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When the Nevada Wolf Pack played for national titles

Was the 1990 football team Nevada's first, last and only shot at a national championship?

By Joe Santoro Nevada Appeal
The 1990 Nevada football team photo.
Nevada Athletics/file

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team was so close to a national championship it could taste it with their grits, fried catfish and black-eyed peas.

“We haven’t come this far to get beat now,” defensive end Neil Hulbert said a few days before the Wolf Pack’s Division I-AA championship date with Georgia Southern in December 1990.

The Pack headed to tiny Statesboro, Georgia on the heels of two iconic triple-overtime Division I-AA playoff victories in consecutive weeks over Furman and Boise State. Lose the title now? Not the Mackay Miracle Men.

But the Wolf Pack, just like the devil, went down to Georgia and was ambushed.

“It was like playing Notre Dame in Rome,” Pack head coach Chris Ault said after the 36-13 loss to Georgia Southern.

Ault, who would later coach football in Italy more than two decades later, knew what he was talking about. Georgia Southern’s Eagles, after all, even came equipped with their own Pope (former head coach Erk Russell, who watched the title game that day from the stands) and their own holy water. The Eagles used to sprinkle water from nearby Beautiful Eagle Creek in the end zone on game days for good luck.

The Pack, it turns out, would have had a better chance against Notre Dame in Rome. There’s a reason the song is called Statesboro Blues, unofficially named for all of the visiting football teams who went back home in a daze. I’m going to Eagle country, baby, do you wanna go? No thank you.

That was as close as the Wolf Pack football team will ever likely come to winning a national title. The Wolf Pack, after all, jumped into the money grab known as Division I-A football just two years after that memorable day in Georgia, sacrificing such things as national titles for national television money.

That’s why now, as we approach the 30th anniversary of that historic season, to remember that there was a day, a truly magical time in the late fall of 1990, when the Pack actually did play for a national title.

And it all happened in tiny Statesboro, “the land of pine trees and grits,” as Atlanta Constitution newspaper columnist Furman Bisher wrote in the press box at Paulson Stadium on Dec. 15, 1990.

The four months leading up to that Wolf Pack bushwhacking in pine tree and grits country were a white-knuckle, hold-on-for-dear-life, unpredictable and unbelievable rollercoaster ride full of lifelong memories.

It all started back in August 1990 as the Wolf Pack football team attacked a new decade with renewed enthusiasm and hope.

“We were ready for this season to start the day after we finished last season,” said running back Ray Whalen as practices began in the middle of August 1990.

“The players are as optimistic as I’ve seen them in a few years,” Ault said.

That wasn’t the case heading into the final month of the 1989 season. Just nine months before confusion and frustration was the frightening mental state of the football program as the calendar flipped to November 1989 and the Silver State celebrated its 125th year of statehood. The Pack was coming off a bewildering 42-22 thrashing by the Idaho Vandals at the Kibbie Dome to fall to 4-4 on the year. Pack football was now officially treading water, compiling a mediocre and lifeless 16-15 over its last 31 games, a stretch that began with a heartbreaking, dream-killing 48-38 loss to, yes, Georgia Southern and head coach Erk Russell and quarterback Tracy Ham in the I-AA semifinals at Mackay Stadium to close out 1986.

Heading into that 1986 playoff game, the Wolf Pack was unbeaten (13-0) on the season, ranked No. 1 in the I-AA nation, had won 19 games in a row at Mackay Stadium and 28-of-30 overall. But the Pack lost just the same and there likely wasn’t a single grit to be found anywhere near the stadium.

And, now, 31 games after that loss to Georgia Southern the Pack was still stuck in mediocrity for the first time in Ault’s Pack coaching career.

“Just pathetic,” said Ault after Idaho quarterback John Friesz passed for 446 yards against the Wolf Pack in late October 1989. “I don’t care if it’s Joe Namath back there. You should give up that many big pass plays when you are in a three-deep zone.”

Games against hated rivals Boise State and UNLV were staring the 4-4 Pack in the face in November 1989. Ault’s frustration, which always simmered just under the surface, was now reaching its boiling point.

So how does a football team go from pathetic and frustrated in late October 1989 to optimistic and hopeful by August 1990?

Well, you whip Boise State and UNLV and beat Northern Arizona with your hotshot freshman quarterback making like Joe Namath. Fred Gatlin, who had to beat out the now-forgotten Steve Backster just to earn the starting job in early 1989, threw for a school-record 420 yards and five touchdowns against Northern Arizona as the Pack ended the year with a confidence-building three-game winning streak.

“If we played like this all year I have no doubt we’d be the No. 1 team in the nation by now,” senior tight end Demetrius Davis said after the 1989 season ended.

Georgia Southern won the 1989 national title in Tacoma, Wash., for its third championship along with 1985 and 1986. The Wolf Pack didn’t even make the playoffs from 1987-89.

“I’m more ecstatic about the last three weeks,” said Ault at the end of 1989, ever the silver and blue salesman keeping everyone focused on the promising future rather than the disappointing last three years.

Not even a three-year playoff drought could dampen the optimism heading into 1990. There was even talk of a potentially perfect season.

“Don’t go putting that kind of pressure on us,” said Ault, who had not dealt with that sort of pressure since the 1986 playoff loss to Georgia Southern.

The 1990 season began pretty much the same way as the 1989 season ended, with a 55-14 win over Northern Arizona. Gatlin threw for 266 yards, Brock Marion blocked a punt and backup running back Jason Frierson (starter Ray Whalen was out with a hip injury) ran for 110 yards.

“They looked like a veteran NFL team,” Northern Arizona coach Steve Axman said.

“We feel we’re a nationally ranked team but we don’t want to talk about it,” said Ault, whose Wolf Pack began the year ranked No. 19 in I-AA.

Everyone else, it seemed, was talking about it. The Wolf Pack then crushed Sacramento State 41-7 in Week 2, also at Mackay. Frierson ran for 140 yards and three scores, including a 76-yarder. Steve Bryant blocked a punt, Xavier Kairy recovered a fumble. The Pack was now No. 8 in the nation in Division I-AA.

The first true test of the year would be Week 3 at Montana State. Gatlin didn’t look like Joe Namath and the Pack needed two interceptions by Forey Duckett and four field goals by Kevin McKelvie just to survive, 20-14. Ault even quick-kicked twice on third down.

“The defense won this one,” Gatlin said.

Ault didn’t disagree.

“Fred just didn’t look sharp,” Ault said. “(Backup quarterback Chris) Vargas was close to coming in.”

The 20 points were the fewest for the Pack in a victory since a 17-13 win over Idaho on Oct. 18, 1986.

“That’s what good teams do,” Ault said. “When you play badly and win on the road that can carry you a long way.”

The Wolf Pack returned home to face Idaho in Week 4. The Vandals, the last team to beat the Pack, had not lost to Nevada since 1986.

This time it took a 19-yard field goal by McKelvie in overtime to come away with a 31-28 Pack victory. Treamelle Taylor also saved the day with an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown.

But the real savior was Vargas. The 16,125 fans at Mackay Stadium that afternoon witnessed the birth of the Magic Man. The redshirt freshman came off the bench to complete 14-of-26 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown in relief of Gatlin, who was 7-of-17 for 54 yards and was intercepted three times.

“The man upstairs, we had him in our hip pocket,” linebacker Matt Clafton said.

Clafton wasn’t referring to Vargas when he mentioned the man upstairs. At least not yet.

The hotshot freshman quarterback was now a stupefying sophomore.

“Fred’s not getting it done,” Ault said “And he’s got to get it done. Period. Fred played pathetic.”

There’s that word again.

Vargas, though, wanted no part of a quarterback controversy.

“Starting is not even on my mind,” he said.

It was on Gatlin’s mind.

“Two quarterbacks doesn’t work,” Gatlin said.

If it didn’t work the Wolf Pack never would have gotten to the 1990 national title game.

“If Fred’s struggling I’m not going to hesitate to bring Chris in,” said Ault, who, it turns out, did hesitate a bit too long at times.

Lost in the quarterback controversy after the victory over Idaho was that Frierson suffered a knee injury that would end his 1990 season.

