The Nevada Wolf Pack football team was so close to a national championship it could taste it with their grits, fried catfish and black-eyed peas.
“We haven’t come this far to
get beat now,” defensive end Neil Hulbert said a few days before the Wolf
Pack’s Division I-AA championship date with Georgia Southern in December 1990.
The Pack headed to tiny Statesboro, Georgia on the heels of two iconic triple-overtime Division I-AA playoff victories in consecutive weeks over Furman and Boise State. Lose the title now? Not the Mackay Miracle Men.
But the Wolf Pack, just like
the devil, went down to Georgia and was ambushed.
“It was like playing Notre
Dame in Rome,” Pack head coach Chris Ault said after the 36-13 loss to Georgia
Ault, who would later coach
football in Italy more than two decades later, knew what he was talking about.
Georgia Southern’s Eagles, after all, even came equipped with their own Pope
(former head coach Erk Russell, who watched the title game that day from the
stands) and their own holy water. The Eagles used to sprinkle water from nearby
Beautiful Eagle Creek in the end zone on game days for good luck.
The Pack, it turns out, would
have had a better chance against Notre Dame in Rome. There’s a reason the song
is called Statesboro Blues, unofficially named for all of the visiting football
teams who went back home in a daze. I’m going to Eagle country, baby, do you
wanna go? No thank you.
That was as close as the Wolf
Pack football team will ever likely come to winning a national title. The Wolf
Pack, after all, jumped into the money grab known as Division I-A football just
two years after that memorable day in Georgia, sacrificing such things as
national titles for national television money.
That’s why now, as we approach
the 30th anniversary of that historic season, to remember that there was a day,
a truly magical time in the late fall of 1990, when the Pack actually did play
for a national title.
And it all happened in tiny
Statesboro, “the land of pine trees and grits,” as Atlanta Constitution
newspaper columnist Furman Bisher wrote in the press box at Paulson Stadium on
Dec. 15, 1990.
The four months leading up to
that Wolf Pack bushwhacking in pine tree and grits country were a
white-knuckle, hold-on-for-dear-life, unpredictable and unbelievable
rollercoaster ride full of lifelong memories.
It all started back in August
1990 as the Wolf Pack football team attacked a new decade with renewed
enthusiasm and hope.
“We were ready for this
season to start the day after we finished last season,” said running back Ray
Whalen as practices began in the middle of August 1990.
“The players are as
optimistic as I’ve seen them in a few years,” Ault said.
That wasn’t the case heading
into the final month of the 1989 season. Just nine months before confusion and
frustration was the frightening mental state of the football program as the
calendar flipped to November 1989 and the Silver State celebrated its 125th
year of statehood. The Pack was coming off a bewildering 42-22 thrashing by the
Idaho Vandals at the Kibbie Dome to fall to 4-4 on the year. Pack football was
now officially treading water, compiling a mediocre and lifeless 16-15 over its
last 31 games, a stretch that began with a heartbreaking, dream-killing 48-38
loss to, yes, Georgia Southern and head coach Erk Russell and quarterback Tracy
Ham in the I-AA semifinals at Mackay Stadium to close out 1986.
Heading into that 1986
playoff game, the Wolf Pack was unbeaten (13-0) on the season, ranked No. 1 in
the I-AA nation, had won 19 games in a row at Mackay Stadium and 28-of-30
overall. But the Pack lost just the same and there likely wasn’t a single grit
to be found anywhere near the stadium.
And, now, 31 games after that
loss to Georgia Southern the Pack was still stuck in mediocrity for the first
time in Ault’s Pack coaching career.
“Just pathetic,” said Ault
after Idaho quarterback John Friesz passed for 446 yards against the Wolf Pack
in late October 1989. “I don’t care if it’s Joe Namath back there. You should
give up that many big pass plays when you are in a three-deep zone.”
Games against hated rivals
Boise State and UNLV were staring the 4-4 Pack in the face in November 1989.
Ault’s frustration, which always simmered just under the surface, was now
reaching its boiling point.
So how does a football team
go from pathetic and frustrated in late October 1989 to optimistic and hopeful
by August 1990?
