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Governor’s Dinner: Silver and Blue vibe takes a year off

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Shaquille O’Neal was the keynote speaker at the Governor’s Dinner.
Appeal file

The University of Nevada’s annual rite of summer, that intoxicating scent of Scotch, steak, testosterone and silver and blue bravado that wafts over the state capital each July, will be missing next month.

This year’s Wolf Pack Governor’s Dinner, the best backyard party in the state of Nevada for the past five decades, has been canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.

If there was ever a summer when we desperately needed the sweet smell of success emanating from the Governor’s Mansion this was it. The Governor’s Dinner, after all, is the one time of year when all is right in the Wolf Pack world, when friends and family relax and enjoy great food and drink and listen to a national sports hero tell jokes on a perfect summer night under the Governor’s trees.

It’s Wolf Pack perfection. Hey, the Governor doesn’t throw a party in his own backyard for the Nevada Southern Rebels, does he?

For the past 51 years, since the summer of ‘69, all deep-pocketed boosters had to do was write a check and, faster than they could say “Chris Ault,” all of their Pack disappointments and frustrations of the past year were immediately replaced by hope, promise and optimism.

The “Governor’s Football Scholarship Support Dinner,” as it was billed, was quietly announced to the media in May 1969. Nobody knew at the time it would help change the face of Wolf Pack finances forever.

“We knew we had to raise some money because we were going into the WCAC,” athletic director Dick Trachok told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2001.

The Wolf Pack left the Far Western Conference after the 1968 season and was headed to the West Coast Athletic Conference starting in the fall of 1969. The WCAC didn’t even play football (the Pack would have to play as an independent for another decade) and there was no bowl game at the end of the year. But even beating the likes of Willamette, Chico State, Humboldt State and, especially, that branch campus down south, required money.

Trachok, who was handed the keys to the athletic department from retiring athletic director Jake Lawlor in 1969, didn’t have a whole lot to get the community excited. Football won only three games in 1968 and men’s basketball had just completed the third of 10 losing seasons in row. And now the university was headed to a new conference, ready or not.

The Pack, as always, needed money. Benefit dinners, of course, were nothing new by 1969. The Pack, for example, staged them every year. In 1962, for example, the Wolf Pack Boosters Club held an all-male event at the California Building at Idlewild Park and charged $5 for food and refreshment, emphasis, of course, on refreshment. They showed highlights of the Pack’s 1961 football season.

A new decade and a new conference, though, needed something more than a few drinks between the same old boosters and some grainy highlights from a 5-4 football season.

Enter the Football Scholarship Support Dinner, the brainchild of Trachok and his loyal booster buddies Joe Libke, Bill Parish, John Ascuaga, Don Carano, Bill Raggio, Harold Smith, Dan Orlich, Don Manoukian, Bob McDonald, Bill “Wildcat” Morris, Wayne Pearson, Ed Allison and others.

They nailed it right from the start, making sure the new dinner was unique and special in two very important ways.

The site and the speaker.

Trachok and his influential friends didn’t invent the term “Governor’s Dinner.” There had been Governor’s Dinners all over the country for the past century. But almost all of them were political affairs. The Tampa, Fla., area had a Governor’s Dinner since the late 1940s to help kick off the opening of baseball’s spring training in the state.

But no college had a so-called Governor’s Dinner and certainly no college boosters were eating and drinking, emphasis on drinking, and telling bawdy jokes in their Governor’s backyard.

The Reno Gazette-Journal on July 10, 1969, just 10 days before man first landed on the moon, reported that the crowd at the first Governor’s dinner looked like a scene from the movie Gone With the Wind.

That evening the Governor’s Mansion was indeed Tara and the corner of Robinson and Mountain streets in Carson City was the Civil War-era South. Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t there because women were not invited but none other than Los Angeles Rams head coach George Allen was cast in the role of Rhett Butler.

Allen’s presence, with the Governor’s Mansion as the background, made the dinner a huge success. And that formula has been repeated for the next five decades.

The Governor’s Dinner’s 48 speakers (three have done it twice) have included 10 NFL head coaches, eight college football coaches, seven college basketball head coaches and 11 NFL players.

Some of the greatest names in the world of sports over the last 50 years have graced the mansion with their words, from Jerry West, Johnny Unitas, Bill Walsh and Bobby Knight to Terry Bradshaw, Steve Young, Marcus Allen and Joe Montana. There have been eight San Francisco 49ers, three players that combined to win seven NBA championships, a horse racing triple crown trainer and a French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open tennis champ (Andre Agassi). Two Heisman Trophy winners, seven quarterbacks and seven head coaches that led their team to a Super Bowl, four coaches that combined to win nine NCAA basketball tournaments and four that combined to win eight NCAA football national titles have also spoken to Pack boosters.

