Joe Santoro: Does the Fremont Cannon matter anymore?

Mackay Stadium looked and felt like the set of a cheap horror movie on Saturday.

Dark gray, depressing skies overhead. Bone-chilling, damp cold blanketing the festivities. A half-empty stadium desperately in search of some hint of life. The Nevada Wolf Pack football team decked out in all-black uniforms, as if it was headed to a funeral.

There was clearly a dreary black and white Night of the Living Dead feel to what took place at the Mackay Mausoleum last weekend. And in the end, surprise surprise, all of the zombies circled the farmhouse and predictably started eating and clawing at their victims.

The Wolf Pack’s stunning 33-30 loss to the UNLV Rebels on Saturday afternoon was the equivalent of a football funeral. Turns out the Pack was dressed perfectly in its gloom and doom somber attire. All that was missing in the end was a hearse to drive the lifeless cannon away to its final resting spot.

Getting abandoned during a blinding snowstorm in the Sierra in 1843 is now the second-worst thing to happen to the Fremont Cannon or its heavily-painted, mistreated replica that the Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels have fought over since 1970. The worst thing took place this past Saturday as the cannon sat on the Rebels’ sideline fighting off the elements all by itself like an old chewed up mouth guard, watching what looked like the death of a once-proud rivalry.

The Silver State Showdown, the Battle for the Fremont Cannon, Chris Ault’s Reason for Coaching, is now on life support. The Rebels and Wolf Pack embarrassed themselves on Saturday. Nevada’s only college football teams embarrassed their universities, the entire state, the communities they represent and the Mountain West conference.

“It was an emotional game,” coach Jay Norvell kept saying over and over after the loss. “A lot of these kids know each other.”

Make no mistake, the embarrassment had nothing to do with anything that happened between the opening kickoff and the 19-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Kenyon Oblad to a wide-open Steve Jenkins in overtime. That was disappointing and frustrating. But not embarrassing. The football was predictably sloppy, messy, ugly, exciting and ugly, like all Wolf Pack games. The players played hard. They didn’t quit. They have nothing to be embarrassed about for the events before Jenkins’ touchdown.

After the game is a different story.

As Norvell said, the kids on both rosters now know each other real well. They now know who can take a punch. They now know who can throw a punch. They now know which teammates will have their back when they want to pile on a defenseless opponent. They now know who is smart enough to have his head on a swivel.

Oblad, apparently, is not one of those players. Just moments after he tossed the game-winning touchdown pass to Jenkins, the freshman was slugged from behind by a Wolf Pack player.

“I was blindsided,” Oblad told the Las Vegas-Review Journal after the game.

Everyone in attendance knows exactly how Oblad felt. We were all blindsided by how that mess finished up.

The punch that Oblad absorbed started a full-blown melee in the south end zone. A spectator reached down over the fence and pulled the helmet off a UNLV player’s head. Players threw punches. Fans threw objects down upon the players. UNLV players at one point looked like they started to climb into the stands. There was yelling going back and forth between players and fans. You know, they were simply asking each other if they had a nice Thanksgiving.

“It’s a gnarly rivalry,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said after the game. “I hope what happened doesn’t take away from our victory.”

Of course not. Why would it? All NCAA college football games should end in an all-out brawl with players and fans yelling obscenities back and forth and players sucker punching each other. It’s good, clean fun.

It was disgusting, frightening and repulsive. The coaches lost control of their teams. The players lost control of their emotions. It was not something you would ever want your children to watch on a Saturday afternoon.

“I don’t even know what happened, to be honest with you,” Norvell said. “So I can’t even really speak about it.”

Luckily Norvell was being honest. If he was trying to avoid the truth he might have said something silly.

“You know, it’s a football game,” Norvell said. “It’s competitive. It’s emotional and, you know, it’s a hard game for a lot of these kids. A lot of these kids will never get a chance to play in this game again. For a lot of them, they’ll never play in another home game at Mackay. There’s a lot of emotions out there. A lot of them are hurting.”