Gatlin started and finished the game in Week 5, a 17-10 victory at Idaho State. But he continued to flounder, completing just 18-of-37 passes for 164 yards.

“We’ve met the enemy and the enemy is us,” said Ault, who always obsessed about his offense, even in good times.

Freshman Zeke Moore started at running back for Frierson (and Whalen) and produced 138 yards on 31 carries at Idaho. Taylor, who was called for three penalties, returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.

“It’s a good thing he made the return,” said Ault, referring to the three penalties.

Taylor went from pathetic to prodigious in 87 yards.

“That’s why I had to run the kick back,” Taylor said. “I screwed up bad. I hurt us with stupid penalties.”

The Pack was 5-0 but was winning with defense and special teams. Ault didn’t exactly feel like the coach of an undefeated team because his baby, his offense, was a mess.

“The people that have hurt us are our so-called skill people,” Ault said.

The Pack, though, was now ranked No. 4 in the nation in Division I-AA. A Homecoming crowd of 18,065, the second-largest in Mackay Stadium history, saw the Wolf Pack rip No. 19 Eastern Washington 40-17 to move to 6-0.

It was as if a cool, refreshing breeze swept over Northern Nevada, lifting the fog of the less-than-artistic triumphs of the past three weeks.

The win over Eastern Washington avenged another loss from 1989 (Idaho was the first). Marion had two interceptions and McKelvie kicked four more field goals but hardly anyone remembered that after the game.

That’s because Gatlin and the offense came back to life. Ault, in an effort to restore confidence in his frustrated quarterback, simplified things and turned back the clock to 1989.

“That’s what we did last year, when we threw the ball vertically,” said Gatlin, who connected with Taylor for a 48-yard gain on the Pack’s first play of the game.

Ault was sending a message to Gatlin right from the start. Just throw the darn ball.

“We threw the ball on first down,” wide receiver Ross Ortega said. “We never throw on first down.”

The win over Eastern Washington moved the Pack to No. 3 in the nation. Next on the schedule was the Battle for the Fremont Cannon in Las Vegas, the game that simply defined Ault.

The Pack destroyed UNLV in 1989 (45-7) but 1990 was the first time the Pack and Rebels would play in back-to-back years since 1978-79.

A crowd of 22,402 showed up at Sam Boyd Silver Bowl to watch the Pack carry the blue cannon back home with a 26-14 win for its first back-to-back wins in the rivalry since 1972-73.

Whalen returned to prominence with 119 yards on 32 carries and Gatlin was efficient and explosive, completing 22-of-30 for 246 yards.

“He’s Fred Gatlin again,” said a relieved Ault, who never did know which Gatlin would show up on Saturday.

The Pack now had the longest winning streak in Division I-AA at 10 and was ranked No. 3 in the nation.

“Right now we’re just kicking the butts of everyone we play,” offensive linemen Tom Werbeckes said.

That theme continued in Week 8 with a 28-7 win at Weber State. Linebacker Frank Sullivan had three sacks as the Pack dumped Weber State quarterback Jamie Martin seven times.

“You could see he (Martin) had those big, wide eyes like he was scared to death,” Ault said.

Whalen, one of the more underrated Pack backs when he was healthy, ran for 220 yards in 37 carries. “We knew they couldn’t score if they didn’t have the ball,” Whalen said.

The next opponent would be Montana, the team picked before the season by the media and coaches to win the Big Sky title in 1990.

The Wolf Pack led by 24 points heading into the fourth quarter at Mackay but nearly gave the game away, holding on for a 34-27 victory. A record crowd of 19,530 saw Gatlin complete 19-of-31 passes for 255 yards in the first half but then go just 1-of-9 in the second half.

“We were too conservative in the second half,” Taylor said. “It seems like we get a big lead and then we run the ball and our offense falls to sleep.”

Whalen, who rank for 91 yards and two touchdowns, ended the day on the bench with an ankle injury. Ault, who invented the term “Nevada Back” to signify a 30-carry reliable, dependable workhorse of a runner like he had in the 1980s with the likes of Frank Hawkins, Charvez Foger and Anthony Corley, was now frustrated with his starting quarterback and his starting running back.

