It was Dec. 15, 1984, and the Hawaiian Airlines charter, a DC-9, was sitting on the tarmac at the air terminal in Fresno, Calif., ready for takeoff.
Harvey Hyde, UNLV’s football coach on that day, was sitting in the first row on the aisle. Next to him: Andy Nixon, the team’s academic adviser. Next to Nixon, in the window seat, was UNLV athletic director Brad Rothermel.
Hyde’s chief lieutenants, the offensive and defensive coordinators, were sitting across the aisle. An empty seat was between them. This was how it had to be before the Rebels would take off, because Harvey Hyde was superstitious about such things.
The plane did not take off.
Behind Hyde and Nixon and Rothermel, et al., sat the 1984 UNLV football team, and it was being quite boisterous.
A couple of hours earlier, the Rebels had routed Toledo 30-13 in the California Bowl. It was the first time UNLV had been to a bowl game. So the clamor and the tumult were to be expected.
The captain’s voice began to crackle over the speakers in the cabin of the DC-9.
He would not take off, he said, until the clamor and tumult subsided.
Harvey Hyde unbuckled his seat belt and yanked open the door to the cockpit, which would have gotten him arrested today. He told the captain the UNLV football players had put in a lot of hard work to get to the tarmac in Fresno, and when was the last time he, the captain, won a bowl game? Or something to that effect.
The clamor and tumult did not subside.
The plane took off.
Some of the seat backs and tray tables, I am told, were not in their upright and locked positions.
Yes, Harvey Hyde had a certain swagger to him. It was reflected in his players, many of whom wore bandanas, and talked trash, and might even hit you a fraction after the whistle blew.
On New Year’s Day, the current Rebels will meet North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in the old Cotton Bowl stadium. It will be just the fourth time that UNLV has played in a bowl game.
Suffice it to say the Rebels have lost a lot of swagger since Harvey Hyde was their coach and Randall Cunningham was their quarterback (and punter). Suffice it to say there have been a lot of charter flights without clamor and tumult since Dec. 15, 1984.
The Rebels had lost on the last play of the game against Long Beach State in 1983, or they might have gone bowling a year earlier. That set the table for 1984, when UNLV was a surprise unanimous pick to win the Pacific Coast Athletic Association title.
The coaches were told they could not vote for their own team. Harvey Hyde voted for the Rebels anyway, because, as I said, Harvey Hyde had a certain swagger.
There were only 18 bowl games in 1984, so just getting to play in one was a pretty big deal. “There was absolute excitement about it,” Hyde said.
He said the excitement was absolute though the game was played in Fresno.
He could tell from the start the Rebels were going to have a big day, because his guys were so much faster than Toledo’s. Plus, his guys had swagger and wore bandanas.
Cunningham threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gladney, who is now a vice president at the MGM Grand.
Cunningham threw a 7-yard TD pass to Kirk Jones, who chose UNLV over Texas and UCLA and was the Rebels’ first blue-chip recruit.
Cunningham scored on a 10-yard run.
(Cunningham could do it all, like the triple-threat kicker in an old electric football game.)
A cat named Ickey Woods scored on a 16-yard run before he shuffled off to the NFL and became a star on his way to the Super Bowl.
The Rebels also had a defensive end named Aaron Moog, who was the PCAA defensive player of the year in 1984. We met a couple of years ago when the South Point held a reception for the 1984 Cal Bowl champs.
Moog still was wearing his hair in a ponytail and said he lived on a boat.
Aaron Moog still had swagger. (But he did not invent the synthesizer. That was a different Moog.)
There were 54 guys who showed up that night. As Steve Stallworth, who backed up Cunningham and went on to become Michael Gaughan’s right-hand man at the South Point said, “We couldn’t even get 54 guys to practice.”
Added Hyde: “Yeah, we had some guys who did things we weren’t proud of, but we didn’t shoot anybody. A lot of guys on that team (went on) to make a difference in Las Vegas.”
The Rebels later were made to “vacate” their 11-2 season and Cal Bowl victory for using ineligible players, though none played against Toledo; virtually every archive still shows UNLV having gone 11-2 in 1984, and still having won the California Bowl.
While the 1984 Rebels were a rollicking bunch who considered going to class more option than responsibility, they also were star-crossed.
When the team gathered at the South Point, they were short seven teammates who had died, some even before their 40th birthdays. Kirk Jones was 36 when he died of a heart attack in 2001.
Harvey Hyde said it’s great the 1984 California Bowl champs finally are getting some recognition, but tragic that a lot of the stars on that team did not live long enough to see it.
One hopes that somewhere, somehow, they still can hear the clamor and the tumult.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski