Friday, Oct. 3, 2003 | 10:11 a.m.
When UNR and UNLV take the field for the 29th time Saturday night in Reno, the two teams will fight for state pride, and for one of the most unusual trophies in college athletics.
Since 1970, winning the in-state rivalry meant winning the Fremont Cannon. The cannon, a sometimes red, sometimes blue replica of the howitzer that explorer John C. Fremont hauled with him on a mapping expedition in 1843, is a $10,000 copper-barreled 55-millimeter gun that no longer fires, has been broken a few times, and has some inscriptions hidden in certain places, with others certainly waiting to be found the next time UNR wins its rivalry game.
UNR athletic director Chris Ault spent 19 years as head coach of the Wolf Pack, after playing for Reno and serving as an assistant at UNLV. He said Thursday he thinks the cannon is a great trophy to represent all of Nevada and its history.
"The thing I really enjoyed about it is, in college football, if it's not the largest rival award, it's one of the top two or three," Ault said. "It's special award, simply because of the magnitude of it."
The cannon was the brainchild of the first Rebels coach, Bill Ireland. Ireland is in poor health and was unavailable for comment, but according to the UNLV media guide, he got Kennecott Copper Corporation to donate the cannon as a symbol of the new rivalry between older UNR and younger UNLV. At the time, UNLV had just been renamed from Nevada Southern University, and its "Rebel" mascot was a mangled wolf, a mockery of UNR's stately lupis.
Up to 2000, the cannon fired after its possessor scored a touchdown, and was disassembled and flown with the team when circumstances warranted. The disassembly became problematic in 1978, when UNR didn't have a ROTC corps to disassemble the cannon for it.
"After the game, I had a football team trying to figure out how to dismantle the cannon," said Ault of Reno's 23-14 win at what was then the Silver Bowl, now Sam Boyd Stadium. "Here's this football team trying to dismantle it so we can take it on the plane."
Rebels fans did quite a disassembly job on the cannon in 2000, after seeing the Rebels fall to UNR in the previous five meetings. In a post-victory melee at Sam Boyd Stadium, fans tried to lift up the cannon in celebration. They succeeded, for a moment, before dropping and breaking the trophy.
UNLV spent $1,500 repairing the cannon and restoring it, and at that time, decided to stop firing the trophy, said Rebels director of equipment Paul Pucciarelli.
"When the cannon was damaged, we found some interesting things on it," he said this week as he unscrewed a piece of the cannon and lifted it up.
Inscribed on a brace near the barrel was the phrase "University of Notta Lotta Victories."
UNLV head coach John Robinson said that before he came to UNLV in 1999, he'd never heard of the Fremont Cannon. But the former USC coach feels that rivalry trophies are more for the fans than for the team or coaches.
At USC, Robinson's earlier coaching post, the team that wins its rivalry game with Notre Dame got the Jeweled Shillelagh, a ruby- and emerald-studded war club first awarded 51 years ago.
"I only saw the shillelagh once," Robinson said. "But that becomes more of an alumni thing, it was too expensive to let it near the team."