The Wolf Pack headed to Boise State the following week with a 9-0 record, a 12-game winning streak and a No. 2 national ranking. But the offense was in disarray.

Whalen tested his ankle in the pre-game warmups on the blue Boise turf but spent the afternoon standing on the sidelines.

What followed was one of the worst beatings an Ault offense ever suffered. Boise State defensive lineman Eric Helgeson turned into Lawrence Taylor, sacking Gatlin three times as the Broncos ended the Pack’s chances at a perfect season with a 30-14 victory.

Gatlin was an inefficient 22-of-40 and two interceptions for 201 yards and was sacked five times. The running game finished the day with minus-14 yards rushing. The offensive line blocked nobody. Not even Vargas could save the day, completing 5-of-10 passes for 29 yards and an interception.

“They just seemed complacent,” Helgeson said of the Pack. “They already clinched a (share of the) Big Sky title and they had nothing to win.

“They were undefeated. We had already lost two games. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Mackay Miracles, apparently, aren’t allowed in Boise. The only Pack touchdown of the afternoon came on a fumble return by defensive lineman George Buddy. It had been seven seasons, since a 14-6 loss to Fullerton in 1993, that an Ault offense failed to score a touchdown.

“I am embarrassed,” Ault said.

The 30-14 score was the same score that the Pack beat Boise with the previous year at Mackay.

“We were pathetic,” said Ault, using his favorite word in times of stress and frustration. “I better stop talking because I might regret what I might say. I have a lot of things I want to tell this team on Monday.”

The Pack, now 9-1, saw its Big Sky season end at 7-1. Boise State, at 6-1, still had a chance to share the conference title with a win over Idaho.

The Wolf Pack, playing a I-AA playoff tuneup at Mackay Stadium the following week took all of its frustrations out on Western Illinois in the final regular-season game. Taylor scored three touchdowns and Gatlin passed for 372 yards and five scores (the second straight year he ended the regular season with five TD passes) as the Pack won 50-16.

With about five minutes to go in the game, though, a message came across the public address system. The crowd and the Pack players and coaches heard that Idaho had upset Boise State 21-14, giving the Wolf Pack the Big Sky Conference title all by itself.

“It was like two victories in one day,” defensive tackle Dio Shipp said. “When we heard the Boise score it was like a chain reaction. We were No. 1 and it felt good. Man, it felt good.”

“It would have turned my stomach for us to be 10-1 and had to share the championship,” Ault said.

It was now time for the postseason.

The Pack’s first playoff game since the 1986 loss to Georgia Southern was against the Northeast Louisiana Indians (now known as the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks). The Indians were quarterbacked by future Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson and had won the I-AA championship in 1987.

As the Pack players ran onto the field before the game the Fremont Cannon was ignited (as was the custom at the time) and blew a hole in the jersey of Pack player Steve Bryant.

“The game hadn’t even started and we were shooting our own guys in the back,” Ault said.

The cannon proved to be the toughest opponent of the day as the Pack took a 27-14 win.

The Wolf Pack’s I-AA playoff stroll through the south continued the following week when Furman came to Mackay Stadium on Dec. 1, 1990.

The Paladins had won the I-AA national title just two years before in 1988 by beating Georgia Southern. Georgia Southern beat Furman in the title game in 1985. The Pack had lost at Furman in the 1985 playoffs, 35-12.

The Pack fell behind Furman 28-13 in the third quarter and the crowd started chanting, “Vargas, Vargas, Vargas.”

Gatlin, though, was having one of his best days of the season, on the way to a 337-yard afternoon. Gatlin led the Pack to a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 28-20. But with 3:47 to go, the Pack still trailed 28-20 and Gatlin was out of the game with an ankle injury.

In came Vargas, who found Ortega for a 13-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left in regulation and then sent the game into overtime by hitting Joe King for the game-tying and dream-saving two-point conversion.

Vargas then engineered two touchdowns in overtime as the Pack somehow won 42-35 in three overtimes.

Vargas put up 156 yards playing three-plus minutes in regulation and three brief overtimes and combined with Gatlin for a Wolf Pack-record 496 passing yards.

