By Jack Rieger
Chris Ault is nothing short of a coaching legend in the state of Nevada. His name is even printed on Mackay Field as a reminder of his contribution to the university, and for good reason. He started at quarterback for the University of Nevada in the ’60s, coached the team for 27 years, served as the athletic director and invented the pistol offense. He also conceived the Nevada-UNLV rivalry, which was nonexistent until Ault persuaded the board of regents to schedule an annual game with UNLV in 1989. Coach Ault described the idleness of the rivalry during the beginning of his coaching tenure.
“When I first started in 1976 there really wasn’t a rivalry,” said Ault. “It was just a game. If there was any kind of rivalry it was more in the North. At that time, UNLV was so far ahead of us in football in terms of facilities, finances; I mean they were the program to go after at that time in the West.”
Coach Ault, as brilliant a head coach as he was, may have been a better salesman. Ault spent the first 13 years of his tenure repeatedly convincing the Nevada board of regents that a rivalry game was critical to the elevation of both Nevada and UNLV’s programs. At the time, Nevada was a Division II football team with close to no resources, and UNLV looked at Nevada as an inferior program that wasn’t worth scheduling. Long time Reno reporter Joe Santoro remembers Ault as a keen salesman.
“Ault, most everyone forgets, was always in the business of selling the sport to Nevada fans,” said Joe Santoro. “The sport of college football at Nevada was barely breathing when he took over the program in 1976. It was a meaningless Division II program and had been little more than a glorified high school program since 1952 when the school brought the sport back after a one-year absence.”
The teams would play each other on a semi-regular basis, typically every other year, until 1989 when the board of regents bought Ault’s pitch and voted to schedule an annual game.
“Once they discontinued the series in 1979, I was bound and determined to make that thing a rivalry,” Ault said. “I coached at UNLV for three years as an assistant prior to that. That’s how I got started in college football. Nobody knew more about that rivalry in the state than me. At that time [UNLV] had everything going for them- money, you name it. I thought we could be very competitive, I’d grow the program, and we would get better. I never knew the dominance that would eventually take place.”
Coach Ault recalled the turning point in the series as the 1985 game. UNLV had beaten Nevada six out of the last seven games and looked at the Wolf Pack as a lesser opponent. That all changed when Nevada routed the Rebels 48-7, and would go on to win 10 out of the next 12 matchups.
“They came over in ’85, and we dominated the game,” said Ault. “I can still see it. After that game they still didn’t have us scheduled, so I made a big issue of saying publicly after we beat them so badly, we need to play this game every year. We’re a better club now, but we’ve still got a ways to go. I went to the chairman of the board of regents, who happened to be Bob Cashell. Bob and I were very good friends. I said this is just ridiculous. We’re in-state schools, we don’t play. They don’t want to play simply because they think they’re above us. I said that’s wrong. I think that’s when it really initiated; we’re gonna have a rivalry come hell or high water.”
While the Nevada-UNLV rivalry isn’t quite as hostile as Alabama-Auburn or Michigan-Ohio State, there have certainly been contentious moments. For example, in 1995, Ault and the Wolf Pack were especially motivated to beat the Rebels because former Nevada coach Jeff Horton had accepted a job with UNLV two years before and was making his UNLV debut at Mackay Stadium. Santoro recalls the ugliness of the game.
“I believe there was a near fight between the two teams in the middle of the field before the game even started,” said Santoro. “The Pack blew them out and after every touchdown they would go over to touch the Fremont Cannon, which was on the UNLV sideline. Well, that started some pushing and shoving and UNLV defensive back Quincy Sanders, a Reed High graduate, threw his helmet at Ault and another fight broke out. Ault said it was one of the worst days he’d ever had in coaching, and it certainly was nothing to be proud of.”
Nevada has gone 19-7 against the Rebels since the rivalry’s establishment in 1989. It’s worth noting that in 2000, coach Ault temporarily retired for four years. Nevada lost all four of those games against UNLV, and Ault returned in 2004 to win eight out of the next nine games against the Rebels. Ault prioritized beating UNLV even more than winning the conference.
“I really did love the rivalry,” said Ault. “I really respected it. I saw nine different coaches go through UNLV while I was at Nevada. Every four years I’m going against someone new. If we had played them in Tonopah it would have been just as exciting. Being a graduate of the University of Nevada, and having coached and played there, I was very proud. I’ve always been very respectful of UNLV because they gave me my start in football. Compared to other schools, this is a young rivalry, but it’s an intense rivalry. It is a special game and it continues to be a special game.”
Ault retired from Nevada following the 2012 season, this time for good. His legacy and impact on the school and the city of Reno is permanent, much like his name printed on the field. Nevada will host UNLV at Mackay Stadium for the 41st time on Saturday, thanks almost entirely to the vision and persistence of Chris Ault.
Jack Rieger can be reached @jrieger.sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @JackRieger