50 years ago, Chris Ault was a champion – in high school
One of the greatest football coaches in college football history learned his trade on the high school fields of Northern Nevada.
Chris Ault, who would later win 233 games in 28 seasons for the Nevada Wolf Pack and earn a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame, became a coaching champion for the first time at Bishop Manogue High.
This fall is the 50th anniversary of Ault’s first state championship team at Bishop Manogue in 1970. Ault, just 23 years old when the 1970 season began, also won a state title at Manogue in 1971. He then moved to Reno High in 1972 and finished second in the state before beginning his college coaching career at UNLV a year later.
Ault was Manogue’s head coach for three seasons (1969-71) and Reno’s for one (1972).
“We’ve got to get the kids to think our way,” Ault said in August 1969, a month before his head coaching career began. “We’ve got to build that mental attitude. If the kids have pride in themselves, the team and the school, they will have the desire to go out and win.“
Emphasis on win.
Ault compiled an eye-opening 35-3-1 career record with two state titles and one runner-up finish as a high school head coach. At one point his Manogue and Reno teams won 32 games in a row, from October 1969 to November 1972. It is the fifth-longest unbeaten streak for any coach in Nevada history.
Carson and Yerington were the only two Northern Nevada schools to ever beat Ault. Both of those victories came in 1969, in the first six games of Ault’s head coaching career. His only other high school loss came three years later in the Class AAA state title game in Las Vegas against Clark.
The Chris Ault that coached Nevada high school football was an unmistakable sneak peek of the Chris Ault that took the Wolf Pack football program from a struggling Division II independent in 1976 to one of the best mid-major programs in the nation by 2012.
“I’m a real disciplinarian,” Ault said back in August 1969. “When we place confidence in a kid to do a job we expect him to do it. We will have discipline. Everything will be right on schedule.”
The Ault that coached Manogue and Reno High was brash, confident, bold, demanding, fearless, innovative, unapologetic and, of course, highly successful. And it all started five decades ago at tiny 350-student Bishop Manogue High School across the train tracks from the University of Nevada.
A game-by-game look at Ault’s four remarkable seasons of excellence at Bishop Manogue and Reno High:
1969: Bishop Manogue (6-2-1)
After one season as an assistant football coach for Tony Klenakis’ Fallon Greenwave (and a year as a physical education instructor at Fallon’s E.C. Best Junior High), Ault was named the Bishop Manogue head coach in late May 1969. He looked as young as his players.
“At 22 it’s hard for people to respect you as a man,” Ault told the Reno Gazette-Journal in August 1969.
He was more than ready.
“I find that being young and enthusiastic you have so many ideas,” Ault said. “I have to write them all down.”
A lack of ideas, as he would prove at Manogue, Reno High and later with the Wolf Pack, was never a concern for Ault.
The foundation for those ideas were planted in Ault’s mind by his brother Bob, his high school coach at Pacific High in San Bernardino, Calif., (Joe Lash), his Wolf Pack coach (Dick Trachok) and Klenakis at Fallon. Lash, Trachok and Klenakis, like Ault, were all former Wolf Pack football players.
“They taught me so much I can’t remember it all,” Ault said in 1969.
Ault set the bar high at Manogue right from the start. “I’ve got a 0-0 record,” he said. “Each game will be like the Rose Bowl for me.”
Ault, who was married to the former Kathy Baker of Carson City and had an 18-month-old son (Chris Jr.), in 1969, knew what he was talking about. He, after all, played in the Rose Bowl while at Pacific High his senior year, losing 12-6 to Muir High, though he did throw a touchdown pass.
The Miners, though, started off slower than Ault wanted. Manogue tied Hawthorne 20-20 in his first game as a head coach, fumbling the ball away five times. The Miners, though, beat Fallon and Klenakis 56-20 the following week and lost to Carson High in Week 3, 17-14, for a 1-1-1 record.
“We still should have won,” Ault said after the Hawthorne tie.
Carson, of the Northern AAA, led the Class AA Miners 11-0 at halftime and needed a 55-yard touchdown run by Dave Carlsen to secure the win. Manogue quarterback Pete Barbieri had scoring runs of 67 and 33 yards.
“We didn’t start playing football until the second half,” Ault said.