“We knew somehow, someway we were going to win this one,” Shipp said.

Vargas was fast becoming the best reliever in all of college football.

“I don’t know if death row has more electricity than what was going through our sideline,” Ault said. “This was a one-game season and a one-word game. Unbelievable.”

Ault didn’t hide his praise for Vargas after beating Furman. The playoffs, after all, were not a time to worry about your starting quarterback’s ego.

“He’s (former Pack quarterback, 1983-86) Eric Beavers all over again,” Ault said, “with a better arm. Chris is so unselfish. He’s a throwback.”

Vargas, playing the role of freshman backup perfectly on and off the field, made sure to remind everyone that Gatlin was still the starter.

“Football is a plus for me,” he said. “The main reason I’m here is for the education. Sure, I’d like to play all the time. But that’s not the reason I’m here.”

The unlikely, improbable victory over Furman set up a semifinal match with Boise State at Mackay Stadium. It would be the Pack’s fifth trip to the semifinals. The first four ended in defeat.

A Mackay Stadium record crowd of 19,776 showed up to see the Pack take on Boise State even though the game was broadcast live locally by ABC.

The Pack jumped out to a 20-7 lead in the second quarter, seemingly erasing the 30-14 disaster the month before in Boise. But there was a hidden concern. The Pack offense, which didn’t score a touchdown in Boise, was still looking for its first touchdown of the year against the Broncos.

The 20 points came on two McKelvie field goals and two defensive touchdowns, a 31-yard interception return by defensive lineman Joe Caspers and a fumble recovery in the Boise end zone by Hulbert. That 20-7 lead turned into a 28-20 deficit.

Ault didn’t hesitate to bring on the new Eric Beavers. Vargas entered the game with the Pack down 28-20 and seven minutes to go in the third quarter.

Magic Man led the Pack to a 45-38 lead with under a minute to go. Boise, though, tied the game with 55 seconds left to send it to overtime.

The Pack had the ball first in overtime but McKelvie missed a 39-yard field goal. All Boise needed was three points of its own to end the Pack season. That seemed to be inevitable as Boise’s Mike Black lined up for a 37-yard field goal. The air seemed to leave the stadium as Black jogged onto the field. Black, though, somehow missed as the emotions filled the stadium once again. The Pack season was still alive.

Boise, though, took a 52-45 lead in the second OT but Vargas found Scott Benning from eight yards out to tie it and send the Pack to its second 3-overtime game in eight days.

Darkness now began to descend upon Mackay Stadium. Whalen, who ran for a I-AA playoff-record 245 yards on a Nevada-back 44 carries, found the end zone from eight yards out for a 59-52 win. It was his ninth touchdown of the playoffs.

Fans tore down the south goal posts, players cried and hugged each other on the field and the Pack was headed to the I-AA title game in Georgia as Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” played throughout the stadium.

“After a game like this they have you say you’re going to Disneyland,” Pack defensive back Xavier Kairy said. “Forget Disneyland. We’re going to Georgia.”

Who needed Disneyland after two weeks of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? Chris Vargas, after all, had now turned the Pack home into Magic Mackay Mountain.

“When Chris comes in it is very inspirational,” offensive tackle Shariar Pourdanesh said.

Gatlin was 10-of-18 for 103 yards and two interceptions. Vargas was 10-of-17 for 108 yards. The numbers were similar. But the NCAA doesn’t have a stat for miracles.

The Pack was now the first team in college football history to play three three-overtime games in one season, let alone two in a row.

“This is getting old,” smiled offensive linemen Chris Wells after the game. “Please, no more of these. I can’t take another overtime game.”

The Pack was now the fourth Big Sky team in history to earn a trip to the I-AA title game after Boise State (1980), Idaho State (1981) and Montana State (1984). All three won.

Georgia Southern, the last team to beat the Pack in the playoffs, was now the opponent. Only this time the game was in Georgia.

“We’ll play them anywhere,” Pack offensive line coach Pat Rippee said. “If we were told to play them in Saudi Arabia, we’d be on the airplane and on our way.”

