Chris Ault created his very
own silver and blue Mackay Stadium monster.
The first rumblings that
convinced the Nevada Wolf Pack football coach that his creation had finally
staggered out of the laboratory and into Mackay Stadium took place Nov. 15,
Ault was putting the
finishing touches on his Wolf Pack’s preparation for the Northern Arizona
Lumberjacks when he first heard his monster growl.
“We were in the locker room
before the game and I heard them yelling,” the Wolf Pack football coach said
after beating the Lumberjacks 27-17 before a stadium-record crowd of 15,425. “I
never heard the fans before when we were inside the locker room. I didn’t know
if they kicked off without us.”
What kicked off was a wild
and untamed brave new Wolf Pack world. Dr. Aultenstein had indeed given life to
a dormant Northern Nevada fan base.
“Fans are noticeably louder,”
Reno Gazette-Journal sports columnist Steve Sneddon wrote in the fall of 1986.
“The stadium used to be a nice place to reflect on life and that has all
You could hardly hear
yourself think at times in the fall of 1986 at Mackay. The Wolf Pack won its
first 13 games of the season, had national title dreams and Ault, who was
always equal parts Joe Paterno and P.T. Barnum, had given everyone an open
invitation to join the party.
“We finally hit a mark that
was critical for the bond between the community and the campus,” Ault said in
Ault, the first Wolf Pack
starting quarterback at Mackay Stadium in 1966, became head coach in 1976 and
athletic director in 1986. His first order of business as athletic director was
to send a bolt of electricity through the Wolf Pack marketing department.
Enter Blue Thunder.
“Blue Thunder is the group
that attends our games,” Ault said in the summer of 1986, coming off a superb
11-2 season and trip to the Division I-AA playoff semifinals in 1985. “It
describes the spirit, the feeling when the stadium is full and the crowd is
pumped up. It’s the noise the crowd makes.”
Blue Thunder was Ault’s
brainchild, the name taken from a 1983 movie starring Roy Scheider as the pilot
of a high-tech heavily-armed helicopter used to patrol the streets of Los
Angeles. Ault had spent the last 10 years building the product in his locker
room and on the field. Now, as athletic director, his next mission was to build
the product in the Mackay Stadium stands.
“There’s been so much apathy
even when there’s been really good teams,” former Nevada State Journal sports
editor Ty Cobb, who had covered the team since the 1940s, said in 1986. “The
people who have gone to the games usually just sat on their hands. They
wouldn’t clap. They wouldn’t make any noise.”
Ault knew apathy wasn’t going
to help beat Montana, UNLV, Idaho or Boise State or boost his limited budget.
That’s why Dr. Aultenstein, when given the keys to the athletic department in
July 1986, immediately gathered all the best parts of the Wolf Pack fan base –
a loyalty to the silver and blue, a love for the community and a disdain for
anything and everything that wasn’t Battle Born – and gave it a heartbeat with
“That’s one of the better
plays I’ve ever called,” said Ault in early 1987. “We gave the fans an
Wolf Pack fans proudly
accepted the Blue Thunder label, with its slick lightning bolt logo, as their
own. And they promptly took it a step further. OK, maybe a thousand steps
Enter the Zonies.
“Blue Thunder, the Zonies,”
said Ault, looking back on the 1986 season in March 1987. “It all came together
at one time.”
Ault walked onto the field
for the 1986 season opener against Cal State Fullerton and saw Blue Thunder
living and breathing (and drinking) in the south end zone seats.
“I saw the end zone packed,”
Ault said after the 49-3 season-opening victory. “That excited me.”
Nobody, at least in the media
or the athletic department, was calling the fans in the south end zone Zonies
just yet. But they were there just the same. For just $25 Pack fans could buy a
south end zone season ticket for the seven home games.
“That’s less than the price of a movie,” Ault said.
Like Blue Thunder, the term Zonies wasn’t exactly Battle Born. The Tangerine Bowl (named the Citrus Bowl since 1983) marketed the term in the late 1970s to help sell end zone seats for its annual game in Orlando, Fla.
