Spirited UNLV-Hawaii rivalry set for another installment

His grandson was 7 or 8 at the time, not yet educated in the rivalry of UNLV against Hawaii in any and all sports.

Not yet prepared for the lunacy.

Riley Wallace was sitting with him in the stands at Sam Boyd Stadium one Saturday evening several years ago, when those around them began letting their alcohol do the talking.

“I said, ‘Hey, guys, he’s going to learn all these words and actions soon enough, so let’s not do it tonight,’ ” Wallace said. “It was pretty intense. The fights started in the stands and spilled over into the parking lot. It got real nasty.

“But for the most part, it’s a good rivalry. For Hawaii, beating UNLV in anything is considered a feather in its cap. It’s a special thing for them.”

Wallace knows better than anyone each side of the competition, having coached Hawaii basketball for 20 years and having made Las Vegas his home for the past six. He knows how ugly things have been at times and yet how positive the rivalry is on so many levels.

The fights at football games have shrunk to zero in recent meetings at Sam Boyd as security increased and beer sales were cut off earlier than usual, leaving those in attendance to display their emotions in a more constructive manner: cheering like crazy for one side or the other.

UNLV is expecting a crowd in the range of 25,000 Saturday when the Rebels host Hawaii at 5 p.m., and anything short of it would disappoint given a few factors: UNLV will try to win a fourth straight regular-season game for the first time since 1984, and Hawaii’s healthy and passionate fan base — both from Las Vegas and those who will travel here from the islands — wants nothing more than to trample such thoughts.

The number of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to live in Las Vegas has doubled over the past decade, many making the move to attend UNLV.

It all just makes the rivalry that much more spirited.

“I can’t imagine there would be anything except extreme motivation to play this week,” said UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, whose team has seven players from the Aloha State and two more from Pago Pago, America Samoa. “There are all kinds of reasons why this is a big game here. That’s not lost on our players.

“We wanted to get out of September and accomplish some teams goals, and did that. Obviously, you always go play to win, and our guys work hard and deserve to have some success. I’m enthused for them. We’re 3-2 and want to get to 4-2. That’s where we’re at. Let’s not make more of it than it is. We have a demanding October in front of us, starting with Hawaii. We need to have a great week and keep it going.

“I was probably doing a lot of stuff (in 1984) that I shouldn’t have been doing. How’s that?”

Said senior quarterback Caleb Herring: “I wasn’t in existence yet, but hopefully I wasn’t in trouble.”

Yes, the field has turned a bit this season, with UNLV being the one that enters Saturday a near double-digit favorite against a Hawaii side that is 0-5 overall, 0-3 in the Mountain West and has lost two straight in Las Vegas.

Two years ago, the Rainbow Warriors arrived a 20-point favorite.

And lost 40-20.

It’s the sort of reminder Hauck can offer his players who might, for whatever reason, glance at Hawaii’s record and lose focus while preparing. Anything can happen in this rivalry and pretty much has over the years.

UNLV is playing for too much not to take Hawaii as seriously as any opponent, as a Mountain West schedule thought overly difficult to begin the season suddenly has become more than maneuverable for a Rebels side playing its best in Hauck’s four-year tenure.

A victory on Saturday would double the win total of any season under Hauck.

It’s a big game.

Considering it’s against Hawaii, it’s a huge one.

“It’s why Las Vegas is referred to as the ‘Ninth Island,’ ” Wallace said. “Right now, the way UNLV is playing, it will be expected to win. But the Hawaii kids will come here very fired up.

“I really believe the whole rivalry aspect began with playing (Jerry Tarkanian) and the Rebels in basketball. UNLV had such a history and tradition, and you always wanted to beat them, no matter the sport.”

Twenty-nine years ago, UNLV went 11-2 and at one point during the season won seven straight regular-season games.

A long time ago, 1984.

One of two losses that season: at Hawaii, by a score of 16-12.

Even then, one program affected the other.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.