Jay Norvell has played or coached for a bronze pig (Iowa vs. Minnesota's Floyd of Rosedale), a 6-foot axe (Wisconsin vs. Minnesota's Paul Bunyan's Axe), a 295-pound brass bell (USC vs. UCLA's Victory Bell), a metal cowboy hat (Oklahoma vs. Texas' Golden Hat) and a 120-yard-old Territorial Cup (Arizona vs. Arizona State), but he figures the Nevada-UNLV trophy is the best in college football.
Before last year's Battle for the Fremont Cannon, Norvell called the 545-pound prize "probably the most significant trophy in college football." That trophy will be on the line this weekend when Nevada hosts UNLV. Here's a look at the history behind the cannon, which will be won Saturday when Nevada (7-4, 4-3 Mountain West) hosts UNLV (3-8, 1-6) at noon Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
The cannon is a replica of the howitzer that accompanied captain John C. Fremont on his expedition through Oregon, Nevada and California from 1843-44. Fremont, the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party in 1856, also has streets named after him in more than 10 cities, including Reno (in the old southwest), Las Vegas, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Portland. There are also several high schools, middle schools, libraries and hospitals named after him in the western U.S.
Bill Ireland, a 1952 Nevada alum who was UNLV's first football coach, deserves credit for creating the idea of the cannon, which was built by the Nevada Mines Division of the Kennecott Copper Corp. Although the Wolf Pack won the first game between the schools in 1969, the Rebels were the first team to capture the cannon when it was handed out after the 1970 game — a 42-20 UNLV victory.
The cannon has the distinction of being college football's largest and most expensive trophy. It weighs roughly 545 pounds and cost roughly $10,000 to build nearly 50 years ago (that's $66,326 in 2019 currency). When Nevada has the cannon, it is housed in Cashell Fieldhouse below a sign that reads: "The Fremont Cannon: The Largest 'Rival' Trophy in America."
It used to work
John Hill, a 1973 Nevada alum and son of then-UNR professor of military science Col. Robert H. Hill, claims to be the first person to fire the cannon, which used to blast off after every score during the game. "We not only shot it, but we shot some of our players one time," Ault said several years ago. "I remember Steve Bryant getting shot right in the back with those paper wads and his jersey bending up and smoke coming out. There's some wonderful memories."
After Nevada won the 1978 game as 20-point underdogs, the Wolf Pack players disassembled the cannon and talked Las Vegas airport officials into letting them carry small pieces of it onto the plane to bring it back to Reno. "It was total chaos, an amazing memory, but it was one of those moments we were flying so high, we didn't need a plane to get home," Ault said. I'm guessing TSA would not allow you to bring a cannon on a plane these days.
A full-time rivalry (now)
Despite the fact UNLV beat Nevada only once in the 1980s, the cannon spent seven years in Las Vegas that decade. That's because the teams only played four times in the 1980s after UNLV pushed to drop the series; the Rebels kept the cannon for five straight years with only one victory. The Nevada Board of Regents, led by chairman Bob Cashell (Reno's former mayor), reinstated the rivalry on a full-time basis in 1989. They've played every year since then, and in 2012 Nevada joined the Mountain West, which UNLV was a founding member of.
After UNLV won the trophy in 2000, Rebel players and fans lifted the cannon in celebration before accidentally dropping and damaging it. The UNLV athletics department repaired the cannon at a cost of about $1,500 before the team's next home game. The Fremont Cannon has seen better days (it's nearly a half-century old, after all), so handle with care.
A secret message
While the cannon was being refurbished after the 2000 incident, UNLV officials found an inscription inside the cannon that read: "University of Notta Lotta Victories." It was an obvious poke at UNLV, which trails the all-time series 27-16. The identity of the person who put the phrase on the cannon has never been revealed. UNLV later responded by carving University of Northern Rejects on the cannon, which Nevada ground off.
The cannon travels for road games, which isn't an easy task given its age, weight and bulky nature. "It doesn't travel very well," ex-Wolf Pack director of equipment operations Craig Hopkins said in 2008. "It just doesn't roll very well, despite being a wheeled cannon. It's so heavy and bulky, it's hard to roll it down a hallway and not hit something." UNLV, which currently has the cannon, will have to transport it to Reno for this year's game.
King of the cannon
There is no official king of the cannon, but if there was, it'd be Chris Ault. The Wolf Pack legend is 16-6 as a head coach in the series, which is 11 more wins than any other head coach in the series (Ault also is 2-1 in the series as a UNLV assistant). John Robinson has the most wins from UNLV's side, going 5-1 with the cannon on the line. The best undefeated record goes to Jeff Tisdel, who was 4-0 in the game as Nevada's head coach. The only head coaches not to win the trophy are Nevada's Chris Tormey (0-4) and UNLV's Mike Sanford (0-5), Jim Strong (0-4) and Harvey Hyde (0-2), who technically won the 1983 game but later had to forfeit it. Ault, however, isn't alone in coaching in 25 Fremont Cannon games. Mike Bradeson, a UNLV assistant from 1996-2009 and a Nevada assistant from 1986-91 and 2010-16, also coached in 25 games as an assistant. He was 13-12 in the series.