The dinner, Trachok knew, needed a big name to get the boosters to open their checkbooks in July. And Allen set the tone perfectly.

“He didn’t charge us a thing,” Trachok told Guy Clifton of the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2001. “He did it for free.”

Trachok, the master of ceremonies for the first dinner, also brought Wolf Pack football legends Marion Motley, Stan Heath, Tommy Kalmanir and James “Rabbit” Bradshaw to rub elbows with the boosters during the first dinner.

It was Wolf Pack heaven.

Nine Nevada Governors, starting with Paul Laxalt, who hosted the dinner in 1969 and 1970, and followed by Mike O’Callaghan (1971-78), Robert List (1979-82), Richard Bryan (1983-88), Bob Miller (1989-98), Kenny Guinn (1999-2006), Jim Gibbons (2007-10), Brian Sandoval and Steve Sisolak (2019) have been kind enough to lend the Wolf Pack their backyard for one July evening over the past 51 summers.

Times have certainly changed up on North Virginia Street since that first dinner in 1969. You can’t pay your 10th assistant on the football team anymore on what that first dinner brought in ($50,000). And the Pack’s No. 1 sport now, as any booster will tell you, is fundraising. The Pack calendar every year is filled with fund-raising events.

But the Governor’s Dinner is, without question, still the Wolf Pack’s Fundraising Super Bowl. A conservative crowd of about 750 boosters pay about $300 a plate now each July.

The first 10 dinners (through 1978) were $100 a plate. It was raised to $150 a plate from 1979 through 1995 and $200 a plate from 1996 through 2003. It was $250 from 2004-06, $300 from 2007-09, back to $250 for 2010 (Trent Dilfer was the speaker) and then $300 from 2011-14. It cost boosters $350-a-plate to listen to former Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2015. By 2018, when Shaquille O’Neal came to Carson, it was $500 a plate. The last three dinners have been $350 a plate. Speakers now routinely get paid more for an hour or so of talking and smiling than what new football coach Jerry Scattini earned for a year in 1969.

But while the numbers to the right of the dollar sign are much larger now, the spirit of the evening is the same as it was back in 1969. The night signifies the start of a new Pack year and renewed hope for the future.

That will never change.

A look back at some of the more memorable moments from the past 51 Pack parties in the Governor’s backyard, minus the steak and Scotch, of course, but with a whole lot of silver and blue testosterone . . .

The Wolf Pack retired Marion Motley’s No. 41 jersey at the first dinner in 1969. They should have done the same with Kaepernick in 2015 but missed a great opportunity.

Motley, the former Wolf Pack and Cleveland Browns great was asked what he thought of rookie running back O.J. Simpson’s salary demands (a contract for $750,000).

“He’s out of line because he’s not a proven player,” said Motley, who earned $4,500 in his first NFL season with the Browns in 1946. “But he’s got the moves. He’s strong. He’s exciting. This is what people want, the guy with the name. There’s no doubt he’s going to draw the people.”

Also in the crowd for the first 1969 dinner were Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson, Reno Mayor Roy Bankofier and Sparks Mayor Bob Stone. Hey, you never know when you might need a favor from the Governor.

Allen told the crowd, “My owner (Dan Reeves of the Rams) fired me on Christmas and then re-hired me on New Year’s Day. I can’t wait for the next holiday.”

The following year (1970) the Pack honored some of its greatest coaches, namely Silas Ross, Buck Shaw, Corky Courtwright, Joe Sheeketski, Jake Lawlor, Jim Bailey, Gordon McEachron and Doc Martie. Wolf Pack history was dripping down the mansion’s walls.

Featured speaker John McKay (USC football coach) stepped to the microphone and said, “This thing has gone on so long my suit’s going out of style.”

Shaw, a former Notre Dame player who was just 26 years old when he coached Wolf Pack football in 1925 and later coached the Philadelphia Eagles to the 1960 NFL title, told the audience, “Corky (Courtwright) told me not to tell my salary when I coached here,” Shaw said. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry. I’m as ashamed of it as you are.’”

Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Ben Davidson was at the 1973 dinner as a guest and was told that he had just spoken in the Governor’s backyard to a Nevada bookmaker, a dangerous situation for a current NFL player. “I don’t care,” Davidson said. “I don’t bet.”

USC basketball coach Bob Boyd was the 1973 guest speaker. He was the second choice. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was announced as the speaker that spring but later declined because of health reasons. Boyd showed up in Carson City because he was a close friend of Pack basketball coach Jim Padgett.

Boyd seemed to campaign for Padgett’s job.

“If I could get a home off that golf course (Lakeridge in Reno) and $20,000 a year. I’d stay here for a lifetime,” he said. Padgett was making roughly $16,000 a year at Nevada at the time.

Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith, who became famous for his work as a broadcaster on Monday Night Football in the 1970s, said at the 1974 dinner of his former Cowboys coach Tom Landry, “He’s about as much fun as a train wreck.”

Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who hosted the dinner from 1971 through 1978, was arguably the boosters’ favorite Governor among the nine that have hosted the dinner. O’Callaghan, a huge sports fan who rarely missed a Governor’s Dinner, got a standing ovation from the Pack boosters in 1976.

“It goes to show you what a little wine can do,” O’Callaghan joked.

Former Heisman winner Tom Harmon (Michigan) was the guest speaker in 1977 and made the crowd happy by saying, “Any team that has as much spirit as you guys crank up can’t help but win.”

Wolf Club president Stew Johnson said at the 1976 dinner with 850 guests surrounding him (including new football coach Chris Ault), “I can sense it. Our program is past the walking stages. It’s going to start running.”

Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, the only baseball-related speaker in 51 years other than Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants, spoke to Pack fans in 1976. It was just a month earlier that Finley sales of star players Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi were denied by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. He was still upset with Kuhn when he showed up in Carson City.

“It’s my team,” Finley told Pack fans. “I own it. I’ll run it as I see fit.”

Ault, now just one year on the job, got caught up in the moment at the 1977 dinner and made a bold statement.

“I guarantee you one thing,” Ault said at the podium. “If we don’t play with all-out abandon (in 1977) I’ll give you a money-back guarantee. I’ll give you the money myself at the gate. We’ll fly around out there. We’ll make the Viet Nam war look like a party.”

Only one Pack fan, Kevin Magrane, a former Carson High quarterback and pitcher in the late 1960s, was brave enough to take Ault up on his bold guarantee. Magrane, whose wife Carolyn worked for the university at the time, went to Ault’s office and asked for half of his money back after the Pack’s 22-19 loss to Cal State Northridge in late September 1977.

“I asked for half my money back because they played pretty well in the first half,” Magrane told the Gazette-Journal. “Even if he didn’t give me a refund I wanted to tell him what I thought.

“All coach (Ault) could say was, ‘I hate to have fans like this.’ All I could say was, ‘I hate to see you make statements like this.’”

Ault, though, always used the dinners to his full advantage. And each one was like a little testimonial dinner to him.

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis spoke at the 1978 dinner and said, “Tonight was the first time I’ve met Chris Ault. There’s one thing I admire about him. He seems to love what he’s doing. He has a commitment of excellence.”

The 1980 dinner was greeted with a bit of controversy. Susan Hill, the president of the Northern Nevada chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), criticized the Wolf Pack and the governor (Robert List) for allowing the dinner to continue as an all-male affair.

“Women would be welcome,” Wolf Pack president Clay Rabedeaux said at the 1980 dinner. “If they turn up at our registration table with $150 you can be sure they won’t be turned away.”

Hills mainly criticized List for allowing the Governor’s Mansion to be used for an event that did not allow women.

“We do not have any plans to include women,” Rabedeaux added. “This thing is a stag (male only) event and it’s been that way for 12 years.”

Ault, as usual, read the crowd perfectly.

“Who’s going to clean the house?” said Ault, when asked in 1980 about the issue of women attending the dinner. “It (male only) is tradition. We have other dinners for husbands and wives. Maybe we could have a Governor’s Dinner just for gals.”

It took a long time for the male-only mentality to change at the Governor‘s Dinner.

A 1981 editorial in the Gazette-Journal, under a headline of, “Women are boosters, too,” said, “There is something wrong when a single-sex approach is taken to the affairs of a public institution.”

By 1985 the dinner was still 90 percent male. In 1991 just 30 women showed up in an audience of about 650. While the dinners remain predominantly male (all 51 speakers, for example, have been male), women are now more than welcome and are encouraged to attend. All proceeds from the evening also now benefit the university’s general athletic fund and not just football.

Jake Lawlor, a Pack coach in the 1940s and 50s and athletic director in the 1950s and 60s, died July 11, 1980, just one day before the dinner. The Pack has given out a Jake Lawlor Award each year (usually to a loyal booster) starting in 1980. The first winner was Northern Nevada dentist and Pack booster Dr. Dale Whiddett, the first president of the Pack boosters club when it was reorganized in 1959.

The boosters’ fondness for O’Callaghan was apparent at the 1980 dinner, even two years after he was replaced in the mansion by Robert List.

“I hate to say this in front of Gov. List but we really do miss Mike O’Callagahan,” said Wolf Pack dinner chairman Bob McDonald, the 1983 Lawlor Award winner.

That remark stunned guest speaker Frank Broyles, the former Arkansas head football coach.