Well, you whip Boise State
and UNLV and beat Northern Arizona with your hotshot freshman quarterback
making like Joe Namath. Fred Gatlin, who had to beat out the now-forgotten
Steve Backster just to earn the starting job in early 1989, threw for a
school-record 420 yards and five touchdowns against Northern Arizona as the
Pack ended the year with a confidence-building three-game winning streak.
“If we played like this all
year I have no doubt we’d be the No. 1 team in the nation by now,” senior tight
end Demetrius Davis said after the 1989 season ended.
Georgia Southern won the 1989
national title in Tacoma, Wash., for its third championship along with 1985 and
1986. The Wolf Pack didn’t even make the playoffs from 1987-89.
“I’m more ecstatic about the
last three weeks,” said Ault at the end of 1989, ever the silver and blue
salesman keeping everyone focused on the promising future rather than the
disappointing last three years.
Not even a three-year playoff
drought could dampen the optimism heading into 1990. There was even talk of a
potentially perfect season.
“Don’t go putting that kind
of pressure on us,” said Ault, who had not dealt with that sort of pressure
since the 1986 playoff loss to Georgia Southern.
The 1990 season began pretty
much the same way as the 1989 season ended, with a 55-14 win over Northern
Arizona. Gatlin threw for 266 yards, Brock Marion blocked a punt and backup
running back Jason Frierson (starter Ray Whalen was out with a hip injury) ran
for 110 yards.
“They looked like a veteran
NFL team,” Northern Arizona coach Steve Axman said.
“We feel we’re a nationally
ranked team but we don’t want to talk about it,” said Ault, whose Wolf Pack
began the year ranked No. 19 in I-AA.
Everyone else, it seemed, was
talking about it. The Wolf Pack then crushed Sacramento State 41-7 in Week 2,
also at Mackay. Frierson ran for 140 yards and three scores, including a
76-yarder. Steve Bryant blocked a punt, Xavier Kairy recovered a fumble. The
Pack was now No. 8 in the nation in Division I-AA.
The first true test of the
year would be Week 3 at Montana State. Gatlin didn’t look like Joe Namath and
the Pack needed two interceptions by Forey Duckett and four field goals by
Kevin McKelvie just to survive, 20-14. Ault even quick-kicked twice on third
“The defense won this one,”
Ault didn’t disagree.
“Fred just didn’t look
sharp,” Ault said. “(Backup quarterback Chris) Vargas was close to coming in.”
The 20 points were the fewest
for the Pack in a victory since a 17-13 win over Idaho on Oct. 18, 1986.
“That’s what good teams do,”
Ault said. “When you play badly and win on the road that can carry you a long
The Wolf Pack returned home
to face Idaho in Week 4. The Vandals, the last team to beat the Pack, had not
lost to Nevada since 1986.
This time it took a 19-yard
field goal by McKelvie in overtime to come away with a 31-28 Pack victory.
Treamelle Taylor also saved the day with an 87-yard punt return for a
But the real savior was
Vargas. The 16,125 fans at Mackay Stadium that afternoon witnessed the birth of
the Magic Man. The redshirt freshman came off the bench to complete 14-of-26
passes for 142 yards and a touchdown in relief of Gatlin, who was 7-of-17 for
54 yards and was intercepted three times.
“The man upstairs, we had him
in our hip pocket,” linebacker Matt Clafton said.
Clafton wasn’t referring to
Vargas when he mentioned the man upstairs. At least not yet.
The hotshot freshman
quarterback was now a stupefying sophomore.
“Fred’s not getting it done,”
Ault said “And he’s got to get it done. Period. Fred played pathetic.”
There’s that word again.
Vargas, though, wanted no
part of a quarterback controversy.
“Starting is not even on my
mind,” he said.
It was on Gatlin’s mind.
“Two quarterbacks doesn’t
work,” Gatlin said.
If it didn’t work the Wolf
Pack never would have gotten to the 1990 national title game.
“If Fred’s struggling I’m not
going to hesitate to bring Chris in,” said Ault, who, it turns out, did
hesitate a bit too long at times.
Lost in the quarterback controversy after the victory over Idaho was that Frierson suffered a knee injury that would end his 1990 season.
