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December 12, 2017

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

Ray Brewer:

Ex-UNLV player, coach helped spark rivalry after leaving Wolf Pack for Rebels

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Two UNLV students walk the Fremont Cannon onto the field UNR’s Mackay Stadium before the start of the 1995 football rivalry game between UNLV and UNR. It was UNLV coach Jeff Horton’s first trip back to UNR after he left to be the head coach at UNLV.

The Rebel Room

A look at UNR with the Reno Gazette-Journal's Dan Hinxman

In preparation for this Saturday's Battle for the Fremont Cannon at Sam Boyd Stadium between UNLV and Nevada-Reno, Ryan Greene chats with Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Dan Hinxman for a closer look at the No. 25 Wolf Pack. You'll find out just how Chris Ault's team is approaching this one mentally, along with who are some key names, outside of the obvious, to keep in mind.

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From The Other Side

They added fuel to the rivalry's fire.

Jeff Horton had deep ties in the Reno-area football scene, coaching at Bishop Manogue High before joining the staff at UNR in 1985 and eventually becoming the Wolf Pack's head coach eight years later. He even married a Reno woman.

Todd Floyd was one of Reno's legendary high-school performers, leading McQueen High to a pair of state championships in starting one of the state's best prep gridiron dynasties. Partially recruited by Horton, it was a relatively easy decision for Floyd to sign with the Wolf Pack.

But, after one year at the UNR helm, Horton in 1994 left to become the coach of the hated team in the South — UNLV.

Floyd, who red-shirted in 1993, went through spring practice with UNR the following year, then decided to bolt to Las Vegas and the Rebels.

The annual installment of the Fremont Cannon rivalry game is Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. It's a game Horton and Floyd were the center of attention for in the mid-1990s, especially in 1994 when the host Rebels upset the heavily favored Wolf Pack en route to winning the Big West Conference title.

"Any time you leave a job, that is always a tough decision," said Horton, who was the head coach at UNLV from 1994 to 1998 and currently is the offensive coordinator at Minnesota. "I have friends in Reno to this day, but I still will get cat-calls from people when I visit. That is the passion they have for football there."

Certainly players and coaches from both communities have left to play or work for the other town's college, but none have been as high-profile as Horton and Floyd. Each having spent time in the UNR program added insult to injury and fuel to the fire.

"I went from being the local hero to the enemy," Floyd said.

Both look back at the 1994 game with fond memories. After all, it was a victory that piqued interest in the UNLV program among locals for one of the rare times in the last two decades.

Reno entered the 1994 contest with a 9-1 record and had beaten Fresno State and Utah State by a combined 55 points the previous two weeks, but UNLV prevailed 32-27 in a game that went down to the wire.

"To this day, that was the greatest football game I was ever part of," said Floyd, who sat out the 1994 per transfer rules. "The game itself was unbelievable with how it was back and forth. It was absolutely incredible."

This year's UNR team is undefeated, with impressive victories against Cal at home and BYU on the road in joining the Associated Press top 25 rankings Sunday for the first time since 1948.

A win against UNLV would be Reno's sixth straight in the series, which would be a record in the rivalry's three-plus decades. But as Horton and Floyd can attest, beating heavily favored Reno isn't impossible.

"The stadium was electric for the first time in a long time that day," Horton said. "We were heavy underdogs. Nobody gave us much of a chance to win. To see our players respond was amazing."

Floyd, who spent time in four NFL camps and won a World Bowl in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt Galaxy, knows firsthand the hatred between the two schools.

UNR coach Chris Ault wouldn't release him from his scholarship when he transferred to UNLV, which forced Floyd to pay his own way his first year with the Rebels. But Floyd, who lives in Las Vegas and works in real estate finance, doesn't blame Ault and said he likely would have done the same thing.

That, however, was just the beginning.

Suspecting his father, respected Reno-area high school coach Bob Floyd, would face abuse from fans in the crowd during the 1997 contest in Reno, Floyd arranged for a field pass so his dad could watch the game from the safety of the sideline.

After all, in the 1995 contest at Reno during Floyd and Horton's first trip back, there were fights before and after the game between the teams as the bad blood between the two programs hit its peak.

"They hated me and didn't hold back letting me know," Floyd said, recalling the verbal abuse he took during pregame warm-ups.

The Fremont Cannon rivalry always gets Floyd's juices flowing. He just wishes there were more fans in Rebel red awaiting the game.

"This is the most intense rivalry nobody knows about," Floyd said. "I love Reno (the city). Reno is a great place. But people from Reno don't like Vegas. It really stems from them. Vegas gets all of the attention. It is bigger and flashier. Reno is more blue-collar.

"Right now, the UNLV program is down and the interest level isn't high. But in Reno, everybody knows they are playing UNLV, and they are anxious about it. If you go around town here, you will have a hard time knowing they are playing UNR."

That could have changed if Horton would have been able to build off the 1994 victory more. The Rebels did go on the beat Central Michigan in the Las Vegas Bowl, one of two seasons in the last 16 years that the Rebels have finished with a winning record.

Fittingly, the squad will be inducted into the UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday. While they weren't the best squad in school history, they did something better than all the rest: They piqued local interest and held onto that support during the start of basketball season in a city fanatic about Rebels hoops.

"There were only 45 or 46 players when we got there," Horton said. "We put them through a boot camp and lost a few more. But the ones who stayed really flourished. They were tired of being knocked around. They were tired of losing.

"Nobody gave those kids a chance. They were nobodies. Now, not only are they champions, but they are going into the hall. I couldn't be more excited for those players."

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