Unveiling the Story of Fremont Cannon 101: Discovering the Rich History of College Football’s Prized and Priciest Trophy

Nevada football coach Ken Wilson has had the opportunity to coach in some intense Pac-12 rivalries, such as the Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State, and the Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State. However, he believes that the Nevada-UNLV game, featuring the Fremont Cannon, is the best college football rivalry he has ever experienced. This highly-anticipated game will take place at Mackay Stadium at 2 p.m. on Nevada Sports Net this Saturday.

The Fremont Cannon, weighing an impressive 545 pounds, is the coveted prize that goes to the winner of the game. This impressive trophy is a replica of the howitzer that Captain John C. Fremont used during his expedition through Oregon, Nevada, and California in 1843-44. Captain Fremont, who later became the first presidential candidate of the newly-formed Republican Party in 1856, is a widely recognized figure, with streets, schools, libraries, and hospitals named after him across the western United States.

The credit for the creation of the Fremont Cannon goes to Bill Ireland, a Nevada alum and UNLV’s first football coach, who came up with the idea. The cannon was built by the Nevada Mines Division of the Kennecott Copper Corp. and Howard Winn, the general manager of Kennecott, financed the project. It was then sent to Tyson Curtis Wilson, Inc., Advertising, where Thomas Wilson, the firm’s president, helped build the rivalry’s legend. Although the Wolf Pack won the first matchup between the two schools in 1969, the Rebels were the first to claim the cannon after their 42-20 victory in 1970.

The Fremont Cannon holds the distinction of being college football’s largest and most expensive trophy. It was built 53 years ago at a cost of around $10,000 (equivalent to $77,536 in 2023 currency). When Nevada possesses the cannon, it is proudly displayed in Cashell Fieldhouse, accompanied by a sign that proudly states: “The Fremont Cannon: The Largest ‘Rival’ Trophy in America.” In the event that Nevada doesn’t have possession of the cannon, they have created a paper mâché replica to serve as a reminder of what they are missing.

One of the most memorable aspects of the rivalry is the tradition of firing the cannon after every score during the game. Former Nevada football coach Ault recalls a time when they accidentally shot one of their own players, Steve Bryant, with the cannon. Despite the mishap, firing the cannon has created countless wonderful memories for both teams.

In 1978, after an upset victory as 20-point underdogs, the Wolf Pack players disassembled the cannon and carried its pieces onto the plane back to Reno. Determined not to leave the cannon behind, they removed the barrel, wheels, and main base, making it possible to transport it. This daring act of defiance demonstrated the players’ immense pride in their victory. Unfortunately, this feat would be difficult to replicate today due to stricter regulations on air travel.

In the 1980s, despite losing to Nevada only once, UNLV managed to keep possession of the cannon for seven years. This was due to the fact that the teams played only four times during that decade, as UNLV pushed to discontinue the series. However, in 1989, thanks to the efforts of the Nevada Board of Regents, the rivalry was reinstated on a full-time basis. Since then, the teams have played each other every year. In 2012, Nevada joined UNLV in the Mountain West Conference, adding another layer of significance to this already heated annual clash.

After UNLV won the trophy in 2000, they accidentally dropped and damaged the cannon during the celebratory actions of their players and fans. The UNLV athletic department footed the bill to repair the cannon, at a cost of approximately $1,500, before their next home game. Despite its age and the wear and tear it has endured, the Fremont Cannon remains a cherished symbol of this intense rivalry.

During the cannon’s refurbishment in 2000, UNLV officials made a surprising discovery. They found an inscription inside the cannon that read: “University of Notta Lotta Victories.” This tongue-in-cheek phrase was obviously directed at UNLV, which trails Nevada in the all-time series, with their sole victory being forfeited due to NCAA infractions in 1983. The identity of the person responsible for the inscription has never been revealed. In response, UNLV carved the phrase “University of Northern Rejects” on the cannon, which was subsequently removed by Nevada.

Transporting the cannon for road games is no easy feat, given its age, weight, and cumbersome nature. Craig Hopkins, former director of equipment operations for the Wolf Pack, commented on the difficulties of moving the cannon. Despite being equipped with wheels, it does not roll smoothly and is challenging to navigate through hallways without causing damage. Currently, UNLV possesses the cannon and will need to transport it to Reno for Saturday’s game. Should Nevada emerge victorious, this will mark the 10th time the Wolf Pack has triumphed over the Rebels, turning the cannon red.

While there is no official “king of the cannon,” one individual stands out above the rest. Chris Ault, a legendary figure in the Wolf Pack community, boasts an impressive record of 16-6 as a head coach in the series. This is 11 more wins than any other head coach in the rivalry, and he also claims a 2-1 record as a former assistant coach for UNLV. On the UNLV side, John Robinson has the most wins as a head coach, going 5-1 in the games with the cannon at stake. The best undefeated record in the series belongs to Jeff Tisdel, who was 4-0 as Nevada’s head coach. There have been a few head coaches in the rivalry who were unable to secure a victory, including 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 had to forfeit it. Ault is not the only one with extensive experience coaching in Fremont Cannon games, as Mike Bradeson, a former assistant coach for both UNLV and Nevada, also boasts a total of 25 games in his coaching career.

The Nevada-UNLV rivalry, featuring the Fremont Cannon, is a deeply rooted tradition that has captivated fans for over five decades. Its rich history and intense competition make it one of the most highly anticipated and fiercely contested college football rivalries. Both teams will be vying for possession of the coveted cannon when they face off this Saturday. The game promises to be an exhilarating clash between two bitter rivals.


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