Gatlin started and finished
the game in Week 5, a 17-10 victory at Idaho State. But he continued to
flounder, completing just 18-of-37 passes for 164 yards.
“We’ve met the enemy and the
enemy is us,” said Ault, who always obsessed about his offense, even in good
Freshman Zeke Moore started
at running back for Frierson (and Whalen) and produced 138 yards on 31 carries
at Idaho. Taylor, who was called for three penalties, returned a kickoff 98
yards for a touchdown.
“It’s a good thing he made
the return,” said Ault, referring to the three penalties.
Taylor went from pathetic to
prodigious in 87 yards.
“That’s why I had to run the
kick back,” Taylor said. “I screwed up bad. I hurt us with stupid penalties.”
The Pack was 5-0 but was
winning with defense and special teams. Ault didn’t exactly feel like the coach
of an undefeated team because his baby, his offense, was a mess.
“The people that have hurt us
are our so-called skill people,” Ault said.
The Pack, though, was now ranked No. 4 in the nation in Division I-AA. A Homecoming crowd of 18,065, the second-largest in Mackay Stadium history, saw the Wolf Pack rip No. 19 Eastern Washington 40-17 to move to 6-0.
It was as if a cool,
refreshing breeze swept over Northern Nevada, lifting the fog of the
less-than-artistic triumphs of the past three weeks.
The win over Eastern
Washington avenged another loss from 1989 (Idaho was the first). Marion had two
interceptions and McKelvie kicked four more field goals but hardly anyone
remembered that after the game.
That’s because Gatlin and the
offense came back to life. Ault, in an effort to restore confidence in his
frustrated quarterback, simplified things and turned back the clock to 1989.
“That’s what we did last
year, when we threw the ball vertically,” said Gatlin, who connected with Taylor
for a 48-yard gain on the Pack’s first play of the game.
Ault was sending a message to
Gatlin right from the start. Just throw the darn ball.
“We threw the ball on first
down,” wide receiver Ross Ortega said. “We never throw on first down.”
The win over Eastern
Washington moved the Pack to No. 3 in the nation. Next on the schedule was the
Battle for the Fremont Cannon in Las Vegas, the game that simply defined Ault.
The Pack destroyed UNLV in
1989 (45-7) but 1990 was the first time the Pack and Rebels would play in
back-to-back years since 1978-79.
A crowd of 22,402 showed up
at Sam Boyd Silver Bowl to watch the Pack carry the blue cannon back home with
a 26-14 win for its first back-to-back wins in the rivalry since 1972-73.
Whalen returned to prominence
with 119 yards on 32 carries and Gatlin was efficient and explosive, completing
22-of-30 for 246 yards.
“He’s Fred Gatlin again,”
said a relieved Ault, who never did know which Gatlin would show up on
The Pack now had the longest
winning streak in Division I-AA at 10 and was ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“Right now we’re just kicking
the butts of everyone we play,” offensive linemen Tom Werbeckes said.
That theme continued in Week
8 with a 28-7 win at Weber State. Linebacker Frank Sullivan had three sacks as
the Pack dumped Weber State quarterback Jamie Martin seven times.
“You could see he (Martin)
had those big, wide eyes like he was scared to death,” Ault said.
Whalen, one of the more
underrated Pack backs when he was healthy, ran for 220 yards in 37 carries. “We
knew they couldn’t score if they didn’t have the ball,” Whalen said.
The next opponent would be
Montana, the team picked before the season by the media and coaches to win the
Big Sky title in 1990.
The Wolf Pack led by 24
points heading into the fourth quarter at Mackay but nearly gave the game away,
holding on for a 34-27 victory. A record crowd of 19,530 saw Gatlin complete
19-of-31 passes for 255 yards in the first half but then go just 1-of-9 in the
“We were too conservative in
the second half,” Taylor said. “It seems like we get a big lead and then we run
the ball and our offense falls to sleep.”
Whalen, who rank for 91 yards
and two touchdowns, ended the day on the bench with an ankle injury. Ault, who
invented the term “Nevada Back” to signify a 30-carry reliable, dependable
workhorse of a runner like he had in the 1980s with the likes of Frank Hawkins,
Charvez Foger and Anthony Corley, was now frustrated with his starting
quarterback and his starting running back.