The next two weeks saw Manogue beat White Pine 48-14 and Douglas (50-12) before losing to Yerington, the eventual 1969 Class AA state champion, 26-20, to sit at 3-2-1 after six weeks.
Barbieri tossed four touchdown passes against White Pine, two to Bob Nevarez. Lou Bonaldi caught seven passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. Barbieri also threw three touchdown passes against Douglas and also scored on a 3-yard run.
“Pete’s passing was excellent,” Ault said.
The loss to Yerington likely ended up costing the Miners a state title. Yerington quarterback Frank Peeples tossed three touchdown passes while Manogue’s touchdowns came on a 14-yard Barbieri-to-Jim Lundemo pass, a 26-yard Barbieri strike to Bonaldi and a 2-yard run by Jim Cardnuto.
“We played a very, very poor football game,” Ault said. “We didn’t think we were beaten by a better team. We beat ourselves.”
Those words didn’t sit well in Yerington.
“Chris Ault is a sore loser,” wrote the Mason Valley News. “He’d like everybody to believe that Bishop Manogue beat Bishop Manogue.”
It would be a long time before Manogue, or anyone else, would beat a Chris Ault-coached team again.
A week after the loss to Yerington, Ault told the media, “We’re not dead yet.”
The Miners then whipped Lowry, 44-12, Elko (34-20) and Stewart (36-12) to close out the 1969 season in second place in the Northern AA at 6-2-1 overall.
Barbieri was brilliant, throwing four more touchdown passes against Lowry. Two of the scores went to Jim Digesti, who played just a dozen plays because of the flu. The other two touchdown passes went to Bonaldi.
Elko, which was 6-0, jumped out to a 20-6 lead on the Miners. But Digesti ran for four touchdowns and Barbieri had a 20-yard touchdown run to lead the Manogue comeback.
Ault, who would later make Mackay Miracles famous in Northern Nevada, now had his first Manogue Miner Miracle.
“It’s the greatest comeback and the greatest victory for Manogue in a long time,” Ault said. “This victory proved we are the best AA team in the state.”
Barbieri had four more touchdown passes against Stewart, three to Mike O’Gara. Barbieri, who was a quarterback molded in Ault’s image at 5-foot-6, 135 pounds, was named the Co-Offensive Player of the Year in the Northern AA with Yerington’s Peeples.
Trachok, who brought Ault to Reno from San Bernardino and then made him a starting quarterback and the head coach at Nevada, was the guest speaker at Manogue’s season-ending banquet.
“Chris Ault was one of the best competitors we ever had at the university,” Trachok said in the fall of 1969. “Much of the credit for the increase in spirit at Manogue goes to Ault. He coaches like he played.”
In other words, he was never satisfied.
“We were good this year and with the spirit and pride shown by our younger boys we expect to be better next year,” Ault said. “Number One.”
1970: Bishop Manogue (10-0)
The Miners opened the 1970 season with a 46-0 trouncing of Hawthorne. Barbieri was 15-of-24 for 260 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a 9-yard score. Two of the TD passes went to Digesti and more than half (eight) of his completions went to sophomore Dave Fleiner.
“We thought we would win but the coaching staff and the kids didn’t think it would be anything like this,” Ault said.
The Miners’ offense featured a rare run-pass threat in Barbieri. All of the Run-Pass Option offenses (RPO) that you hear about in the NFL now? Well, Ault and the Miners were doing it 50 years ago. It’s what, after all, he learned at Pacific High in the early 1960s under Lash.
The Miners went to 2-0 with a hard-fought 28-12 win over Fallon and Ault’s former mentor Tony Klenakis. Barbieri was 10-of-20, tossing two TD passes while Digesti scored twice on the ground.
The Miners then whipped Carson High 42-0 to go to 3-0. Digesti had a 64-yard TD run on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Barbieri was 9-of-14 for 134 yards. Digesti ran for 139 yards and also caught a 44-yard pass for a score.
Manogue improved to 4-0 with a 58-0 win over White Pine. Barbieri was 14-of-21 for 282 yards as Ault’s offense continued to dominate. Digesti ran for 137 yards and also returned an interception 63 yards for a score.
