats win back-to-back state basketball championships in 1951-52.
Under his direction, the NIAA expanded from 51 member schools to 69 and officially added girls sports in the mid-1970s.
“There were no real regulations. There was no handbook … just this,” Cooper said, pointing to a four-page directory of Nevada high schools.
When Hughes came aboard in 1990, the NIAA received funding from the State of Nevada, but operation was far from smooth sailing.
“I’ll never forget the first day I met with Bert,” said Hughes, who had previously served as director of student activities for Washoe County. “He said, ‘I’ve had to borrow money to pay our salary. And I thought, ‘What the heck am I getting into?’”
One of the first things Hughes did after looking at the NIAA finances was revise state championships for all sports. He started with a format in which all four state football championship games were played on a single day at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, a format that continued until 1998.
“When I took over, corporate sponsorship was just starting; North Carolina and Oregon were the first states to try it in this country,” Hughes said. “So the first couple of meetings I was trying to figure out how we could do it in Nevada.”
Pizza Hut was the first corporate sponsor that covered all sports in Nevada, according to Hughes. He vividly remembers receiving a phone call from U.S. Bank, at that time the corporate sponsor for Oregon high school athletics.
“She goes, ‘Would you be interested in a corporate sponsorship?’ I said, ‘We’d be interested in talking about it, yeah.’ She says, ‘How does the figure $150,000 sound?’ I about collapsed out of my chair.”
Hughes said he didn’t want to act overly anxious but it was hard to try and restrain his enthusiasm. He negotiated an agreement for the $150,000 in addition to office space and furniture at the U.S. Bank building in downtown Reno.
“Bert had used the same desk for his whole time, so I can tell you that in 34 years the NIAA never bought a desk,” Hughes said, laughing.
There were some extremely challenging issues. One of the big changes that did occur through the 1980s and ’90s was a rise in litigation, including judicial restraining orders on NIAA decisions.
Pat Dolan of Reno was the NIAA’s first legal counsel, and started at a salary of $500 for his first year, according to Cooper. It didn’t take long before he saw how much time was involved and asked for an increase to $500 per month — still an “unbelievable” sum for legal counsel by today’s standards.
“Pat’s dad was a principal and football coach at Winnemucca,” Hughes said. “He just wanted to help us out.”
Cooper and Hughes agree that eligibility matters are always the most difficult.
“Bert and I were in court all the time,” Hughes said. “I mean, you would literally get up in the morning and get a call telling you, ‘Hey, there’s a court case at 10 o’clock down in Las Vegas.’ That’s how much notification they’d give you, so you’d have to get your lawyer and fly down there to go to court.”
Hughes recalled another 19-year-old eligibility ruling that resulted from what would seem to be amazing circumstances.
“It used to be you couldn’t turn 19 before Sept. 1,” he said. “This is how you interpret the rule: A set of twins is born, one before midnight, one after midnight on Sept. 1. One’s eligible, one’s not, by rule. Of course, I common-sensed the rule and said we’re going to make them both eligible. But you know what? People found out about it. Then it was, ‘What’s the difference? A rule’s a rule.’”
One of the tougher calls Hughes remembers having to make involved an undefeated Las Vegas High School football team that was determined to have its quarterback ineligible academically — and had to forfeit 10 games the day before the playoffs began on Saturday. The Southern playoff brackets were completely revamped and all the teams opened the playoffs on Monday night.
Hughes received another of those memorable phone calls after handing down a decision.
“A Las Vegas High School guy calls me, and he says, ‘You’re no better than Adolf Hitler lining innocent people up against a wall and shooting them.’ I said, ‘That’s a pretty strong analogy,’ and I just slammed the phone down,” he said.
Friendships on the job constantly subject to change and challenge, he noted.
“You have to make rulings on your friends and I can tell you one of my friends didn’t talk to me for 10 years,” Hughes said. “I’ve been threatened, people have called me in the middle of the night. I remember one time when Pat and I had a case in Las Vegas and someone actually called and told us to look underneath the car before we started it. I’m like, ‘What!’”
Eligibility rulings were always difficult. One case Cooper faced involved Ferd Mariani in White Pine County. The two had gone to school and coached together, and later, Cooper married Mariani’s sister, Letha.
“Gino Mariani was a helluva football player at White Pine High School and the greatest kid you’d ever want to meet,” Cooper said. “So one day his dad comes to me and says, ‘I’m transferring Gino to Carson High School so he can get more exposure.’ I told him, ‘You transfer your kid here, I’m going to rule him ineligible.’ He transferred Gino anyway; his other son was living here (and teaching at Carson High School), so he got legal guardianship through the courts and he played at Carson.”
By the way, young Mariani went on to play football at Idaho State University and became head coach at Highland High School in Pocatello. This season, he coached the Highland Rams to a 12-0 record and Idaho 5A state championship.
Hughes graduated from Adams State in Colorado where he played football in 1970. He earned his Master’s at the University of Nevada and his Doctorate at BYU.
He compared the executive director’s job to being a law enforcement officer. In some cases, it was a no-win situation.
“I am a guy who always likes to give people second chances,” he said. “That’s the way I coached. But in this job, you have a set of rules and you enforce them. If you don’t enforce them and you don’t do it consistently, you’re in trouble. And sometimes you’re wondering, ‘How did this rule ever come about?’”
There is at least one special aspect of serving in this post, Hughes observed.
“Probably the one thing about the job I enjoyed the most, there’s only one person in the United States in every state that has this job,” he said. “So you have a close-knit group of people. If you have a question and call these guys — and these are some big states — every single one of them will get back to you within the hour, and it’s because of the respect everybody has for each other.”
Ah, but there were those humorous stories to offset the difficult times.
“My favorite Bert Cooper story, he was able to use the state car pool so he could go get a car and drive it around when he was in the NIAA,” Hughes said, laughing. “One day they didn’t have any cars left, all they had was a police car, and Bert started pulling people over … he was pulling over the superintendents.”
Cooper smiled as he finished the story, which took place before a meeting in Hawthorne and involved Tod Carlini, who served as Lyon County School District superintendent at that time. His son, Tod F. Carlini, is now the East Fork Fire and Paramedic Districts fire chief.
“Tod was in a school district car and I saw him down the road and; I had that car and it had the red and blue lights in the grille, not on the top, and the siren, I had that running … whirrrrrrr,” Cooper recalled. “Tod played fullback at Utah State so he was a big guy. He was pretty ticked, but he was from Ely so I knew him well … we laughed about that afterward.”
Only from Nevada’s yesteryear and the Wild West, right?