Before John Robinson became UNLV’s football coach in 1999, he coached Southern California against Notre Dame and UCLA in two of college football’s greatest rivalries.
A College Football Hall of Famer, Robinson said UNLV and UNR’s annual Battle for the Fremont Cannon — which will be played at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium — is every bit as heated as USC’s rivalries.
“For the people involved in the game — the fans, students and coaches — it’s the same,” he said this week. “It doesn’t matter if nobody outside of Nevada cares about it. Everybody in the area does. I think the rivalry is just as intense.”
Robinson, 81, said he was initially surprised at the level of animosity between the schools from Southern Nevada and Northern Nevada. He received a rude introduction to the rivalry in 1999, when, during his first trip to Reno’s Mackay Stadium, Wolf Pack fans hurled batteries and obscenities at the Rebels’ sideline in UNR’s 26-12 win.
“I kind of walked into it blind. It was intense and we got beat pretty good the first year,” he said. “I figured out, whoops, I better win this game if we’re going to be successful here.”
Robinson never lost to UNR again, guiding UNLV to a school series-best five consecutive wins before retiring after the 2004 season, when the Rebels whipped the Wolf Pack 48-13 for one of only two wins that year.
“We just tried to be lucky in the game after that. And we got better,” he said. “We weren’t very good our first year but we got better and we actually got to be a better team than them.”
UNLV routed UNR 38-7 in 2000 in Las Vegas to snap a five-game series losing streak. Quarterback Jason Thomas accounted for four touchdowns and Rebels fans rushed the field and tore down the goal posts as the players spray painted the cannon red.
Robinson’s fondest memory of the rivalry was the pure joy he witnessed on the faces of his players as they painted the cannon.
“It was like the end of the second World War,” he said. “It was impressive how happy everybody was to paint that cannon red.
“It was a great rivalry and atmosphere. When you’re at the stadium, it’s the most important game in the United States.”
Back in a hostile environment in Reno in 2001, the Rebels ran up the score on a 3-yard touchdown run by Thomas with eight seconds left en route to a 27-12 triumph. Thomas led the way again in 2002, when he threw a go-ahead, game-winning 45-yard touchdown pass to Larry Croom with 6:03 left in a 21-17 comeback win at Sam Boyd Stadium.
One of the ugliest moments in the rivalry’s 42-year history took place during Robinson’s final game at Mackay Stadium in 2003, when the coach was hit near the head with a plastic bottle at halftime of UNLV’s 16-12 victory. For the record, Robinson said it was a water bottle, not a beer bottle as has been reported.
“In Reno, your dressing room was down right next to where their black hole was in the end zone and the people that were there, they weren’t graduates of Reno,” he said. “That was the local establishment and they were pretty tough. Somebody lobbed a bottle and it hit me, I don’t know where, in the side of the head or something. It kind of knocked me to my knees. It really didn’t hurt me but I used it at halftime (as motivation).
“I can’t remember what I said, but I know we won the game and won the second half. When you’re coaching, you use anything you can.”
Robinson, who serves as a color analyst on NFL game broadcasts for the Sports USA Radio Network, said he loved all the rivalries and trophies that went with them.
“It was fun. All those things are great,” he said. “Traditions are important in everything we do. They’re important in your family, they’re important in your community and they’re important in your university.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.