The Miners ripped through Douglas 72-12 the following week to go to 5-0 as Barbieri ran for 85 yards and passed for 185. Digesti ran for 215 yards and scored five touchdowns. Fleiner returned an interception 60 yards for a score.
It was indeed too easy. Yerington, the last team to beat the Miners, was next on the schedule.
“To beat Yerington you have to stop Mike Rippee,” said Ault, referring to the gritty running back that would lead his first Nevada team in rushing in 1976. “He’s the blue-chipper on that team.”
The Miners trounced Yerington 62-18 as Barbieri scored four times on runs and tossed one TD pass. Digesti had a 44-yard TD run and Fleiner caught a 57-yard TD pass. Rippee had two touchdown passes.
The Miners improved to 7-0 by whipping Lowry 30-0 as Barbieri tossed scoring passes to Mike O’Gara and Digesti. The following week Manogue went to 8-0 by destroying Elko 54-6 behind three touchdown runs and three touchdown passes by Barbieri. O’Gara caught all three of the TD passes and Digesti ran for 208 yards and two scores.
The Miners had more offensive weapons, it seemed, than the rest of the Northern AA combined.
“That is probably one of the finest high school teams for its size that I’ve ever seen,” Elko coach Jerry Hassett said.
With just one regular season game remaining, Ault was asked if he would tone down his practices. “We’re going to scrimmage on Tuesdays and Wednesdays like we always have,” Ault said. “The reason we’re 8-0 is because of execution. And the way you get execution is by scrimmaging.”
The Miners improved to 9-0 by beating Stewart Indian School, 30-12 as Digesti had two TD runs and O’Gara set a school-record with 16 catches for 207 yards. Barbieri was an eye-opening 22-of-34 for 260 yards.
“It was their last game on Miner Field,” said Ault of Barbieri and O’Gara, “and they went out with a smash.”
The Miners’ offense was more imaginative than anything Wolf Pack fans were seeing at Mackay Stadium.
“When you have a team that goes undefeated week after week and the pressure is really on they have to be good kids,” said Ault of his team. “Their attitude has to be tremendous.”
Their attitude, of course, was Ault’s attitude. The Miners, who had last won a state title in 1958, were now headed to the AA title game against Boulder City.
“There’s no point in finishing in second place,” Ault told his Miners. “You might as well finish last then. All anyone cares about is who’s No. 1.”
Ault’s Miners capped off a perfect 10-0 season by whipping Boulder City 48-24 at Hug High.
Barbieri ran 60 yards for a touchdown as the Miners took an 8-6 lead and never looked back. Mike Whitemaine then sacked Boulder City quarterback Don McDougal, forcing a fumble.
Len Pugh fell on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown and 16-6 Manogue lead.
Fleiner would later catch a pair of TD passes from Barbieri, from 58 and 74 yards out, to turn the game into a rout. Digesti ran for 207 yards on 16 carries.
Ault’s Miners had turned in one of the most dominating seasons in the history of Nevada high school football.
“We wanted to win the championship for the northern part of the state,” Ault said.
The Miners in 1970 outscored their opposition, 470-84. Manogue posted four shutouts and scored 28 or more points in every game. Barbieri turned in one of the best seasons ever for a Nevada high school quarterback, completing 130-of-201 passes for 2,068 yards and 23 touchdowns and also ran for 612 yards. Digesti was almost unstoppable, gaining 1,304 yards on the ground with 24 touchdowns. He also caught 24 passes for 410 yards.
“It was a great year because we had the talent and the attitude,” Ault said.
And the coach.
1971: Bishop Manogue (10-0)
What do you do for an encore after a perfect 10-0 season that included a state championship? Well, if you are Chris Ault and the Bishop Manogue Miners, you do it all over again.
“I’ll put it this way,” Ault said. “We’re the defending champs and that’s what we’ll do — defend the title.”
Barbieri, Ault’s first great quarterback, was now gone as was Digesti, his first great “Nevada Back.” All of the great quarterbacks and running backs that Ault ever coach stemmed from Barbieri and Digesti. They set the standard.
“We’re not looking at it as a building year,” Ault said. “The house has been built already. We’ve got to be able to hold it up.”
The Miners took a 13-game winning streak and the 1970 Nevada Class AA state title with them into the 1971 season.
