‘First salvo of the civil war’: When the Nevada-UNLV rivalry began
The world, at least as far as the Nevada Wolf Pack and its loyal silver and blue supporters were concerned, was about to become a whole lot smaller.
The Nevada Southern Rebels were coming to town.
“The natural cross-state rivalry is expected to bring one of the largest fun turnouts of the season,” wrote the Reno Gazette-Journal in late January 1962.
Nevada Southern, which opened in 1957 with about three dozen students as the Southern Division of the University of Nevada, formed a men’s basketball team in 1958 and played baseball for the first time in 1960.
But as the calendar flipped to 1962, the Rebels of down south were still just a rumor in Northern Nevada. The two Silver State schools, after all, still had not faced off on the basketball court or baseball diamond at the varsity level.
The only meeting between the Wolf Pack and the Rebels before 1962 was in a pair of freshman basketball games in Las Vegas in February 1959. The two games barely caused a ripple in the state.
The first official meetings between the Rebels and Pack were Feb. 20-21, 1959. The new-born Rebels in February 1959 were at the end of their inaugural season and had a team made up of mostly freshmen. Bernie Fumagalli, a Wolf Pack varsity player the season before, was now a sophomore and starting for the Rebels. Fumagalli, a Henderson native, would go on to score 1,205 points in just three seasons for the Rebels.
The Rebels destroyed the Pack freshmen twice, 74-56 at the Dula Gymnasium (the Rebels did not have their own court yet) and 84-50 the next night at Rancho High.
Fumagalli scored 37 points in the two games combined. Jim Jansen, of Effingham, Ill., scored 21 points for the Rebels in the first game and Don Helm scored 20 in the second game. The Rebels, a bit more experienced than the true Wolf Pack freshmen, led the second game 52-19 at halftime and rested their starters in the second half.
The two basketball programs — the Rebels played varsity games starting in 1959-60 — would not meet again until January 1962 in the rivalry’s first varsity contests.
The two games between the two varsity teams on Jan. 23-24, 1962 were announced nearly a year before in March 1961.
“We’re hoping that in future years we’ll be able to enlarge the series to perhaps four games a year, two in Las Vegas and two in Reno,” Rebels’ basketball coach Michael “Chub” Drakulich said.
The Rebels, which finished 5-13 in 1958-59, 13-8 in 1959-60 and 13-12 in 1960-61, brought a 10-5 record to Reno in January 1961. The Wolf Pack was 4-10 after a 1-9 start.
“This is the first battle of what promises to be a lively and endless war between the two branches of the state university,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported.
Two busloads of Rebel fans, players and coaches made the long trip to Reno in January 1962, the day before the first game at the University of Nevada gym.
“Everyone was fueled with anxiety,” wrote the Nevada Southern school newspaper, the “Rebel Yell” in late January 1962, whose reporters made the trip to Reno on the buses. “When the buses reached Beatty it was snowing and many snowball fights began. After everyone had eaten and was thoroughly soaked from the snow the buses were on their way again.”
The world of college athletics no longer belonged solely to the Wolf Pack in the state of Nevada.
“While almost all on the Sigma Gamma “frat” bus were either playing cards or getting high — not altitude-wise — some on the bus tried creating a new craze comparable to the one of telephone booth stuffing. They stuffed seven males into the portable restroom at the rear of the bus,” the Rebel Yell reported.
The Rebel buses pulled into Reno in the early morning hours the day of the first game.
“Very few slept and if anyone was sleeping he was soon awakened,” the Rebel Yell wrote. “The sun rose to applause. When we reached Reno the students scattered to friend’s apartments, relatives’ houses or dorms and motels.”
The Rebels were led by Arlyn Hafen and Tim Leonard, both averaging 17 points a game. The Pack, led by top scorers Craig Hall and Bill Robinson, was coming off a difficult schedule that included losses at Gonzaga, Drake, Purdue, Iowa and San Diego State.
“It’s going to be a toss-up,” Wolf Pack coach Jack Spencer said of the first two varsity meetings with the Rebels.
