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In the Tucson Citizen article published March 21, 1972, it was reported: Michigan assistant Fred Snowden and Northern Illinois head coach Tom Jorgensen were the only candidates interviewed for the Arizona coaching vacancy. Jerry Tarkanian, then at Long Beach State, was contacted but was never brought to Tucson for an official interview.
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“At the conclusion of the game, Freddie Snowden did his post-game show out in the middle of the court. It was certainly an indication of good fans and a big-time program. There were a lot of Arizona fans there.”
— Lute Olson, remembering the time he coached against Arizona while at Iowa in 1975.
Arizona basketball legend Bob Elliott, who followed Freddie “The Fox” Snowden from Ann Arbor, Mich., more than 40 years ago, has mentioned this line many times about Snowden’s impact on the Wildcat program today:
“If there’s not a Fred Snowden, there’s probably not a Lute Olson.”
The Pac-12 announced Wednesday it will induct Snowden posthumously into its Hall of Honor during the conference’s tournament in Las Vegas in March. Snowden, who coached the Wildcats from 1972-82, was the first African-American head basketball coach at an NCAA Division I institution. He amassed a 167-108 career mark.
In a 1996 interview I had with Olson, when I was the Arizona basketball beat reporter for The Arizona Daily Star, I got the sense that Snowden’s success at Arizona in the mid-1970’s had an impact on Olson’s decision to move to Tucson from Iowa in 1983.
The impetus for that was in a Rainbow Classic game played Dec. 29, 1975, in Honolulu between Olson’s Iowa team and Snowden’s Wildcats, who would later that season reach the Elite Eight for the first time in school history. The Hawkeyes held off a furious rally by Arizona to win 82-80 in a semifinal game of the tournament.
Iowa took a 35-7 lead 12 minutes into the game. The Wildcats trailed 51-33 at halftime.
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Did you know?
Arizona and Fred Snowden went against Detroit’s Dick Vitale during the 1975-76 season at McKale Center. The eventual Elite Eight Wildcats beat the Titans 106-76. Al Fleming scored a McKale Center record 33 points in the second half. He finished with 41 points. “We put a spanking on brother Vitale,” the late Snowden told me in a 1990 interview. “It was like he always says, ‘Awesome, baby.'”
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“Arizona was frankly a better basketball team than we were,” Olson told me. “With a program like ours at Iowa, at the time, we didn’t have a lot of room for error, so we got over there and everything was focused on playing.
“We didn’t allow them on the beach. We didn’t allow them out. We had curfews, that kind of thing.”
Arizona fought its way back from the 28-point deficit to tie the game at 80 with 14 seconds remaining on a layup by Elliott.
“I remember trying to hang on just a couple of more seconds, and thinking there is no way we should lose that game,” said Scott Thompson, a guard with Iowa who later served as an assistant to Olson with the Hawkeyes and Wildcats.
Olson chose not to call a timeout after Elliott’s basket, a signature move by the Hall of Fame coach to not allow the opponent to set its defense. Iowa post player Dan Frost grabbed the offensive rebound off a missed jumper and he was fouled as he attempted a shot at the buzzer.
Frost went to the line to try the game-winning free throws after Arizona departed for its locker room out of disappointment. Snowden argued the foul was called after the buzzer. The refs did not have the use of a replay like they are afforded now.
“It should’ve been an overtime,” Snowden was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “I know the buzzer went off. The first time the official’s table told me the horn went off before the ref blew the whistle but when (a ref) came over, they must have said something else.
“I know that we played well enough to play overtime. It’s just a basic interpretation of when the clock stops, when an official blows his whistle.”
Elliott told me, with a laugh: “I probably played something like 114 games in my career at Arizona, and a lot of wins did not stick out like that loss. We fought hard to get back into the game, and for it to be decided on a call like that …
“When the shot went up, all of us were shoving and biting each other to get that ball, and the ref called the foul on (guard) Gilbert Myles. Anybody would tell you Gilbert never went into the lane to grab a rebound. He was not close to the play. We walked off the court in anger, and the only way we knew (Frost) made the free throws was by listening to the Iowa crowd.”
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A 1975-76 media guide cover of Fred "The Fox" Snowden with Jim Rappis & Al Fleming, two players from his first team. pic.twitter.com/0me3a6ceW3
— Blair Willis (@BlairWillisUA) January 14, 2015
Olson remembered “holding on to the bitter end,” but what stuck out to him the most was the way Arizona presented itself under Snowden. Less than three months later, the Wildcats came one game away from the 1976 Final Four, losing to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in the West Regional finals.
“At the conclusion of the game (in Hawaii), Freddie Snowden did his post-game show out in the middle of the court,” Olson said. “It was certainly an indication of good fans and a big-time program. There were a lot of Arizona fans there.”
That vision of Snowden doing his postgame show on television must have played over in Olson’s mind when former Arizona athletic director Cedric Dempsey offered him the head coaching job in 1983.
The late Dave Strack, Arizona’s former athletic director, hired Snowden from Johnny Orr’s staff at Michigan in 1972 to become the Wildcats’ head coach.
Very happy that Fred Snowden will be inducted into the @pac12 Hall of Honor this year. Beyond a well deserved recognition!
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) January 14, 2015
“Tucson became a basketball town and Arizona became a basketball school when Dave Strack hired Freddie Snowden to lead the program,” Elliott is quoted as saying in the book 100 things Arizona Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. Elliott was the third Michigan product Snowden recruited to Arizona after Detroit’s Eric Money and Coniel Norman.
“You have to remember they were averaging only a couple hundred fans at Bear Down Gym before Freddie was hired. They moved across the street to McKale Center midway through the (1972-73) season. They sold out the place without any plans of a season-ticket program. Without Dave Strack that does not happen. There’s no Fred Snowden, no Eric Money or Coniel Norman. … The program would not be the same.”
Snowden’s first recruiting class, known as the Kiddie Korps, featured five freshman starters including Norman and Money. They became the talk of Tucson and the West coast. When McKale Center opened midway through Snowden’s first season, Arizona basketball became an immediate hot ticket.
Fred Snowden won 118 at Az, 2 NCAAs. Dick Harter 112 at Oregon. Harter, no NCAAs, has been in Pac-12 Hall of Honor 8 years. Overdue.
— Greg Hansen (@ghansen711) January 14, 2015
“Fred was the catalyst,” former assistant coach Jerry Holmes told the Tucson Citizen in a 2009 interview. “The Fred Snowden regime in that time started the tradition of Arizona basketball, without question.”
Not only did Snowden attract top young talent immediately following his hire, his up-tempo, high-scoring style of play captivated the community.
Money and Norman and fellow Kiddie Korps members Jim Rappis, Al Fleming and John Irving gave Snowden a 16-10 record in his first season, finishing tied for second in the Western Athletic Conference.
They averaged 81.2 points a game that season. In the year before Snowden’s arrival, Arizona averaged only 66.5 points.
“When I came to Arizona, I wanted to fill McKale Center with an exciting brand of up-tempo, pressure basketball,” Snowden told me in a 1990 interview with Cat Tracks magazine (when I wrote for that now defunct publication).
“We felt that we would get the fans to come out and it worked.”