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Against UNR, John Robinson set the standard at UNLV

Former Rebel, who went 5-1 against Wolf Pack, agrees with Sanford’s current approach



Former UNLV coach John Robinson attempts to rally his team in a game against Utah State on Sept. 25, 2004, at Sam Boyd Stadium. Despite winning only 40 percent of his total games in six seasons at UNLV (28-42 record from 1999 to 2004), Robinson was more successful than any other coach in Rebels history against rival UNR. He went 5-1 against the Wolf Pack.

All-time win percentages against UNR

  • 1) John Robinson — .833 (5-1 from 1999-04)
  • 2) Tony Knap — .750 (3-1 from 1976-81)
  • 3) Ron Meyer — .667 (2-1 from 1973-75)
  • 4) Bill Ireland — .500 (2-2 from 1968-72)
  • 4) Harvey Hyde — .500 (1-1 from 1982-85)
  • 4) Wayne Nunnely — .500 (1-1 from 1986-89)
  • 7) Jeff Horton — .200 (1-4 from 1994-98)
  • 8) Mike Sanford — .000 (0-4 from 2005-present)
  • 8) Jim Strong — .000 (0-4 from 1990-93)
The Rebel Room

Wyoming reflection, UNR prognostication

Ryan Greene and Christine Killimayer, back safely from Wyoming, discuss what went wrong for the Rebels in a 30-27 loss to Wyoming, then take a look at how it translates forward for Mike Sanford's 2-2 club. Plus, Dan Hinxman of the Reno Gazette-Journal chimes in to offer some insight on UNR, who UNLV faces up in Reno this weekend in a must-win for both sides.

Next game

  • Opponent: UNR
  • Date: Oct. 3, 1 p.m. Vegas time
  • Where: Reno
  • TV: None
  • Radio: ESPN Radio 1100 AM
  • Line: UNR by 4.5

What others are saying

Read what other writers are saying about UNLV's upcoming game against UNR:

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV coach Mike Sanford argues with a referee, saying a UNR player was on his knees during the first half of last season's rivalry matchup at Sam Boyd Stadium. The Wolf Pack were victorious in 2008, 49-27, and Sanford this Saturday will look for his first win against UNR in five tries.

John Robinson's six-year tenure as the head football coach at UNLV certainly had its ups and downs.

But even though he came to Las Vegas to end a 45-year coaching career spent both in the collegiate and pro ranks, there's one distinction he holds over the other eight men who have served at the same post.

He knew how to dominate UNR.

Robinson's overall win percentage of .400 at UNLV ranks sixth out of nine regimes in program history, but his .833 success rate against the Wolf Pack is a clear-cut No. 1, and will probably stay that way for awhile.

"The first time we went up there, it was a bad scene in terms of the crowd and all that. It was pretty unruly, and I think they beat us pretty decisively," Robinson recalled of his team's 26-12 loss at Mackay Stadium during his inaugural UNLV campaign in 1999.

That would be the only setback Robinson would suffer to the Rebels' most hated rival, beginning a run of five consecutive triumphs the following year with a 38-7 smashing at Sam Boyd Stadium.

"I think we got some confidence to where we could beat them, and then once we got that confidence, it wasn't that hard," the 74-year-old Robinson said via telephone from San Diego. "I don't know the scores exactly, but I think we were in control of that series for awhile."

Since Robinson's run with the Rebels, the rivalry has seen a different trend, as the Wolf Pack is 4-0 against UNLV during the Mike Sanford era.

The latest installment involved UNR bursting UNLV's bubble last year following the Rebels' 3-1 start to the season. The Wolf Pack came into Sam Boyd Stadium and pummeled the Rebels, 49-27, thanks to both the accurate arm and long-striding legs of then-sophomore quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Both teams enter the 1 p.m. showdown in Reno this Saturday needing a win in the worst way.

At 2-2, UNLV needs a boost of confidence as it embarks on a treacherous stretch in its 2009 schedule, with back-to-back home games against BYU and Utah on the horizon.

As for UNR, Chris Ault's club is 0-3 and hasn't come close to living up to the BCS buzz it created coming into this season.

The Rebels have gone on lock-down this week, with the coaching staff trying to narrow the team's focus in any way possible. One of those methods has involved limiting media access to the team, which Sanford said he is doing for the first time in his career for this week only.