The same thing (an ugly brawl with UNLV) happened to Chris Ault’s Wolf Pack on Oct. 28, 1995 at Mackay Stadium. Fights broke out before and after the Pack’s 55-32 win that day. A Rebel player tossed a helmet at Ault after the game. It was a disgusting display by both teams.

Ault, though, knew how to respond after the game.

“I can’t think of anything uglier than what I saw today,” Ault said in 1995. “That had nothing to do with intensity. Intensity is on the field. That tarnishes what the rivalry is all about. All of that has nothing to do with football. It’s a hollow victory.”

It saddened Ault to see that October afternoon in 1995 what had happened to the Battle for the Fremont Cannon. The day that should have served as the greatest celebration of Silver State football turned out to be the Nightmare on Virginia Street.

Norvell, judging by his response on Saturday, wasn’t nearly as upset as Ault was in 1995 about what he saw or didn’t see after witnessing Nightmare on Virginia Street II.

“I hope we aren’t so small in the state of Nevada that we don’t know what a rivalry is,” Ault said in 1995. “This is not what a rivalry is about.”

What, exactly, is this Wolf Pack-Rebel rivalry about right now? Well, it basically does not exist anymore. Just 16,683 fans showed up on Saturday. And that was before the Pack lost and before the players acted like fools after the game. A crowd of 16,683 for a rivalry game is almost as embarrassing as the stupidity that took place after the game. It was the smallest crowd at Mackay for a Rebel game since the Pack joined Division I-A in 1992, the smallest since 16,545 showed up in 1989 to fill a Division I-AA stadium that sat around 15,000 fans.

The 1995 game, by the way, drew 33,391 fans who came to boo former Pack coach Jeff Horton’s return to Mackay. Brian Polian’s Pack in 2013 attracted a crowd of 32,521 for UNLV. Chris Tormey’s Pack drew 31,900 in 2003. Jeff Tisdel’s Pack had a crowd of 30,118 in 1997 for the Rebel game. Tisdel, Tormey and Polian all got fired. Norvell, by the way, has averaged 17,021 for his two Rebel games at Mackay.

But maybe it is not Norvell’s fault. Maybe the game is simply not special anymore. Maybe it never was. Maybe it was just Chris Ault Fake News hype. If you listen to Norvell, losing to the Rebels doesn’t sting any more than, say, a loss to Wyoming in late October.

When asked how much the loss to the Rebels hurt, he simply said, “They all hurt. We’re not happy. We don’t like losing this game or any game.”

Wrong answer.

For Norvell, the Rebel game is simply just any game? Weber State, San Jose State, UNLV. They are all the same? Maybe that is why he’s 1-2 against bad UNLV teams.

If Ault was the Pack coach on Saturday he would have issued a public apology to the mayor of Reno, the entire community, the governor, the president of the university, every single season ticket holder as well as the poor guys at the airport that had to load the cannon back onto the plane to Las Vegas on Saturday night. He apologized to everyone in 1995, after all, and that was after a 23-point victory.

Norvell and his players, though, still don’t get it.

Just like Brian Polian never got it. Chris Tormey never got anything, especially victories over UNLV. Jeff Tisdel got it. That’s because Ault was around to remind him how important beating UNLV was every single day. Tisdel never lost to the Rebels.

Norvell and the Pack players still think this game is about them. For them.

We tried to tell them. But they don’t seem to care enough to listen. So here it is one more time: The Rebel game is now, always has been and always will be, for Northern Nevada.

If you truly accept that, you don’t wear black for the Rebel game. You wear blue. You wear your school colors in a rivalry game. You don’t try to look like the Las Vegas Raiders. You wear the color your community is proud of. You don’t dress like a guy with a makeshift haunted house in his garage on Halloween.