“You guys showed me things I’ve never seen in Arkansas,” Broyles said. “You guys have a lot of guts talking about your governor the way you did. Hey, I kiss mine’s (behind) every time I turn around.”

Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, who later coached current Pack coach Steve Alford, spoke in Carson in 1982. The year before in 1981, when Knight won the NCAA tournament, he was told by Nevada basketball coach Sonny Allen that the Pack would be playing in a new arena (Lawlor Events Center) starting in 1983.

“I’ll speak at the dinner next year (1982) and we’ll (Indiana) open your facility in 1983,” Knight told Allen in 1981.

Knight kept his promise about the Governor’s dinner (speaking in 1982 and 2003) but never brought his Hoosiers to Lawlor.

Former Texas basketball coach Abe Lemons, who spoke in Carson City in both 1984 and 1986, had his 1984 speech interrupted by firecrackers.

After the firecrackers went off, Lemons turned toward Gov. Richard Bryan and said, “Governor, I thought you’d be ducking. Hell, I’m new here. I know they’re not after me.”

Lemons was a great speaker and more honest back in the 1980s than any college coach would be now.

“College athletics has turned into a babysitting service,” Lemons said in 1984. “You get him into classes, you enroll him, you get him to study hall. You just walk him through it. A regular student working at a Pizza Hut, who worried about him?”

San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh was the speaker in 1985, just six months after winning the Super Bowl. He was asked what he thought of the Pack football program, which played in Division I-AA at the time, of someday going to Division I-A.

“You have to think big,” Walsh said. “To be successful you’ve got to pay the price.”

Lemons, returning to the dinner in 1986, brought a hearty chuckle from the predominantly male, football and basketball-biased audience in 1986.

“I got fired once by a track coach (in 1982 by Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, a former Kansas State track coach). That’s like John Wayne getting shot by a Girl Scout.”

Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, the 1993 speaker, also stuck to the script and complimented Ault.

“I played golf with him today,” said Ditka, who was fired by the Bears after the 1992 season. “He handles himself pretty good. He knows who he is and what he is and what he needs to do.”

Ditka also commented on Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, who was involved at the time in a gambling scandal where he was accused of not paying off a golf bet. “First off, who are you going to believe?” Ditka said. “I’d rather believe Michael Jordan.

I’ve played golf with Michael Jordan. He beat me sometimes and I beat him. We always paid.”

Wolf Pack booster Don Manoukian wore a red coat to the 1997 dinner when he was Master of Ceremonies. Ault, always an opponent of UNLV red, went up to Manoukian, took off the coat and threw it down on the Governor’s lawn. 49ers coach George Seifert, the guest speaker in 1997, then picked up the coat as he walked to the podium, gave it back to Manoukian and reminded everyone that it was a nice shade of 49ers’ red.

Former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana told Pack boosters in 2002, “I don’t think there’s anything that can replace Sunday afternoons on a football field. I’ve tried. I can’t seem to get close.”

Colin Kaepernick, one of three quarterbacks to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl (along with Montana, Steve Young) who spoke at the mansion, told Pack boosters in 2015, “I’m happy Nevada still remembers me and is happy about what I’m doing. It’s great to be back in the silver and blue and have that vibe, which was very good for me.”

That silver and blue vibe, washed over arguably the best setting in the nation for a benefit dinner, is what the Governor’s Dinner has always been about.

Governor’s Dinner featured speakers:

George Allen (1969), John McKay (1970), Bob Devaney (1971), Jerry West (1972), Bob Boyd (1973), Don Meredith (1974); Johnny Unitas (1975), Charlie Finley (1976), Tom Harmon (1977), Al Davis (1978), Al McGuire (1979).

Frank Broyles (1980), Willie McCovey (1981), Bobby Knight (1982), John Ralston (183), Abe Lemons (1984), Bill Walsh (1985); Abe Lemons (1986); Grant Teaff/Tony Mason (1987); Lou Holtz (1988), Dick Vitale (1989).

Larry Smith (1990), Bum Phillips (1991), Al McGuire (1992), Mike Ditka (1993), Joe Theismann (1994), Billy Packer (1995), Rick Pitino (1996), George Seifert (1997), Terry Bradshaw (1998), Rick Majerus (1999).

Steve Mariucci (2000), Jon Gruden (2001), Joe Montana (2002), Bobby Knight (2003), Steve Young/Brent Jones (2004), Marcus Allen (2005), Herman Edwards (2006), Roy Williams (2007), Charles Barkley (2008), Mike Leach (2009).

Trent Dilfer (2010), Jim Harbaugh (2011), Doug Gottlieb (2012), Roger Craig (2013), Andre Agassi (2014), Colin Kaepernick (2015), Kenny Smith (2016), Nate Burleson (2017), Shaquille O’Neal (2018), Bob Baffert/Mike Smith (2019).