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Having followed Arizona since I was 6 years old in 1973 — about the same time Jim Young, Fred “The Fox” Snowden and Jerry Kindall came to town and revitalized things — I have a keen awareness of what days are much bigger than others when it comes to Wildcat athletics.
Today’s Pac-12 football title game with Oregon at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., is as big at it gets in that regard. Batten down the hatches Fourth Avenue because another wild celebration might take place tonight.
The game between the Ducks and Wildcats is not only for a Pac-12 championship but also a potential berth in the first College Football Playoff. Who out there thought Arizona’s name could be among the first football Final Four when the playoff system was formed a couple of years ago?
With the magnitude of the game and the buzz around Tucson, where does tonight’s game rank among sports days in the city? Here’s a crack at a top 10 in that category (it’s not necessarily a ranking of the school’s biggest victories or games but the sensation in Tucson of that day leading up to it):
10. The day Arizona played for its first softball title.
Sunday, May 26, 1991
This was all new Tucsonans. Softball? Baseball was the spring sport that grabbed all of the press and fan interest with its three NCAA titles at that time in 1991.
Mike Candrea was only 36 and just five years into building the program. The Day loomed large, as in Arizona pitcher Debby Day, against perennial power UCLA with the title on the line at Oklahoma City.
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Arizona beat the Bruins 5-1 to win its first Women’s College World Series, ending the Bruins’ three-year domination of the softball tournament.
Julie Jones hit a two-run triple and Day pitched a four-hitter as she won her fourth game of the tournament and finished the season 30-8.
“It’s a culmination of four years of hard work for some of our kids,” Candrea, whose team finished 56-15, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “We came out and beat a very good UCLA team. We got some crucial outs. It’s a great feeling and I’m so happy for the kids. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, the way this week has come together.”
9. The day Arizona played ASU for the WAC title in 1973.
Nov. 24, 1973
In Young’s first season at Arizona, he coached the Wildcats to an unprecedented heights, an undefeated WAC record at 6-0 entering the game against rival ASU, which was 5-1 with Frank Kush as coach and Danny White as the starting quarterback.
The winner of the game, played at Sun Devil Stadium, would capture the conference title and advance to the Fiesta Bowl to play Pittsburgh. Arizona (8-2) had not defeated Kush and ASU (9-1) since 1964.
“We’re going to win,” Arizona halfback Willie Hamilton told the Tucson Daily Citizen. “I’ve been waiting a long time to go to a bowl game, ever since I was little and I used to watch bowl games on TV. … If we win, we go. If we don’t, we don’t … We’re going to bring it back home.”
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Kush maintained his dominance over Arizona with a 55-19 victory, but the feeling around Tucson was Arizona’s program was awakening under Young. After the Wildcats finally beat ASU 10-0 the following season in Tucson, the programs had another memorable showdown for the WAC title in Tempe in 1975.
8. The day Sean Elliott broke Lew Alcindor’s Pac-10 scoring record.
Feb. 18, 1989
They should name February 18 “Sean Elliott Day” in Tucson. That’s the date in 1989 when Elliott, a native Tucsonan who graduated from Cholla High School, achieved the greatest individual honor in Arizona athletics history.
Arizona, ranked No. 2 with the nation’s longest home winning streak of 32 games, beat the Bruins 102-64. It was UCLA’s worst loss in school history. Elliott finished his Arizona career later that season with 2,555 points.
After the game, as Elliott made his way off the court following a brief award presentation, the Arizona band serenaded him with the theme from “Superman”.
Elliott’s mother, Odiemae, who passed away earlier this year, was seen signing autographs after her son’s record-breaking game against UCLA. The Tucson Citizen ran five stories about Elliott the day of the game in a special section. The Arizona Daily Star advertised an eight-page section that was published the day after the historic game.
7. The day Arizona played for its second NCAA basketball title.
April 2, 2001
The championship Monday, what all Division I programs strive for starting in October, came to be for Arizona against Duke despite the emotional trauma of the passing of Lute Olson’s wife, Bobbi, during that season.
“After all the hellish times that this team has been through this season, winning this National Championship would be like heaven for us,” Eugene Edgerson told the Arizona Daily Wildcat. “Of course, our first notion is to do it for Mrs. Olson, but we also want to accomplish this for our coach, who has stayed strong through the entire process. And then there is the personal satisfaction that I know each of us would derive from beating Duke and capturing a goal.”
The game against the Blue Devils was televised for Tucsonans at McKale Center on its four video replay screens at the time.
Arizona, which won 20 of 22 games entering the title game, lost to Duke 82-72.
6. The day Arizona played for its first NCAA baseball title.
June 19, 1976
The road to Arizona’s first baseball championship was as memorable as the day the Wildcats defeated Eastern Michigan and the late Bob Welch 7-1 at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
The Wildcats lost seven consecutive games that season against rival ASU, including a first-round setback in extra innings to the Sun Devils at Rosenblatt.