The Wolf Pack headed to Boise
State the following week with a 9-0 record, a 12-game winning streak and a No.
2 national ranking. But the offense was in disarray.
Whalen tested his ankle in
the pre-game warmups on the blue Boise turf but spent the afternoon standing on
What followed was one of the worst beatings an Ault offense ever suffered. Boise State defensive lineman Eric Helgeson turned into Lawrence Taylor, sacking Gatlin three times as the Broncos ended the Pack’s chances at a perfect season with a 30-14 victory.
Gatlin was an inefficient
22-of-40 and two interceptions for 201 yards and was sacked five times. The
running game finished the day with minus-14 yards rushing. The offensive line
blocked nobody. Not even Vargas could save the day, completing 5-of-10 passes
for 29 yards and an interception.
“They just seemed
complacent,” Helgeson said of the Pack. “They already clinched a (share of the)
Big Sky title and they had nothing to win.
“They were undefeated. We had
already lost two games. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Mackay Miracles, apparently,
aren’t allowed in Boise. The only Pack touchdown of the afternoon came on a
fumble return by defensive lineman George Buddy. It had been seven seasons,
since a 14-6 loss to Fullerton in 1993, that an Ault offense failed to score a
“I am embarrassed,” Ault
The 30-14 score was the same
score that the Pack beat Boise with the previous year at Mackay.
“We were pathetic,” said
Ault, using his favorite word in times of stress and frustration. “I better
stop talking because I might regret what I might say. I have a lot of things I
want to tell this team on Monday.”
The Pack, now 9-1, saw its
Big Sky season end at 7-1. Boise State, at 6-1, still had a chance to share the
conference title with a win over Idaho.
The Wolf Pack, playing a I-AA
playoff tuneup at Mackay Stadium the following week took all of its
frustrations out on Western Illinois in the final regular-season game. Taylor
scored three touchdowns and Gatlin passed for 372 yards and five scores (the
second straight year he ended the regular season with five TD passes) as the
Pack won 50-16.
With about five minutes to go
in the game, though, a message came across the public address system. The crowd
and the Pack players and coaches heard that Idaho had upset Boise State 21-14,
giving the Wolf Pack the Big Sky Conference title all by itself.
“It was like two victories in
one day,” defensive tackle Dio Shipp said. “When we heard the Boise score it
was like a chain reaction. We were No. 1 and it felt good. Man, it felt good.”
“It would have turned my
stomach for us to be 10-1 and had to share the championship,” Ault said.
It was now time for the
The Pack’s first playoff game
since the 1986 loss to Georgia Southern was against the Northeast Louisiana
Indians (now known as the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks). The Indians were
quarterbacked by future Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson and had won the
I-AA championship in 1987.
As the Pack players ran onto
the field before the game the Fremont Cannon was ignited (as was the custom at
the time) and blew a hole in the jersey of Pack player Steve Bryant.
“The game hadn’t even started
and we were shooting our own guys in the back,” Ault said.
The cannon proved to be the
toughest opponent of the day as the Pack took a 27-14 win.
The Wolf Pack’s I-AA playoff
stroll through the south continued the following week when Furman came to
Mackay Stadium on Dec. 1, 1990.
The Paladins had won the I-AA
national title just two years before in 1988 by beating Georgia Southern.
Georgia Southern beat Furman in the title game in 1985. The Pack had lost at
Furman in the 1985 playoffs, 35-12.
The Pack fell behind Furman
28-13 in the third quarter and the crowd started chanting, “Vargas, Vargas,
Gatlin, though, was having
one of his best days of the season, on the way to a 337-yard afternoon. Gatlin
led the Pack to a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 28-20. But with 3:47 to go,
the Pack still trailed 28-20 and Gatlin was out of the game with an ankle
In came Vargas, who found
Ortega for a 13-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left in regulation and then sent
the game into overtime by hitting Joe King for the game-tying and dream-saving
Vargas then engineered two
touchdowns in overtime as the Pack somehow won 42-35 in three overtimes.
Vargas put up 156 yards
playing three-plus minutes in regulation and three brief overtimes and combined
with Gatlin for a Wolf Pack-record 496 passing yards.