Ault always knew what Northern Nevada wanted when it came to the UNLV game. They wanted to beat UNLV. Imagine that.

Ault, after six Pack losses in nine years to the Rebels, after four losses in a row, told the Pack fan base exactly what was going to happen on Sept. 16, 1978 in Las Vegas. He stood up in front of a crowd of 150 at the Pack’s Quarterback Club the week before the game and guaranteed a Pack win. He was like a pint-sized Joe Namath before Super Bowl III.

“The team is flat ready,” Ault said back in 1978. “We’re going to go down there and put it to them. One way or another I guarantee we’re going to come back with the cannon.”

Norvell should have said the same thing last week. The Pack, after all, embarrassed itself last year by blowing a 23-0 lead against the Rebels in a disturbing 34-29 loss. They had all year to think about it. The Pack was riding a three-game winning streak with dreams of winning nine games this year. The Rebels came to Mackay with a lame-duck coach. Why not tell your fan base that you were going to make sure the cannon was painted blue this week? The Pack, though, treated Saturday’s game like it was just any other game.

The Pack, by the way, won 23-14 in 1978 for Ault’s first victory of 15 over UNLV in his career.

“If we would have lost I would have had to ask (Rebel coach Tony) Knap to let me borrow the thing for a weekend,” Ault said the day after the 1978 win. “I had to keep my promise.”

Ault had no idea where he was even going to display the cannon back in 1978. “We’ll find a way to fit it in,” he said in 1978. “If not, we’ll put it right in the hallway to greet everybody when they walk in.”

Once Ault started winning the cannon on a regular basis he made sure the greatest trophy in college football was treated with respect in Reno.

“The Fremont Cannon is such a monumental trophy that we built a spot for it when we built Cashell Fieldhouse in the 1980s,” Ault said in 2010, in the middle of an eight-game winning streak over UNLV.

Ault never looked at the Fremont Cannon as a mere trophy. For Ault, it was as important to the community as the Reno Arch over Virginia Street. It was a source of community pride. In the days before easy television revenue and six and seven-figure coach’s salaries, Ault knew that his survival depended on community involvement and support. And he knew winning the cannon was crucial for securing that support.

“We’ll count on the community for financial support but physical support is just as important,” Ault said at his first Pack press conference in December 1975. “We’ve got to put people in the stands and get them behind our team. That team we put on the field will not be my team or the university’s team. It will be the community’s team. And it will be a team they can identify with and get behind.”

The disconnect between Norvell’s Pack and the Northern Nevada community has reached its critical stage. Norvell has been the Pack coach for 18 games at Mackay Stadium and has coaxed a crowd of 20,000 or more through the turnstyles just three times.

You can’t draw 17,000 for the UNLV game, with a 7-4 Wolf Pack team that had won three games in a row and had just beaten Fresno State and San Diego State on the road? That is a serious disconnect between the community and its football program.

Ault, though, might have a simple solution to the Pack’s current problem. Norvell talked last week of how he didn’t like looking at the empty spot at Cashell Fieldhouse where the cannon should be sitting. There is an easy solution to that problem.

Before the Rebel game in 1976 Ault had a small replica of the Fremont Cannon made up and painted it red. His plan was to take the real cannon away from the Rebels in 1976, bring it back to Reno and paint it blue and give the toy cannon to UNLV as sort of a consolation prize.

“It is now ready for delivery to Vegas,” Ault said a few days before the game in 1976.

Maybe Ault should give Norvell a small replica toy cannon this week and paint it blue to sit in the corner of the empty hallway at Cashell Fieldhouse. Any trophy, after all, will do for any game, right? All losses hurt, right?

The Pack, by the way, lost that day in Las Vegas, 49-33, on Nov. 20, 1976. So Ault didn’t keep all his promises to Northern Nevada.

But a real rivalry was born that day, thanks to Ault. The hope here is that it didn’t die on Nov. 30, 2019.


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