The Orlando Zonies was based
on non-stop partying. The Tangerine Bowl organized parties the week leading up
to the game and sold hats, T-shirts and anything else on which they could
attach a Zonies’ logo. Their theme was “Ya Gotta Wanna Be a Zonie” and it was
all based on having a good time. One of the enticements to buying a Zonie
ticket, after all, was a 22-ounce bottomless cup for the pre-game parties.
“You can fill your cup with
Budweiser or Pepsi at our parties as long as you fill your heart with joy,”
said Zonie creator Steve Slack in 1979, a member of the Tangerine Bowl Board of
Directors. “Our people take it right to the end but don’t go over.”
The Orlando Zonies even had a
fight song. “Zonies don’t care who is in the game. Teams on the field all look
the same. Zonies don’t care who is here. As long as they have ice-cold beer.”
The first mention of “Zonies” by the Reno Gazette-Journal did not come until the Division I-AA playoffs in November 1986. Before that the newspaper referred to the loud crowd of supporters in the south end zone seats simply as “South Standers.”
That Nov. 15, 1986 game against Northern Arizona, when the crowd noise infiltrated Ault’s pre-game preparation, is when the Pack Zonies became a Northern Nevada phenomenon.
“The last 20 minutes of the
game the crowd, particularly the fans behind the south end zone, was
thunderous,” the Gazette-Journal reported.
At one point late in the game
Northern Arizona quarterback Greg Wyatt, standing just a yard from the south
end zone, turned to the officials and complained the noise was so loud he
couldn’t yell out signals.
“These kind of complaints are
common in college football,” wrote the Gazette-Journal, “but didn’t become
regular fare at Mackay Stadium until this season. The ‘South Standers’ were at their
Ault’s silver and blue
creation was now becoming as much a part of the Wolf Pack as quarterback Eric
Beavers, running backs Lucius Floyd and Charvez Foger, linebacker Henry Rolling
and wide receivers Tony Logan and Bryan Calder.
“That group up there, that’s
Wolf Pack,” Ault said proudly. “That’s special to us.”
The media finally discovered
the true name for the south end zone fans on Nov. 29, 1986 when Idaho came to
Mackay Stadium for a Division I-AA playoff game.
“The ‘zonies’ claimed at least
one touchdown for themselves,” wrote Gazette-Journal reporter Don Cox after the
27-7 win over Idaho.
That so-called Zonies
touchdown came when Pack linebacker Andre Rhodes blocked an Idaho punt and
cornerback Joe Peterson recovered it in the end zone right below the Zonies for
the final touchdown of the game.
The Zonies, reported the
Gazette-Journal, spent the afternoon heckling Idaho players and drinking
forbidden liquor since alcohol sales were forbidden during I-AA playoff games.
“This beats the hell out of
cleaning my mother’s garage,” said one Zonie, who was wearing a ski mask, to
The place to be seen and
heard now in Northern Nevada, at least on Saturday afternoons when the Pack was
in town, was the south end zone seats.
The following week, during
another playoff game against Tennessee State, about 500 fans sat outside the
stadium on their own lawn chairs and kitchen chairs overlooking the north end
zone. They watched the game looking through the fence, trees and picnic area and
under the scoreboard. They were out there because there was no room for them in
the south end zone seats.
“Call them O-Zonies,”
reported Larry Baden of the Gazette-Journal.
“You don’t have to worry
about tickets,” an O-Zonie told the Gazette-Journal. “You drink what you want
(take that, NCAA) and all in all it’s a pretty fair way to watch a game. In
some ways its better than in the stands because you are not packed in like
Ault’s Blue Thunder was
working to perfection.
“I think the town has been
hungry for something to get involved in,” Ault said in 1986. “This is really
the first time since I’ve been here that the people in this community have
known that they were part of the team.”
Bob Cashell, the owner of
Boomtown Casino, the former president of the University Board of Regents and
future mayor of Reno, said in 1986, “Twelve years ago we weren’t getting 1,000
people in the stands (the average crowd in 1975, the year before Ault took over
the program, was actually 4,300),” Cashell said. “Now it’s become like a social
event. It’s like a big club.”