“We knew somehow, someway we
were going to win this one,” Shipp said.
Vargas was fast becoming the
best reliever in all of college football.
“I don’t know if death row
has more electricity than what was going through our sideline,” Ault said.
“This was a one-game season and a one-word game. Unbelievable.”
Ault didn’t hide his praise
for Vargas after beating Furman. The playoffs, after all, were not a time to
worry about your starting quarterback’s ego.
“He’s (former Pack
quarterback, 1983-86) Eric Beavers all over again,” Ault said, “with a better
arm. Chris is so unselfish. He’s a throwback.”
Vargas, playing the role of
freshman backup perfectly on and off the field, made sure to remind everyone
that Gatlin was still the starter.
“Football is a plus for me,”
he said. “The main reason I’m here is for the education. Sure, I’d like to play
all the time. But that’s not the reason I’m here.”
The unlikely, improbable
victory over Furman set up a semifinal match with Boise State at Mackay
Stadium. It would be the Pack’s fifth trip to the semifinals. The first four
ended in defeat.
A Mackay Stadium record crowd
of 19,776 showed up to see the Pack take on Boise State even though the game
was broadcast live locally by ABC.
The Pack jumped out to a 20-7
lead in the second quarter, seemingly erasing the 30-14 disaster the month
before in Boise. But there was a hidden concern. The Pack offense, which didn’t
score a touchdown in Boise, was still looking for its first touchdown of the
year against the Broncos.
The 20 points came on two
McKelvie field goals and two defensive touchdowns, a 31-yard interception
return by defensive lineman Joe Caspers and a fumble recovery in the Boise end
zone by Hulbert. That 20-7 lead turned into a 28-20 deficit.
Ault didn’t hesitate to bring on the new Eric Beavers. Vargas entered the game with the Pack down 28-20 and seven minutes to go in the third quarter.
Magic Man led the Pack to a
45-38 lead with under a minute to go. Boise, though, tied the game with 55
seconds left to send it to overtime.
The Pack had the ball first
in overtime but McKelvie missed a 39-yard field goal. All Boise needed was
three points of its own to end the Pack season. That seemed to be inevitable as
Boise’s Mike Black lined up for a 37-yard field goal. The air seemed to leave
the stadium as Black jogged onto the field. Black, though, somehow missed as
the emotions filled the stadium once again. The Pack season was still alive.
Boise, though, took a 52-45
lead in the second OT but Vargas found Scott Benning from eight yards out to
tie it and send the Pack to its second 3-overtime game in eight days.
Darkness now began to descend
upon Mackay Stadium. Whalen, who ran for a I-AA playoff-record 245 yards on a
Nevada-back 44 carries, found the end zone from eight yards out for a 59-52
win. It was his ninth touchdown of the playoffs.
Fans tore down the south goal
posts, players cried and hugged each other on the field and the Pack was headed
to the I-AA title game in Georgia as Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” played
throughout the stadium.
“After a game like this they
have you say you’re going to Disneyland,” Pack defensive back Xavier Kairy
said. “Forget Disneyland. We’re going to Georgia.”
Who needed Disneyland after
two weeks of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? Chris Vargas, after all, had now turned the
Pack home into Magic Mackay Mountain.
“When Chris comes in it is
very inspirational,” offensive tackle Shariar Pourdanesh said.
Gatlin was 10-of-18 for 103
yards and two interceptions. Vargas was 10-of-17 for 108 yards. The numbers
were similar. But the NCAA doesn’t have a stat for miracles.
The Pack was now the first
team in college football history to play three three-overtime games in one
season, let alone two in a row.
“This is getting old,” smiled
offensive linemen Chris Wells after the game. “Please, no more of these. I
can’t take another overtime game.”
The Pack was now the fourth
Big Sky team in history to earn a trip to the I-AA title game after Boise State
(1980), Idaho State (1981) and Montana State (1984). All three won.
Georgia Southern, the last team
to beat the Pack in the playoffs, was now the opponent. Only this time the game
was in Georgia.
“We’ll play them anywhere,”
Pack offensive line coach Pat Rippee said. “If we were told to play them in
Saudi Arabia, we’d be on the airplane and on our way.”