Saudi Arabia would have been a more fair environment for the Pack. Georgia Southern, after all, hardly ever lost at home, winning 50-of-52 games there since Paulson Stadium was built in 1984.

It’s too bad the Pack couldn’t bottle the moment and the feeling of when Whalen scored and the Pack beat Boise State.

The Pack woke up the next morning and reality set in like an Eric Helgeson sack.

Cornerback Bernard Ellison, who didn’t play at all in 1989 because of an injury and then got a rare sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, was now hurt again and couldn’t even play in the title game.

The Pack was going almost all the way across the country to play a game that would start at 9 a.m. Reno time.

It was finals week for the players in the classroom and on the field. The team that was compared to an NFL team back in September was now about to play an NFL-like 15th game of the season at the other end of the country.

The game was on national television with a young Jim Nance doing the play by play. Greg Allman was going to sing Statesboro Blues at halftime. Nobody thought to invite Johnny Cash to sing, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” with emphasis on the lines “I’ve been to Reno . . .” and “I was totin’ my (wolf?) pack along the dusty Winnemucca road.”

When the Wolf Pack arrived at Paulson Stadium they were greeted by 23,204 fans and a banner in the stands that read, “Welcome to the Georgia Southern Invitational.”

Playing Notre Dame in Italy began to look like a pleasant weekend compared to what faced the Pack.

Georgia State would fumble five times and lose four of them. The Pack offense would control the ball for more than 34 minutes and pick up more first downs (21-20) than the Eagles. But the Pack still lost by three touchdowns, its biggest loss since that game in 1989 at Idaho. Somewhere somebody was playing the Lonesome Fiddle Blues as the Pack flew home.

The two three-overtime games, to go along with the week of preparation and the long flight to Georgia, seemed to drain the Pack.

Down just 14-6 in the third quarter, the Pack drove all the way down to the Georgia Southern 1-yard line with a chance to tie the game.

Nobody saw it, but Erk Russell might have sprinkled some of that Beautiful Eagle Creek water in the end zone. Three Whalen runs failed to penetrate that Georgia Southern holy land. McKelvie then tried a 24-yard field goal and missed. The Wolf Pack was everywhere, man, except the end zone at Paulson Stadium.

Dream over.

The next thing the Pack knew it was 27-6. You half expected the 20,000-plus to go out to the parking lot to their pickups, pull out a shotgun and fire it into the Georgia sky. Georgia Southern had won its fourth national title.

The problem with Mackay Miracles, it turns out, is that they don’t travel well, especially to pine tree and grits country.

“We found ways to self destruct,” a quiet Ault said after the game.

Nobody had to tell Ault that he had just let the greatest moment of his career pass him by. You could see it on his face after the game.

Vargas didn’t enter the game until the fourth quarter. Even Nantz tried his best “Vargas, Vargas, Vargas” chant and said at halftime, “We may see a quarterback change in the second half.”

Vargas came in far too late but it likely didn’t matter anyway. Magic Man completed just 10-of-21 passes for 109 yards and threw a 3-yard parting-gift TD pass to Ortega. Gatlin was sacked four times and was 17-of-32 for 156 yards without a pick or a TD. The loss wasn’t his fault. The Pack had simply spent an afternoon in the Division I-AA Twilight Zone.

“Football is over,” offensive lineman Tony Wells said after the game. “Time to get on with my life.”

“This is our worst nightmare,” George Buddy said in a quiet Pack locker room. “The way we won the last two games we just thought it was God’s will for us to win. I guess it wasn’t.”

The Wolf Pack might have had an even better and deeper team the following year in 1991. But McKelvie missed a game-winning field goal as the Pack lost in the playoffs 30-28 to Youngstown State (the eventual 1991 winner) in Mackay Stadium. Maybe they should have had Vargas kick it.

The next year (1992) the Pack was in Division I-A. Goodbye national championships.

That’s why there will never be another season like 1990 ever again for the Pack. Bowl games, no matter how big the trophy and sponsor money, just are not national championships.

“This is about things that could have been,” Taylor said after the Georgia Southern loss in 1990. “We could have been national champions.”

Likely for the last and only time.