The Fremont Cannon - college football's largest and most expensive "trophy" - is now over 30 years old and is the prize sought after when two in-state rivals, The University of Nevada and UNLV, meet each fall in football.
Nevada's two university football teams annually play for the right to house the mountain howitzer each season. Today's cannon is a replica of a gun that accompanied Captain John C. Fremont on his expedition through Oregon, Nevada and California in 1843-44.
The replica cannon was reconstructed in 1970 as the gift of the Nevada Mines Division of Kennecott Copper Corporation to the students of the two campuses of the University of Nevada. It was built from engineering and technical drawings from the military archives of the United States Army.
Bill Ireland, a 1952 Nevada alumnus who was UNLV's first football coach, deserves credit for connecting athletics boosters on each end of the state with Howard Winn, Kennecott general manager in White Pine County. Ireland, a McGill native, was able to sell Winn on the idea along with Wolf Pack boosters such as Bill Parish, a 1945 alumnus who played for the Wolf Pack in the early 1940s.
"One of the things I sold Kennecott on was that if they supported it, this would truly become a statewide trophy, including the cow counties," said Ireland, who coached baseball and football at Nevada before a distinguished career as head football coach and later athletic director at UNLV.
Winn bankrolled the project and sent it to Tyson Curtis Wilson, Inc., Advertising in Reno. The agency's staff included Don Gilmour, an account executive, who was an antique gun buff, and Thomas Wilson, president, who explored and mapped most of the Fremont trail through Northern Nevada.
The Wolf Pack won the first game between the universities in 1969, but the Rebels were the first team to capture the cannon in 1970 by a score of 42-20.
John Hill, a 1973 alumnus and son of then University of Nevada professor of military science Col. Robert H. Hill, claims to be the first person to fire the cannon, along with his friend, Mike Reid.
"I always assumed I was the first one to fire the Fremont Cannon in 1973 because when we got it back from Vegas, it didn't come back with any of the necessary tools to fire it. I distinctly remember being invited to lunch by Mr. Wilson at the Pioneer Club so he could give me the Field Manual," Hill said. "I read the manual, cut off a broomstick to make a ram rod, bought black powder from The Sportsman and "touched it off".
One of the perks of being the first person to fire it was being able to strap it behind my Chevy Vega and drive into Mackay Stadium. I had one ice chest for the cannon and one for me."
The Wolf Pack today enjoy a slight edge in the series.
Head coach Chris Ault reflects back on his team and that special rivalry game in 1978 as one of the most special of his 19 years at the helm of the Pack. Despite being a three-touchdown underdog, Nevada won that game 23-14 and 10 more that season. As an assistant at UNLV, Ault was 2-1 in cannon games, while 8-6 in the rivalry as head coach at Nevada.
"After the kids rushed onto the field to get it, there was no thought given to how to transport it back to Reno," said Ault. "We got dressed and a bunch of our football players took it upon themselves to dismantle it. Then we get to the airport and I've got to do some fast-talking to get not a gun, but a cannon onto a plane. After 15 minutes of explaining to everyone at the Vegas airport why it had to go back, we had guys carrying it in pieces onto the plane.
"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."
Thanks to Ireland's foresight, Hill's innovation and Ault's motivational use of the cannon in the Wolf Pack's intense rivalry with the Rebels, the victor fires the cannon every time it scores at home.
"It's the most symbolic "trophy" for winning a state championship in the country and as much a part of the football tradition as the game itself," Ault said. "The Fremont Cannon is such a monumental trophy that we built a spot for it when we built Cashell Fieldhouse in the 1980's."