1982 most meaningful season in Arizona football history



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The Arizona football team begins its 2013 season against Northern Arizona at Arizona Stadium on Aug. 30, which is 82 days away. From now until then, this Web site will count down the days with facts about the Wildcats, their players, coaching staff and opponents. This is not a ranking, only a list of 100 facts and observances related to the 2013 Arizona football team and coach Rich Rodriguez.

Day No. 82 in this site’s countdown to kickoff brings to mind the year 1982, the year Arizona football came of age.

Arizona finished 6-4-1 in 1982, not a significant record, but historians can note the Wildcats became relevant in college football that season. They were no longer a WAC team toiling in the Pac-10. They were not a fluke after upset wins over No. 2 UCLA in 1980 and No. 1 USC in 1981.

With the cloud of pending NCAA probation over the program, Larry Smith, in only his third season as head coach, rallied the Wildcats to a victory over ninth-ranked and unbeaten Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 16, 1992.

“There have been other victories, but this one has to be the most prestigious,” Smith told reporters after Max Zendejas nailed the game-winning 46-yard field goal in Arizona’s 16-13 victory.

ASU — dominant over the years with Frank Kush as head coach — took a back seat to Arizona for the first time in 1982, the year “The Streak” began.

Arizona’s most significant spiritual leaders on both sides of the ball in the Pac-10/12 era — linebacker Ricky Hunley and quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe — were the pulse of the young 1982 team. In the Wildcats’ 35 years in the conference, they have not experienced leadership more valuable from two players on one roster than Hunley and Tunnicliffe. The UA returned only 14 seniors in 1982.

In an early-season stretch, the Wildcats were scheduled against the 1982 Rose Bowl participants — No. 1 Washington and Iowa — followed by road games against UCLA and Notre Dame.

Arizona went 1-2-1 in those games but it was competitive in each.

The UA lost to the Huskies 23-13 and then Iowa 17-14 in two intense games in Tucson. The Wildcats then tied No. 8 UCLA 24-24 in Pasadena, failing to capitalize on a Zendejas field goal with 33 seconds left to take a 24-21 lead at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins, the Pac-10 champs that season, converted on a couple of huge gains and All-American kicker John Lee’s 36-yard field goal tied it 24-24 as time expired.

Undaunted, the Wildcats defeated the Fighting Irish the following week.

Arizona was 3-1-1 in the Pac-10 entering its home game with No. 16 USC in mid-November of 1982. In a classic game, the Wildcats succumbed to the Trojans 48-41, quelling the UA’s Rose Bowl hopes.

Inexplicably, the UA lost the following week to a winless Oregon team in Eugene. Arizona’s historic victory over No. 6 ASU — knocking the Sun Devils out of the Rose Bowl — completed the memorable season.

Three games in 1982 merited Top 50 status in my countdown of Arizona’s most significant games before last season. They included the wins over Notre Dame and ASU — both top 10 games — and the thriller against USC.

Arizona’s four losses in 1982 were by 10 points or less. The Wildcats finished 3-1-1 on the road that season, their only loss to the hapless Ducks. One of the road victories included a 41-27 triumph against Stanford and senior quarterback John Elway.

The Wildcats served their probation in 1983 and 1984 for transgressions before Smith was hired in 1980. Their competitiveness in 1982 was essential for them to keep a winning momentum heading into those two seasons with a bowl ban. Arizona finished 7-3-1 and reached No. 3 in the AP poll in 1983 and the Wildcats finished 7-4 in 1984.

Former wide receiver Juron Criner is the best No. 82 to play for Arizona

Former wide receiver Juron Criner is the best No. 82 to play for Arizona

The UA went 8-3-1 in 1985, winning its most games in 10 years. The Wildcats played Georgia in the Sun Bowl, their first bowl of the Smith era.

Without the sustained success of the 1982 team, Arizona’s history would tell a different story.

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The best No. 82 to wear the Arizona uniform? That’s a difficult one. Anthony Gimino of TucsonCitizen.com writes that Juron Criner deserves that honor. That’s hard to argue. The late Derek Hill, one of Arizona’s most prolific receivers, and former tight end Ron Beyer deserve mention. Criner holds the school record for TD catches (32) and is fourth in receptions (209) and receiving yards (2,859).

WILDABOUTAZCATS.net publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes blogs for Lindy’s College Sports, TucsonCitizen.com and Sports Illustrated-sponsored site ZonaZealots.com.


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