Drakulich, who was also the Rebels’ athletic director (until 1973) and its only coach (he also coached baseball and golf), played at Nevada in the 1940s under coach Jake Lawlor. Drakulich, who also played baseball for the Reno Silver Sox, started the Rebel basketball program from scratch after coaching at Fallon High and Rancho High.
In a Gazette story under the headline “Nevada Southern Eager to Meet Big Brothers” a week before the first two games, Drakulich said, “We are appreciative of the privilege of starting our basketball rivalry with the main campus.”
That might have been the last time anyone connected with the southern branch ever referred to the school on North Virginia Street as the “main” campus.
Drakulich, who graduated from White Pine High School, obviously had a lot of respect for the Rebels’ older and bigger brother. The Wolf Pack, after all, had been playing the sport for nearly 50 years.
“I can’t help but feel that we would have to play almost perfect ball and they would have to do something wrong for us to beat them,” Drakulich said. “We’ll be happy to get a split (in the two games).”
The Gazette-Journal published a photo of the five Rebel starters (Hafen, Leonard, Helm, Bill Farr and David Shay) wearing a jersey that read on the front “Nevada” across the top in block letters and “Southern” in script across the bottom.
It was the first time anyone in Northern Nevada saw a college team wearing the word “Nevada” on its jersey other than the Wolf Pack.
The Pack, with starters Chico Feilback, Stewart Johnson, Joe DeArrieta, Hall and Robinson, shredded the Rebels 71-51 in the first varsity game between the two schools in front of 1,500 fans.
“Big Brothers Win First 71-51” declared a Gazette-Journal headline. The Wolf Pack “fired the first salvo of the civil war.”
Hall had 24 points, Johnson had 18 and Robinson had 13 points and 19 rebounds for the Pack. Helm and Farr led the Rebels with 15 each and Hafen had 10.
The officials were former Wolf Pack athletes Buster McClure and Duke Lindeman. The Pack was 9-of-15 from the line while Nevada Southern was 7-of-12. The Rebels’ Leonard, though, battled foul trouble the entire game and finished with just four points.
The Rebel fans, though, enjoyed their time in Reno. “Renoites saw one of the most fabulous displays of spirit ever shown,” the Nevada Southern student paper reported.
The Wolf Pack also won the rematch the following night, 81-69, as Robinson had 26 rebounds and 20 points. Hall, who was a teammate of Robinson’s in high school in Kansas City, had 26 points. Feilback had 17 and Murray Zinovoy added 12 off the bench.
Hafen had 22 for the Rebels, who also got 15 from Leonard, 14 from Helm and 10 from Fair.
The officiating, however, was a bit more one-sided in the second game. A total of 20 fouls were called on the Rebels and 13 on the Pack. The Wolf Pack was 25-of-31 from the line while the Rebels were 13-of-20. Leonard fouled out with seven minutes to play.
“Leonard and Robinson almost exchanged punches (before Leonard fouled out),” the Gazette reported.
The Rebels led 25-24 before the Pack scored the final eight points of the half to take a 32-25 lead at the break.
“It was pretty ragged,” Spencer said.
“The start of the basketball rivalry showed, as expected, that the Wolf Pack has the better talent,” the Gazette wrote.
Nevada Southern would go on to win six of its last seven games to finish 16-8 on the season. The Pack split its last 10 games to finish 11-15.
The Rebel team, coaches and supporters got back on their buses the following morning for the long trip home.
“Four girls were delicately placed on the baggage rack on the bus and had a difficult time getting down, to say the least,” the Rebel Yell reported.
The school newspaper, which had a confederate flag on its masthead, though, not-so-subtly blamed the two losses on the officials. But a good time, nonetheless, was had by all.
“All agreed that even though the Rebels received defeat to the Reno ‘Wolferees,’ the Rebel fans showed wonderful sportsmanship and spirit that will be long remembered in the history of Nevada Southern University,” the student newspaper wrote.
The Gazette reported, “the little civil war will be in a truce for another year.”
Actually, the truce would last for only a little more than three months. The Wolf Pack and Rebels met again in early May, this time on the baseball diamond. The Wolf Pack and Rebels baseball teams would meet for three games May 4 and 5 at the original Cashman Field on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Bonanza, a stadium built mainly for rodeo, boxing and concerts with all of the seats on the first base side.