The Big Thunder Zonies
The Pack whipped Tennessee
State 33-6 and earned a spot in the I-AA playoff semifinals against Georgia
Southern at Mackay Stadium the following week. The Zonies did their best to
help the Pack against the defending I-AA champions but the Eagles came away
with a 48-38 victory.
“That’s good support for
their program,” said Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham when asked about
the Pack crowd. “It will cause problems if you let it.”
The Zonies, of course, tried
to cause problems.
“The Zonies in the south end
zone pelted Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham with plastic megaphones
after he scored a touchdown,” the Gazette-Journal reported.
Georgia Southern coach Erk
Russell came away impressed with the Zonies.
“I look forward to the day
when we have the kind of crowd at our place that UNR had today,” Russell said.
“If you don’t think a bunch of maniacs in the end zone are a credit to a
football team then you have another thing coming.”
It was the first time the
Zonies were referred to as maniacs, at least publicly. It wouldn’t be the last
A few of the Georgia Southern
players were seen wearing Zonies’ scarves after the game. Kicker Rob Whitten
said he paid $1 to a Zonie for a scarf and wore it on his head after the game.
“I just wanted it for the memory,” Whitten said.
One Georgia Southern player
walked up to the south end zone seats after the game, raised three fingers to
the crowd and yelled, “You’re number three.”
The Zonies were now, as Ault
hoped, a huge part of the football team.
“That bunch of maniacs,
better known as the Zonies, didn’t even exist a month ago,” the Gazette-Journal
reported on Dec. 4, 1986.
They existed but nobody knew
what to call them. The Wolf Pack athletic department, which sold a
school-record 122,919 tickets to the 10 home football games in 1986, now had
the perfect marketing tool. The Wolf Pack mentioned the Zonies every chance it
could in its newspaper ads starting after the 1986 season.
“Zonies,” said one Pack ad in
August 1987. “The elite group that helped make the UNR football team Big Sky
champs last season.”
The word elite was a polite,
politically correct way to refer to the inhabitants of the end zone.
“The south end zone. Where the
elite meet,” read popular T-shirt and Wolf Pack ads in the summer of 1987.
“Zonies,” said another Nevada
ad in 1992. “We love ’em. Opposing teams hate ’em. Come to think of it, maybe
that’s why we love ’em.”
The Northern Nevada business
community also tried to jump on the popular Zonies bandwagon after the 1986
“For all you Zonies, we carry
special pins to honor you,” said an ad for Richard Jewelers of Reno in
“The Western Village Zonies
Back the Pack,” said another 1987 ad.
Acknowledging the Zonies was
also a media priority after the 1986 season.
“Fans in the stands hovering
over the south end zone were so boisterous they acquired a nickname, ‘Zonies,’”
wrote Paul Bauman of the Gazette-Journal in March 1987.
The Pack players fell in love
with the Zonies right from the start, a love affair that continues to this day.
“I’m going to miss the Zonies
the most when I leave here,” said senior defensive tackle Horacio Leyva late in
the 2001 season.
Pack quarterback Chris Vargas
was interviewed heading into the 1992 season, the Pack’s first in Division I-A,
and expressed his love of the Zonies.
“I imagine what it would be
like for the other team’s quarterback on the 5-yard line, trying to call
signals with all those Zonies screaming in his face,” Vargas said. “Just
thinking about that gets me all psyched up.”
Jumping into the first row of the Zonies to celebrate a touchdown became a ritual for Pack players, namely wide receivers such as Bryan Reeves, Ross Ortega, Chris Singleton and Treamelle Taylor, in the early 1990s.
It was all innocent, good
clean fun by a fan base and a football team finally coming of age. But there
were some warning signs that not all of the fun was clean and innocent. Yes,
the Orlando Zonies might take it right to the end but didn’t go over, but they
were just cheering for two out of town bowl teams. They really didn’t care who
won the game. The Pack Zonies became alpha male and female wolves protecting
The Boise State Broncos came
to Mackay Stadium for a I-AA semifinal playoff game in early December 1990 and
unknowingly stepped into the dark world of the Pack’s Twilight Zonies. The Wolf
Pack won an epic three-overtime 59-52 miracle victory to go to the I-AA title
game and, well, Boise fans took as much of a beating as their players.