Saudi Arabia would have been a more fair environment for the Pack. Georgia Southern, after all, hardly ever lost at home, winning 50-of-52 games there since Paulson Stadium was built in 1984.
It’s too bad the Pack
couldn’t bottle the moment and the feeling of when Whalen scored and the Pack
beat Boise State.
The Pack woke up the next
morning and reality set in like an Eric Helgeson sack.
Cornerback Bernard Ellison,
who didn’t play at all in 1989 because of an injury and then got a rare sixth
year of eligibility from the NCAA, was now hurt again and couldn’t even play in
the title game.
The Pack was going almost all
the way across the country to play a game that would start at 9 a.m. Reno time.
It was finals week for the
players in the classroom and on the field. The team that was compared to an NFL
team back in September was now about to play an NFL-like 15th game of the
season at the other end of the country.
The game was on national
television with a young Jim Nance doing the play by play. Greg Allman was going
to sing Statesboro Blues at halftime. Nobody thought to invite Johnny Cash to
sing, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” with emphasis on the lines “I’ve been to Reno . .
.” and “I was totin’ my (wolf?) pack along the dusty Winnemucca road.”
When the Wolf Pack arrived at
Paulson Stadium they were greeted by 23,204 fans and a banner in the stands
that read, “Welcome to the Georgia Southern Invitational.”
Playing Notre Dame in Italy
began to look like a pleasant weekend compared to what faced the Pack.
Georgia State would fumble
five times and lose four of them. The Pack offense would control the ball for
more than 34 minutes and pick up more first downs (21-20) than the Eagles. But
the Pack still lost by three touchdowns, its biggest loss since that game in 1989
at Idaho. Somewhere somebody was playing the Lonesome Fiddle Blues as the Pack
The two three-overtime games,
to go along with the week of preparation and the long flight to Georgia, seemed
to drain the Pack.
Down just 14-6 in the third
quarter, the Pack drove all the way down to the Georgia Southern 1-yard line
with a chance to tie the game.
Nobody saw it, but Erk
Russell might have sprinkled some of that Beautiful Eagle Creek water in the
end zone. Three Whalen runs failed to penetrate that Georgia Southern holy
land. McKelvie then tried a 24-yard field goal and missed. The Wolf Pack was
everywhere, man, except the end zone at Paulson Stadium.
The next thing the Pack knew it was 27-6. You half expected the 20,000-plus to go out to the parking lot to their pickups, pull out a shotgun and fire it into the Georgia sky. Georgia Southern had won its fourth national title.
The problem with Mackay Miracles, it turns out, is that they don’t travel well, especially to pine tree and grits country.
“We found ways to self
destruct,” a quiet Ault said after the game.
Nobody had to tell Ault that he had just let the greatest moment of his career pass him by. You could see it on his face after the game.
Vargas didn’t enter the game
until the fourth quarter. Even Nantz tried his best “Vargas, Vargas, Vargas”
chant and said at halftime, “We may see a quarterback change in the second
Vargas came in far too late
but it likely didn’t matter anyway. Magic Man completed just 10-of-21 passes
for 109 yards and threw a 3-yard parting-gift TD pass to Ortega. Gatlin was
sacked four times and was 17-of-32 for 156 yards without a pick or a TD. The
loss wasn’t his fault. The Pack had simply spent an afternoon in the Division
I-AA Twilight Zone.
“Football is over,” offensive
lineman Tony Wells said after the game. “Time to get on with my life.”
“This is our worst
nightmare,” George Buddy said in a quiet Pack locker room. “The way we won the
last two games we just thought it was God’s will for us to win. I guess it
The Wolf Pack might have had
an even better and deeper team the following year in 1991. But McKelvie missed
a game-winning field goal as the Pack lost in the playoffs 30-28 to Youngstown
State (the eventual 1991 winner) in Mackay Stadium. Maybe they should have had
Vargas kick it.
The next year (1992) the Pack
was in Division I-A. Goodbye national championships.
That’s why there will never
be another season like 1990 ever again for the Pack. Bowl games, no matter how
big the trophy and sponsor money, just are not national championships.
“This is about things that
could have been,” Taylor said after the Georgia Southern loss in 1990. “We
could have been national champions.”
Likely for the last and only time.