The Rebels baseball program, also coached by Drakulich, was just a year old. The Wolf Pack, 12-12 on the year thus far, was coming off an 8-3 loss to the USC Trojans at Nevada’s Clark Field. USC scored six runs in the ninth, three on a home run by Mike Gillespie (who later coached USC) to steal the victory. The Trojans at the time were the defending College World Series champions and were coached by Rod Dedeaux.
Bill Ireland, who would later serve as Nevada Southern’s first football coach from 1968-72, coached the Wolf Pack baseball in the school’s first meeting with the Rebels.
The Wolf Pack won the series opener behind freshman pitcher Pete Leavitt. Leavitt turned in one of the greatest performances by a pitcher in Wolf Pack history, striking out 22 while tossing a one-hitter in a 10-0 Pack win. The 22 strikeouts were an NCAA high in 1962 and are likely a Wolf Pack school record (the Wolf Pack’s baseball history before 1970 is largely ignored by the university). The only Rebel hit was a single by Joe DeMarco in the sixth inning.
Barry McKinnon, who would later coach the Pack from 1974-79, had a home run and a triple while Jack Renwick had a double.
The Pack won a doubleheader from the Rebels the next day, 10-0 and 11-7, to sweep the three-game series. Don Banta, who was from Las Vegas, allowed just two hits in the first game (seven innings) and fanned 11. Marv Van Curen was 4-for-4 for the Pack in the second game of the double header while Dave Irish had a three-run homer. The Wolf Pack held UNLV to just seven hits in the three games combined.
All five (two in men’s basketball, three in baseball) of the first varsity contests between the Pack and Rebels belonged to Big Brother. But it didn’t take long for Nevada Southern to prove it could compete with the Wolf Pack.
The Rebels basketball team (Nevada Southern only had basketball and baseball at the time) swept the Wolf Pack in two games the following season (1962-63), winning 62-50 and 64-54 on back-to-back nights (Dec. 18-19, 1962) in Las Vegas.
Silas Stepp, who led the Rebels in scoring for four consecutive seasons, had 34 points in the two games combined. Robinson had 41 points in the two games for the Pack while Johnson had 13 in the second game and DeArrieta had 11 in the first game.
The officiating was a bit different down in Las Vegas compared to the previous season in Reno. The Rebels were 16-of-25 from the line in the first game and 24-of-40 in the second game. The Pack was 14-of-27 on free throws in the two games combined.
Those two victories started a stretch of 42 victories in 50 games by Nevada Southern over the Wolf Pack from 1962-63 through 1993-94.
The Wolf Pack baseball team, though, continued its domination over the Rebels in the spring of 1963, winning two games at Moana Stadium, 1-0 and 8-1. Dennis Scott fanned eight and allowed just two hits in the first game. Wayne Abalos singled and Sherwin Minster walked in the sixth for the Pack. Abalos went to third on a passed ball and scored the game’s only run on a sacrifice fly by Jim Evans. Banta struck out nine and allowed just five hits in the 8-1 win.
Nevada Southern’s first baseball win over the Pack came in the first game of a double header on March 26, 1964 in Las Vegas. The Rebels won 4-1 as freshman Bill Vandever struck out six and allowed five hits in the seven-inning game. The Pack won the second game that day, 8-3, as Abalos and Joel Glover each had two-RBI singles in a five-run first inning. Dan Keller fanned four and allowed six hits in six innings to pick up the win.
The two schools would not meet on the football field until Nov. 22, 1969 when the Pack won 30-28 at Mackay Stadium. Football seemed to take the rivalry to a new level. Ireland, now the Rebels football coach in 1969, came up with the idea of giving the football winner a trophy. The first Fremont Cannon was awarded after the 1970 game (won by the Rebels in Las Vegas).
It was men’s basketball and baseball, though, that started the civil war rivalry and changed the state’s college athletic landscape forever.
“A very stimulating and healthy relationship is bound to be derived from the interscholastic competition between the two schools,” the Rebel Yell wrote in May 1962.