The 1971 season opened with a convincing 42-6 victory over Hawthorne. Hawthorne, though, wasn’t impressed.
“They’re not even comparable to last year,” Hawthorne coach Joe Blaney said. “Their passing attack is not as good as last year.”
Fleiner, the new Manogue quarterback, completed 6-of-12 passes for 95 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener. Mike Whitemaine caught two touchdowns. Steve Besso, arguably the best linebacker in the state, ran for 114 yards and another score.
“Besso is the toughest player in the North,” Ault said.
Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan was in the Manogue stands to see his son Mike play on the Miners’ defensive line.
“I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” Ault said of victory No. 1 in 1971.
The Miners then rolled over Fallon and Klenakis 74-12 in Week 2. The game was played at Mackay Stadium before the Wolf Pack’s 44-7 win over Oregon Tech.
Fleiner was extremely efficient, running for 120 yards and two touchdowns, completing 5-of-7 passes for 145 yards. Mike Hansen ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns. The Miners held Fallon to 16 total yards.
“We’ve always had good defensive units at Bishop Manogue,” Ault said. “But this one could be a great one.”
Manogue then improved to 3-0 with a 42-6 win over Carson. The Miners ran for 502 yards as Paul Tavernia had 125 and Hansen had 133. Carson had just 33 total yards.
Week 4 saw the Miners run their winning streak to 17 with a tougher-than-expected 12-0 win at White Pine. The only touchdowns were on the ground by Besso and Tavernia.
Manogue, which held White Pine to minus-one yard of offense, was assessed 210 yards in penalties.
“It was like playing Notre Dame in Rome with the Pope as an official,” Ault said. “It was a nightmare. It’s a shame when an adult takes the fun out of the game for the kids.”
The Miners then routed Douglas 30-6 to improve to 5-0. Fleiner ran for 138 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 107 and a 21-yard score to Whitemaine. Fleiner also had two interceptions on defense. Besso ran for 167 yards.
Two dozen Bishop Manogue fathers were on the sideline during the game wearing their son’s jerseys. One of those fathers was the governor.
“I have a bunch of great kids,” said Ault, who was still young enough to be their big brother.
Yerington, still the last team to beat the Miners, was next. The Miners barely survived, escaping with a 14-6 win to improve to 6-0.
Ault praised Yerington though he did take the opportunity to remind everyone who was the best team in the north.
“It was the finest game I’ve seen in four years of coaching high school football,” Ault said. “They (Yerington) were up for us. I think only the No. 1 team in the state could have beaten them.”
Besso had 164 yards rushing and two scores. Ault, always a salesman, made sure to praise the governor’s son. “I think O’Callaghan proved himself as one of the best tackles in Northern Nevada,” Ault said.
The Miners then improved to 7-0 by blasting Lowry 74-0 for their 20th consecutive victory.
Manogue outgained Lowry 450 yards to minus-35. Fleiner was 16-of-27 for 211 yards and two scores. He also rushed for three touchdowns and returned a fumble 30 yards for another score. Mark Burkett caught eight passes. Besso and Hansen each scored twice on the ground and Whitemaine caught a 38-yard TD pass.
The Miners then wrapped up the Northern AA championship by whipping Elko 28-0. Manogue got an 18-yard TD run by Dennis Loranger and a 1-yard TD by Besso.
Manogue finished its regular season with a 44-0 win over Stewart Indian School as Fleiner connected with Whitemaine for four more touchdown passes.
A state title rematch with Boulder City on Nov. 13, 1971 at the new Las Vegas Stadium was now on the Miners’ calendar. It would be the first Nevada state title game in history on artificial turf. It would also be Ault’s first game ever at the stadium that would later be known as Sam Boyd Stadium.
Just 2,000 fans, though, showed up in the new 15,000-seat stadium to see Ault’s Miners whip Boulder City 30-7 for its second consecutive state title and 23rd victory in a row.
Fleiner was 11-of-20 for 162 yards and a score. Tavernia ran for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Whitemaine, who would score touchdowns on 13 of his 28 catches in 1971, caught a 58-yard touchdown pass.
Manogue sacked Boulder City quarterback Don McDougall nine times and intercepted him three times.
