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July 23, 2019

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

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First UNLV football team returns for 50th celebration, shows there’s history worth celebrating

Jeanne Ireland

Ray Brewer / Las Vegas Sun

Jeanne Ireland, the widow of Bill Ireland, the first UNLV football coach, talks with Jimmy Thompson before a ceremony to honor the 1968 Rebels on their 50th anniversary. Thompson scored the first touchdown in school history, when UNLV was called Nevada Southern.

Rebels Beat UTEP 52-24

UNLV running back Lexington Thomas (3) celebrates with Justin Polu (78) in the end zone after a touchdown in the second quarter during a game against UTEP at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Launch slideshow »

We’ve heard the narrative before: There’s little history with UNLV football and few successes to celebrate.

Just don’t tell that to Jimmy Thompson and his teammates from the program’s first squad in 1968. They went 8-1 under Bill Ireland’s watchful eye, only losing to Cal Lutheran in the season finale — but just barely. They stopped a few rush attempts near the goal line at the end of the game before surrendering the winning points.

The team was honored on their 50th anniversary at halftime today of the Rebels’ home opener, a 52-24 victory against UTEP. The modern day Rebels won’t be as revered as the ‘68 squad, but the season may still end with something monumental — a bowl win.

Thompson gingerly walked onto the field at Sam Boyd Stadium for the ceremony and immediately spotted a familiar face in Ireland’s widow, Jeanne.

This team meant so much to her husband that Jeanne — still energetic in her mid-80s — traveled from Reno to welcome the players back. Players greeted her with class and dignity, all thankful to Bill for bringing them to Las Vegas to be part of this adventure.

“This brings back a lot of memories,” Thompson, 70, said. “We were just a first-year team but we didn’t play like that. We really had a lot of fun.”

The university was then called Nevada Southern and played an independent schedule. Games were contested at the old Cashman Field, where 8,000 fans attended the inaugural home game, a 27-0 win against St. Mary's. The following year, they became UNLV.

The old friends shared stories, took pictures and raved at how great Tony Sanchez’s Rebels played. You could tell their passion for each other and pride in what they accomplished. Ok, UNLV isn’t Notre Dame or Ohio State, where stories of yesteryear are easily recited by fans and part of what makes those places legendary.

But tonight showed there is some history at UNLV. More important, there’s a group of old-school diehards who love this football program.

Thompson had the first touchdown in school history and was also the first quarterback. He mostly played safety and still is in the record books for most career interceptions with eight in two seasons, which ranks eighth all-time.

Thompson is a semi-retired educator at Kern Valley High in Lake Isabella, Calif., where he’s so well-respected and popular that a group of friends made the five-hour drive to Las Vegas to share in the night. High school sports are the only show in that small town. Thompson, who still works as a substitute most days and coaches a handful of sports, is the unquestioned leader.

“The whole community respects him and supports him,” said John Meyers, the Kern Valley principal who organized the trip to Las Vegas. “This is a big deal for our community. He is just a really kind and decent man. Really even-keeled. Kids from 30 years ago still come back and says what a nice man he is.”

The same, of course, has often said about his coaching mentor, Bill Ireland.

Thompson had a smile from ear-to-ear when he walked onto the field with his teammates. His friends joyfully screamed from the stands. It was a fitting tribute for a team that did its part.

More important, it showed there is some notable history with UNLV football, after all. And if Sanchez’s Rebels play like they did against UTEP — they rushed for more than 400 yards — there soon could be some more notable moments worth celebrating.


Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at

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