“The Zonies were spitting on
Boise fans as they walked around looking to use the restrooms,” said one
letter-to-the-editor writer from Nampa, Idaho, to the Gazette-Journal in
December 1990. “They were also throwing bottles and aluminum cans onto the
playing field. When a 75-year-old woman can’t return to her seat in the Boise
section without being physically abused by a drunken older Wolf Pack fan,
something needs to be done.”
Another letter writer from
Idaho wrote, “Your fans in the end zone were vulgar. Empty booze bottles thrown
on the field were disgusting.”
And yet another Idaho letter
stated, “Many Wolf Pack fans would be hard-pressed to describe a single play
from the game because they faced the BSU fans the entire time. These so-called
fans were not there to support their team, but to harass and pick fights with
the BSU fans. They constantly flipped us off and shouted.”
The Zonies, Ault’s silver and
blue monster he inadvertently created back in 1986, were now becoming something
a bit more serious than simply a demographic to be exploited by the marketing
What now, exactly, was a Zonie? Think of the 1984 movie “Gremlins” when an innocent, furry, cuddly pet known as a mogwai was doused in water and fed after midnight and became a demon Gremlin that chain-smoked three cigarettes at once, spun around on ceiling fans at local bars, guzzled alcohol straight from the bottle and made a horrible mess in your kitchen.
Substitute beer for water
and, well, the transformation from cuddly mogwai to disgusting Gremlin was
eerily similar, at least in spirit, of what was going on in the Mackay south
end zone seats. And, yes, the Zonies, much like the Gremlins, were quickly
known to throw the best parties.
“I used to be a Zonie until
last year’s game with Northern Arizona,” a Gazette-Journal letter writer
claimed in November 1991. “At the beginning of the game as NAU took the field a
group of Zonies started up with an obscene chant.”
The Pack marketing of the
Zonies continued full force in the early 1990s. The original Zonie bleachers
were removed and donated to the Elko High football program as the Pack headed
into Division I-A in 1992. Those Zonie seats were replaced with even more seats
because, after all, more seats equaled more Zonies which equaled more ticket
sales and beer consumption which, in turn, produced more Wolf Pack revenue. An
arrest now and then and an occasional nasty letter to the editor was a small
price to pay, after all, to help pay the athletic department’s bills.
The complaints about the
Zonies from visiting and local fans, though, only continued to escalate
throughout the 1990s. Yes, the Pack Gremlins were now even scaring the Pack
In October 1994 16 fans in
the south end zone were kicked out of a 45-24 homecoming win over New Mexico
“We were just having a good
time like we always do,” one of the ejected fans told the Gazette-Journal that
week. “I don’t know why they decided to single us out because we are there
every week doing the same thing.”
The Zonies were becoming such a force that even visiting coaches were wary of criticizing them. New Mexico State coach Jim Hess, who also coached Stephen F. Austin at Mackay Stadium in the early Zonie years in 1986 and 1987, just smiled in 1992 when confronted with a question about the Zonies.
“The Zonies, they were just
great,” Hess said in July 1992, well aware that he’d have to walk past the
bottle-throwing, spitting and obscene Zonies later that fall. “They sit in the
end zone and drink beer and throw their beer on you. They really let you have
it. They are great fans.”
All of that innocence and
good clean fun, though, ended on Oct. 28, 1995 when UNLV and head coach Jeff
Horton came to Mackay Stadium. Ault’s silver and blue monster was waiting for
this game for nearly two years, ever since Horton abandoned the Pack after the
Horton, a former Wolf Pack
assistant coach in the late 1980s and later the Pack head coach in 1993, knew
all about the Zonies. Some of his best friends were Zonies but he also knew
he’d be the Zonies’ public enemy No. 1 that late October afternoon day at
Mackay in 1995.
“When we came out of the
locker room people were already throwing stuff at us,” Horton said after the
Wolf Pack’s 55-32 victory in 1995. “We all got drenched. I had more beer thrown
at me than I’ve drank in a year.”