“We’re champions because these guys always rise to the occasion,” said Manogue assistant coach Ed Markovich, a former teammate of Ault’s at Nevada.
The Miners’ defense allowed just 43 points all season long. The offense averaged 39 points a game.
Ault, though, wasn’t satisfied.
“They are enjoying this one,” Ault said after the game, “but in the back of their minds they are thinking of continuing something (in 1972 and beyond) that is unbelievable.”
Ault, it turned out, thought of continuing his career somewhere else.
1972: Reno (9-1)
Ault was named head coach of the Reno Huskies in early February 1972.
“He still looks more like a high school halfback than he does a football coach,” the Gazette-Journal’s Steve Sneddon wrote of the now 25-year-old boy wonder coach.
Ault said one of the reasons he took the Reno High job is because he only had to coach football. At Manogue he guided the junior varsity boys basketball team to a 19-1 record in 1971, winning the last 19 games.
“I don’t want to coach basketball,” said Ault, who played basketball in high school.
Markovich took over for Ault at Manogue in late February.
“Chris’ personality was the program,” Markovich said.
Markovich used that Ault personality to perfection, guiding the Miners to an 8-0-1 record and another state title in 1972.
Ault had one brief coaching assignment between Manogue and Reno High. He coached the Wolf Pack Alumni team against the varsity in an exhibition game in May 1972 at Mackay Stadium.
“I don’t think you can honestly say we’ve had a consistent quarterback since Chris Ault,” said Nevada coach Jerry Scattini, who took over the Wolf Pack program in 1969, two years after Ault’s final season.
With Ault as coach and quarterback, the alumni only lost to the varsity 14-7. Ault wore a Reno High helmet during the game. Many of the alumni players wore Manogue helmets. The alumni’s only touchdown came on a 53-yard pass from Ault to his old Pack teammate Jack Byrom. Ault completed 10-of-21 passes for 133 yards and was given a new wristwatch for being the Offensive Player of the Game.
Ault and the Huskies then hit the ground running in the fall, whipping Lincoln (46-12), Nevada Union (54-0) and Red Bluff (28-6) all on the road.
New Huskies quarterback Tony Kaiser, who got just seven snaps in 1971 (he played behind Jeff Dankworth, who went to UCLA in 1972), completed 17-of-30 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns at Lincoln. Both TD passes went to Tim Melcher. Walt Hawkins had a 97-yard touchdown run and Roy Callahan scored from 30 yards out.
The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Kaiser, another Ault clone, then completed 19 passes against Nevada Union and also had a TD pass against Red Bluff.
Callahan had four touchdown runs and Steve Slagle ran for two scores and 125 yards against Nevada Union.
“We can beat anybody,“ Ault said.
Nevada Union coach Gary Musick agreed. “They are the best high school football team I have ever seen,” Musick said.
Las Vegas came to Reno’s Foster Field in Week 4 with a 2-1 record. “We were hoping they’d be undefeated,” Ault said.
The Huskies chewed up the Wildcats, piling up 493 total yards. Kaiser was 13-of-26 for 107 yards, Callahan ran for 196 yards and four touchdowns and Walt Hawkins had 158 yards on 26 carries.
“We should have scored 58 points,” Ault said.
The Huskies were now 4-0. “We had a rally last night and it was the best high school rally I’ve ever seen,” said Ault a few days before a Week 5 match up with Sparks. “The whole school is flying.”
The Huskies then drilled Sparks 50-14 after trailing 14-8 at halftime. “That’s the finest comeback I’ve ever seen in high school football,” Ault said.
Kaiser was 13-of-25 for 199 yards while Callahan ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns. “This Callahan — what an awesome runner,” Ault said. “And Kaiser is the finest quarterback in the state.”
Reno then pummeled Carson 34-12 and Hug 56-7 to move to 7-0 as Ault ran his personal winning streak to 30 games in a row. The Huskies sacked Carson quarterback Bob Zusman eight times, though Zusman did throw for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Kaiser was 18-of-34 for 237 yards and two scores against Carson. Randy Munn caught nine passes for 116 yards.
“He gets better every day,” said Ault of Kaiser, who completed 13 of his first 15 passes. “For a guy who didn’t play last year and a team that wasn’t supposed to have a quarterback, he is the best all-around quarterback in the state.”