According to Robinson, it's the perfect approach to be taking.

He would know better than anyone.

"I think the emotion is like the frosting on a cake," he said. "If you're getting ready to play, you need to have your team more focused. I think on big games, a quieter approach is better for your team. If your team is yelling and screaming on Tuesday on the practice field, I don't think that's of much value, because it's taking the place of preparation and focus.

"The really great performances come after a week of real focus. And then Friday night or Saturday or something at the end of the week that lets everybody have some release is good. You can build up tension and never get a release on it."

Robinson said he usually had his team watch a movie or do something low-key on the eve of an intense game such as the battle for the Fremont Cannon.

After all, the emotion on game day can be more than enough to handle as it is.

It was in Robinson's final trip with UNLV up to Reno on Oct. 4, 2003, when he was whacked with a bottle thrown from the stands while heading into the locker room at halftime.

"I said (to the players) 'Those dirty SOBs hit me with a bottle, and they all cheered and said, 'Way to go, fans!' I'm just kidding," Robinson said. "We won the game, so it was just something to make fun of afterward. That wasn't a big deal."

Robinson got the last laugh that year, taking a 16-12 win and the Fremont Cannon back to Las Vegas. It was a bright spot in a so-so 6-6 season, which became a common theme.

Robinson only had one winning season in six tries with the Rebels and now works as a radio analyst for NFL broadcasts. But his 5-1 record against the program's most bitter rival is something fans will still brag about on a regular basis.

It's just further proof that signature wins over rivals can cover up unsightly losses.

A victory for the Rebels this weekend could surely alleviate some of the bad taste left over from last weekend's 30-27 loss at Wyoming, which extended the program's road losing streak in Mountain West Conference games to 20.

An upcoming rivalry showdown, however, will make any team reset its focus quickly.

Robinson was a part of plenty of them in his day.

As a head coach at Southern Cal from 1976-82, and again from 1993-97, he annually had to prepare his team to face the likes of Notre Dame and UCLA. But in finding a comparison for UNLV-UNR, he draws back a little further to his playing days at Oregon.

"Rivalries don't get more intense just because they're bigger or more publicized," he said. "I thought this Reno-UNLV rivalry was pretty serious. The Oregon-Oregon State rivalry, it reminded me of that. There's some distance between them, some built-in anger, different kinds of cultures in the two areas, people kind of resented the people from the other city, so that kind of added to it."

And no one knew how to get the Rebels to play amidst that craziness any better than Robinson, who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 8 in New York City.

"Obviously the 'SC rivalries with Notre Dame, UCLA are more publicized and bigger on the national scene, but if you look within a stadium and the intensity within the stadium, either in Reno or in Las Vegas, it's pretty intense," he said. "It was important."

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  1. PREDICTION: Gusts of up to 40 mph are expected Saturday around Reno, with a 25 percent chance of rain showers Saturday night. high 64 low 29

  2. Yes, indeed he did! 38-7 "original beatdown" = broken cannon and torn-down goal posts. Great memories!!

  3. yep.. i had my hand on the cannon as it slowly tumbled to the turf... still have the end zone marker though...

  4. Haha! I still have one of the wind markers from the top of the goal post, runrebs...and my UNLV Greek T-Shirt that had fresh red paint all over the letters from the custom paint job we applied to that sucker..


  6. Let it be known, this should be the only positive point of Robinson's career at UNLV. It doesn't overshadow running the program into the ground as part of an early retirement plan. Ugh.

  7. Whatever. It's better than anything Sanford has put together the last 5 years.

  8. If you dug any deeper for a positive spin on UNLV v. UNR football, Las Vegas would not need to look for water in Utah.

  9. Wasn't digger for a positive spin. With limited access on UNLV football players this week, I felt it was a story worth telling and a fact worth pointing out.

    Also, just to point out a correction made to this story, we accidentally identified the 'bottle' incident up in Reno as having taken place in UNLV's 2001 victory at UNR. It was, in fact, in 2003, when UNLV won, 16-12, at Mackay Stadium.

  10. Ryan, why isn't this game on TV?

  11. Your guess is as good as mine, cortez. However, this is the last week this season in which you'll have to ask that question. So that's something, right?