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Giving Thanks on the Gridiron

College of Education Alumnus of the Year Wayne Nunnely credits it all to football coach Bill Ireland.

People  |  Oct 10, 2018  |  By Brian Sodoma

Wayne B. Nunnely was the head coach of UNLV football from 1986 to 1989. 

Editor's Note: 

As part of UNLV's Homecoming festivities, the UNLV Alumni Association will celebrate the accomplishments of graduates at its annual reception and awards ceremony Oct. 18. You can stream the awards ceremony live here.

College of Education Alumnus of the Year Wayne B. Nunnely, '75 BS Physical Education, spent 36 years coaching football, 17 of which were at NFL level. He retired from coaching in 2012 after three separate stints as defensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints (two seasons), San Diego Chargers (12 seasons), and Denver Broncos (three seasons). He also served as head coach for the UNLV football program between 1986 and 1989.

Tell us about a time someone showed you unexpected kindness. How do you pay it forward?

The genesis of any storied career almost always coincides with one’s first big break. For me that happened to be the day I met Bill Ireland. UNLV’s first head football coach and eventual athletic director recruited me out of Citrus Junior College in 1971. This was just the beginning of a long and loving relationship that would span well beyond my playing career at UNLV.

Ireland gave me a football scholarship that would not only take me away from the familiar surroundings of Southern California but would later propel me to a prolific coaching career within the college and professional football ranks. Bill Ireland was more than just my coach. He was a friend, a mentor, and most importantly someone who believed in me. Even after I was done playing football, Ireland showed his continued support and belief in me by getting me an academic scholarship so that I could complete my degree.

After receiving my degree I continued my involvement with the Rebels football program as a graduate assistant, running backs coach, and head coach. Ireland was a major contributing factor to my development as both a coach and a man. I will always be thankful for the opportunity he gave me and have done my best to pay it forward. It has been an honor to contribute to both my college and high school alma maters in hopes of providing the same academic opportunity that was given to me by Ireland. Ireland inspired me to mentor dozens of young coaches hoping to move up the football ranks just as I did so long ago. I hope that they, too, will take the lessons I learned from Ireland and pay it forward to future generations of coaches and athletes.

From UNLV to the NFL

Nunnely’s defensive lines have contributed to seven seasons ranked  among the league's top seven clubs for the fewest rushing yards per game allowed — including earning the distinction of being No. 1 in the league for fewest rushing yards allowed in 1998 and 2005 while with the Chargers. In 1998 the Chargers tied the then NFL single-season record for fewest yards per carry at 2.7 yards.

Nunnely began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for UNLV in 1976 and returned to coach at the university from 1982 to 1989, serving as head coach from 1986 to 1989. He also coached at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; CSU, Fullerton; University of the Pacific; USC and UCLA. At UNLV he was the first African-American head coach on the West Coast and only the fifth in NCAA Division 1-A history. He holds the distinction as the only UNLV head coach to have been a player, graduate assistant, and assistant coach for the program.