Kaiser then had a 74-yard touchdown pass to Munn and also ran 38 yards for a score against Hug. Callahan had three more touchdowns.
“Reno is such a strong outfit,” Hug coach Allan Crawford said. “They just overwhelm you.”
Another Ault offense was dominating the state of Nevada. Kaiser, through seven games, was leading the state with 97 completions and 11 touchdowns. Munn had 36 catches and 516 yards while Terry Wetzel had 31 catches for 364 yards. Callahan had 880 yards rushing and Hawkins had 583.
The Huskies just kept winning, beating Basic 26-13 and Wooster 36-28 to move to 9-0. Callahan had 42 carries for 257 yards and two touchdowns against Basic as the Huskies defense had nine sacks.
The Reno-Wooster game was a matchup of Kaiser against Wooster quarterback Glenn Carano, who was leading the Northern AAA in passing yards.
“We are tired of hearing how great Reno is,” Wooster coach Howdy Davis said before the game. “I think Glenn is the best quarterback around here and our receivers are every bit as good as Reno’s, if not better.”
Wooster led 28-14 in the fourth quarter before the Huskies rallied to stay unbeaten. Reno scored the final three touchdowns on a 1-yard run by Callahan, a 6-yard pass from Kaiser to Wetzel and a 37-yard pass from Kaiser to Melcher. Hawkins had 107 yards rushing.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” Ault said. “They said Reno High couldn’t go undefeated and win a state championship. But now we’ve taken half the cake and we’re going for the other half against the South.”
The Class AAA state title game would be a rematch between Reno and Clark. Clark beat Reno 6-0 in 1971 at Reno’s Foster Field. This time the game would be played at Las Vegas Stadium.
“I think Reno has a great shot at the championship,” Wooster’s Carano said. “I’m going down to see it. I wish them a lot of luck.”
“I just feel our team deserves to be state champion,” Ault said. “We’ll bring the state championship back where it belongs.”
A crowd of 7,000 showed up at Las Vegas Stadium but those in attendance never saw the Huskies’ offense. Clark jumped out to a 6-2 halftime lead and led 14-2 before Callahan scored Reno’s lone touchdown with 10:47 to play on a 16-yard run.
“We should have beaten Clark 35-6,” Reno defensive lineman John Hill said.
Clark’s Marv Caperton had a pivotal 88-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
“We moved the ball but we just couldn’t get it in the end zone,” Ault said. “These seniors are some of the finest boys I’ve ever worked with. I’m just sick they couldn’t have gone undefeated.”
1973: The Aftermath
Ault accepted a job as an assistant coach at UNLV under new Rebels coach Ron Meyer in the middle of February 1973. The boy wonder was hired to coach wide receivers and quarterbacks and serve as the lead recruiter in the state of Nevada.
“The new coach (Meyer) intends on building a winner and I want to be part of that,” Ault said. “My goal has always been to get into college coaching. I love football and this job can teach me many things.”
The Wolf Pack paid a huge price for not adding Ault to its staff after the 1972 season. Ault dominated the state’s recruiting, signing Carano out of Wooster and Callahan out of Reno for UNLV.
“Ault was a big factor in my decision,” said Carano, who also had offers from Notre Dame, Arizona State, Washington, USC and Nevada.
Arizona State, Washington, Wyoming and Utah wanted Callahan.
“I’ll have it made down here with Coach Ault,” Callahan said.
Ault also signed Manogue’s Mike O’Callaghan and Dave Fleiner and Reno’s Tim Melcher. The two Nevada prizes Ault (or the Wolf Pack) did not get was Clark’s Caperton, who signed with UCLA, and Reno lineman Mike Schiszler, who signed with Utah.
“Chris Ault has broken the record for carrying people away set by Attila the Hun,” the Gazette-Journal’s Steve Sneddon wrote.
Ault’s recruiting helped UNLV win 27-of-35 games from 1973-75. Carano would go on to play in the NFL as Roger Staubach’s backup with the Dallas Cowboys.
“Coach Ault just jumps in there with both feet, hips swinging and he won’t take no for an answer,” Meyer said in 1973.