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Ault thrilled by response of Nevada fans for bowl game

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

Is this heaven? No, it’s the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Then again, if you look hard enough, you just might see James “Rabbit” Bradshaw, Marion Motley and Stan Heath walking out of a cornfield at AT&T Park on Jan. 9. And Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault, if he can stop yelling at his defensive coaches for a moment or two, might actually hear someone whisper in his headset, “If you build it, they will come.”

Well, Ault did build it. And people are most definitely coming.

“The response has been awesome,” said Ault this week after learning Pack fans gobbled up every single one of the 15,369 tickets his university was allowed to sell for its bowl game against Boston College.

“The fan support has been amazing,” Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.

“We’ve had a tremendous response from Nevada,” Kraft Bowl executive director Gary Cavalli said. “Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine 15,000 people coming to the game from Nevada.”

Awesome. Amazing. Tremendous.

When was the last time those three words were used to describe Wolf Pack football fans?

Forget it. Don’t answer. It’s a trick question.

And that’s too bad.

Wolf Pack fans have gotten a bad rap in recent years as an apathetic group that would prefer to spend its holiday bowl season stuck in traffic at the mall rather than watch another meaningless football game. The only thing you would ever hear about Pack fans is that they would rather whine about inflated ticket prices, a lack of parking spaces, long lines to buy a beer and not enough places to, uh, empty that beer.

Fair or unfair, it’s a reputation that was clearly out there. You know it. Your depressed Boise State fan friend knows it. The Wolf Pack knows it. The university itself, on its own website, is reminding its own fans of their ugly reputation even now with the old “nobody believed in us and look what we did” shtick:

“They said we couldn’t beat a Pac-10 team … They said we couldn’t beat Boise State … They said we couldn’t win a WAC championship … They say our fans don’t travel to bowl games.”

Who said those things? Boise State fans? Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee? Nevermind. That’s another column for another day.

The fourth statement, though, is definitely true. They (that’s everyone outside of the kid who wears the Alphie suit) did say Pack fans don’t travel to bowl games. Why? Well, because they haven’t. The Pack has been to bowl games the last five years and never had more than 5,000 supporters in the stands. Look in the dictionary under “apathetic bowl fan” and there is a picture of a Pack fan, sitting on the couch, drinking a cold beverage and watching ESPN.

So the Wolf Pack marketing department needed a gimmick this year. They needed something, anything to replace that remote control in Pack fans’ hands with a couple of bowl tickets. So they decided to challenge their Pack fanhood.

Do you know what they say about you? Are you going to let them say that?

It worked.

Not really.

Pack fans didn’t buy bowl tickets because they were afraid someone would think they were the college football version of Scrooge. You can’t threaten Pack fans into buying anything. Pack fans, and the Nevada marketing department should know this better than anyone, simply don’t respond to obvious selling gimmicks. See two Hawaii Bowls, two Boise bowls and one New Mexico Bowl the last five years.

The only thing Pack fans have been asking for the last five years is a reason to go to a bowl game.

And this football team, this bowl game finally gave them that reason.

Ault, there is no question now, has built an elite football program. A 12-1 season. A Top 25 season. Beating Boise State. Beating Cal. Beating BYU. Beating UNLV. Beating Fresno State.

There was no demoralizing, frustrating loss to Boise State this year. There was no 1-2 or 0-3 start like the last five years that cleared the Pack bandwagon by the middle of September.

This is the season Pack fans have gone to sleep on Christmas Eve the past two decades hoping to find under their tree in the morning. It’s the season that never came.

Until now.

Of course they were going to buy tickets for this bowl game. Of course they would support this team.

Nobody should have doubted it.

But, still, everyone associated with selling tickets to this game was nervous just 10 days ago. It wasn’t that long ago, don’t forget, that the Kraft Bowl people’s wildest dreams involved a possible Stanford-Boise State match-up. When that didn’t happen, they got a team that supposedly didn’t bring any fans to its bowl game against a fourth-place Atlantic Coast Conference team based 3,000 miles away.

“I’ve been blown away by the response of the Wolf Pack community,” Wolf Pack athletic director Cary Groth said. “I think the University of Nevada will send well over 20,000 fans (to the game).”

It might be closer to 30,000. The turnout is going to ease a lot of Pack pain.

“It’s going to be like a home game for us,” Ault said.

Why did Pack fans awaken out of their usual holiday bowl slumber this year to tear open the shutters and throw up the sash?

Two big reasons.

Beating Boise.

San Francisco.

The 34-31 monumental victory over Boise State the day after Thanksgiving excited this community like no other sporting event north of Tonopah before it. It’s the victory that turned Mackay Stadium into the hottest club on Virginia Street. It’s the victory that finally shut up all of the It’s Ault’s Fault critics and the this-team-will-never-beat-Boise nay-sayers.

The other selling point was San Francisco and AT&T Park.

Northern Nevadans love to go to the Bay area for a fun weekend. And the ability to drive to the game — or climb onto a fan bus – changed everything. The concern for Pack fans this holiday bowl season was no longer deciding between buying their 7-year-old daughter her favorite doll for Christmas or buying airplane tickets to the bowl game.

Pack fans didn’t go to the last five bowl games because of location, location, location.

First of all, two of the games were in Hawaii. Who, other than a university president, head football or men’s basketball coach or Cam Newton’s dad, can afford to go to Hawaii during the holidays? The other three games were in Boise and Albuquerque. What? Were Wichita and Omaha unavailable?

In San Francisco during bowl week, you don’t have to choose between Denny’s or Applebee’s. You don’t have to worry about getting a beer bottle slammed across your head because you happened to walk into the wrong Boise bar while wearing a Wolf Pack shirt.

And this bowl game is at AT&T Park, the home of the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants (yes, Giants fans, it really did happen). As far as Northern Nevada Giants fans are concerned, AT&T Park is Mecca right now. It’s a big league park with all of the comforts and amenities that a $40 ticket (and especially $75) deserves. It’s not a high school field on steroids with a blue field.

“This bowl was always my first preference and choice,” Ault said.

It was always everybody’s first choice in Northern Nevada.