One fan wrote in a letter to
the editor the week after the UNLV game, “It was like bringing your daughter to
a bar instead of a football game.”
That Mackay bar also turned
into a good old fashioned wild west saloon with a couple brawls that afternoon.
The Pack and Rebels got into fights before and after the game. One Rebel tossed
a helmet at Ault. One fan was arrested for throwing beer on Horton, which was
sort of like arresting one member of the Lakota, Arapahoe or Cheyenne tribe
after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
“Some of the fans spit on the
Rebels,” a Washoe County sheriff deputy told the Gazette-Journal. “This is not
the only game they’ve done that.”
Horton later told the
Gazette-Journal in a 2005 story, “That (getting beer tossed on him in 1995)
didn’t bother me. I love the Zonies. I love the crowd there. It’s great that
people are that passionate about the rivalry.”
By August 2003, though, the
complaints about the Zonies prompted a change in the Mackay Stadium seating
chart. The Wolf Pack transformed the south end zone seats from general
admission to reserved seating. It was an effort to generate revenue and to tone
down the questionable behavior near opposing teams and fans.
“It’s an area (the south end
zone) where we would experience more problems, as far as the football officials
and opposing teams were concerned,” a member of the university police told the
Gazette-Journal in 2003. “They don’t want to put up with walking to the locker room
and having beer thrown at the players and profanity yelled at them.”
The Wolf Pack suggested at
the time that the Zonies could now move to the north end zone. The Zonies
didn’t appreciate being told to move to the north end zone, a place no
self-respecting Zonie would ever inhabit. So they never really made the move
and are still in the south end zone seats to this day. By 2004 nobody was
telling the Zonies to sit in the north end zone.
“A Zonie seat at Mackay is a
seat to remember, maybe even a rite of passage,” a letter to the
Gazette-Journal editor in May 2003 stated. “Is this just a way for Chris Ault
to raise a buck? Don’t PC (politically correct) Mackay Stadium.”
On Oct. 4, 2003 UNLV coach
John Robinson was allegedly hit in the head by either a beer can or beer bottle
(Robinson didn’t know for sure) as he walked to the locker room at halftime.
“He (the fan) deserves to be
in jail,” Robinson said. “In Reno, to get to your dressing room, you have to
pass right next to where the ‘black hole’ was in the end zone. They were pretty
The Rebels, it seems, always
bring out the worst in the Zonies. Or best, depending on your perspective. A
Rebel game at Mackay, after all, is like Christmas Day for a true blue Zonie.
“The (UNLV) equipment truck
was turned into an impromptu urinal by some (Wolf Pack) fans,” the Las Vegas
Sun wrote in 2005. “Players and coaches were serenaded by a chorus of
vulgarities by some fans who were not yet in their teens who were also seen
jumping up and down and flipping the bird.”
Fast forward to this past
November. The last time we saw the Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 30,
2019, Chris Ault’s silver and blue Mackay monster was in trouble again. And,
again, the target was the Rebels.
The Wolf Pack and Rebel
players engaged in yet another fight after UNLV’s 33-30 overtime victory in
late November. The game-winning touchdown just happened to take place in the
end zone just below the Zonies.
Pack and Rebel players
wrestled and sucker-punched each other pressed up against the end zone wall,
prompting some of the Zonies to join in.
The Las Vegas media once
again didn’t hesitate to bash the beer-swilling, snowball-throwing,
obscenity-laced fans in the south end zone.
“The fools who inhabit the
south end zone (in Reno) haven’t changed much over the decades,” one Las Vegas
Review-Journal columnist wrote. “A mixture of alcohol and childish bravado
brought an embarrassing finish… Stay classy, UNR fans.”
UNLV coach Tony Sanchez, who
was fired after the game despite beating the Wolf Pack three times in five
years, added, “Anytime you go into that end zone there’s a chance something bad
Sanchez likely didn’t realize
it but he just gave the ultimate compliment for all true blue Wolf Pack Zonies.
If you head into the south end zone at Mackay Stadium wearing the wrong colors
bad things will indeed happen to you.
It’s a Wolf Pack tradition.