Black hole: The somewhat sordid history of Mackay Stadium’s south end zone
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, 1986.
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 changed.”
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 1986.
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 Blue Thunder.
“That’s one of the better plays I’ve ever called,” said Ault in early 1987. “We gave the fans an identity.”
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 further.
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 loudest.”
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 Gazette-Journal.
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 sardines.”
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 Drinking Club.
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 time.
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 season.
“For all you Zonies, we carry special pins to honor you,” said an ad for Richard Jewelers of Reno in September 1987.
“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 their pups.
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 department.
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 mogwais.
In October 1994 16 fans in the south end zone were kicked out of a 45-24 homecoming win over New Mexico State.
“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 1993 season.
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 tough.”
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 will happen.”
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.