Arizona clawed its way back through the loser’s bracket behind All-American senior center fielder Dave Stegman and the College World Series Most Outstanding Player Steve Powers, a pitcher/designated hitter, to win the title.
The Wildcats reached the championship game against Eastern Michigan after finally beating ASU 5-1 in the semifinal game behind Powers’ masterful pitching.
“Arizona State said we couldn’t win the big one,” Powers told the Omaha World-Herald after the win over Eastern Michigan. “Maybe that came back on them a little bit.”
5. The day Arizona played ASU for the WAC title in 1975.
Nov. 29, 1975
After losing to ASU for an opportunity to claim the WAC title in 1973, Arizona had another shot against the Sun Devils, again in Tempe.
About 8,000 Tucsonans, abuzz over Arizona’s potential spot in the Fiesta Bowl opposite No. 6 Nebraska, watched the game at McKale Center. The closed-circuit telecast was the only way to watch what was Arizona’s most significant game at the time.
The Wildcats were 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the WAC entering the game against ASU (10-0 and 6-0). The game, that included the controversial catch by ASU receiver John Jefferson, ended with the Sun Devils surviving 24-21.
Tucson Citizen reporter Steve Weston wrote about the Territorial Cup outcome: “They both ought to forget about the rest of their schedules and play a best three-of-five.”
4. The day Arizona played Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
Jan. 1, 1994
The Wildcats with its vaunted Desert Swarm defense faced Miami with all of its swagger after showing up to the Fiesta Bowl seven years prior wearing battle fatigues. Both teams were 9-2.
Arizona played for its first 10-win season while Miami was striving for its ninth consecutive 10-win season.
The game was played on New Year’s Day, a day in which Arizona fans craved for a bowl after watching so many other programs play on that mythical day on television.
Arizona’s 29-0 rout of the big, bad Hurricanes was pure bliss for Tucsonans. Ken Rodriguez of the Miami Herald wrote: “Under a shadow of mountains, cactus and blood-red Arizona fans chanting, ‘U of A! U of A! U of A!’, the University of Miami went down like a wounded gunslinger, ambushed in the desert.”
3. The day Arizona played ASU for a potential Pac-12 South title.
Nov. 28, 2014
We’re only a week removed from this day but it already has nostalgic value.
The Wildcats entered the day with the ability to win the Pac-12 South, one of the most powerful divisions in college football. The task was diffcult: Beat an eight-win ASU team that has defeated the Wildcats the two previous seasons and hope for first-place UCLA to fall to an average Stanford team, one that was barely bowl eligible at 6-5. Both games were played at the same time, adding to the intrigue.
A sellout crowd at Arizona Stadium watched the developments on the field while keeping an eye on the UCLA-Stanford game on their cell phones.
UCLA lost to Stanford with Arizona clinging to its 42-35 margin over ASU in the waning minutes. ASU’s loss of possession on downs with about 1 minute left sent Arizona Stadium and Tucson into euphoria.
2. The day Arizona played Oregon for the Pac-12 football title.
Dec. 5, 2014
That day is upon us. Today. Pac-12 title. The mighty Oregon Ducks. A conference championship and potential spot in the College Football Playoff on the line.
The game will be played in an NFL stadium — the 49ers’ Levi Stadium — with the entire nation watching. This is as big as it gets for Arizona football, a junior Rose Bowl, if you will. Something bigger potentially awaits.
“When you start your winter conditioning or offseason program back in January, your players and your staff look to play in that championship game the first week in December as a goal,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We talked about it very briefly, but other than that, our guys just went to work, and a lot of things have to fall in place.
“Certainly, you have to have good play, great leadership and be able to win some close games. We were able to do that and here we are playing for the Pac-12 Championship the first weekend of December. We have a lot of goals that are out there for us and we have been telling the team really every weekend that we are in a position to reach just about every goal. I don’t know if they are all attainable. You certainly can’t go undefeated, but you have a chance to win a championship and that is pretty neat.”
1. The day Arizona played Kentucky for its first NCAA basketball title.
March 31, 1997
I happened to be in the middle of this historic day as the Arizona basketball beat reporter for The Arizona Daily Star. That Monday in Indianapolis was so surreal because this day was not meant for Arizona, right?
The Wildcats were 24-9 and the fifth-place team in the Pac-10 that season. After losing in the first games of the Final Four in 1987 and 1994, the Wildcats somehow made it to Monday.
I recall standing outside the Arizona locker room after the Wildcats beat North Carolina for the right to play Kentucky in the title game. Arizona’s players chanted: “Forty more minutes! Forty more minutes! Forty more minutes!”
They actually had another 45 minutes as the game against Kentucky went to overtime with Arizona prevailing 84-79.
Fourth Avenue became McKale Center spilled-over.
At 10:45 p.m. that night, the crowd on Fourth Avenue swelled to more than 1,000. The Arizona Daily Star reported: “One (police) officer told her partner, ‘It’s helmet time.'”