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The Birth of a Wildcat fan
Born in 1982, I grew up knowing all about Lute Olson and everything he, Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott built at McKale Center. Olson’s life in Arizona has paralleled my own with him arriving the year after I was born. At the very youngest age I could even formulate memories, I knew all about Arizona Wildcats basketball. Mimicking and echoing the late Roger Sedlmayr’s legendary “STEEEEEEVE KERRRRRR…” and “THREEEEEEEE POINTERRRR” was part of my speech development as a 2 and 3-year-old. As I grew, I was completely enveloped in everything that was Arizona basketball. I was simply aware of the fact that the University of Arizona even had a football team. Games from Arizona Stadium back then were rarely aired live on television and were usually replayed on local channels late at night on tape delay. Past my bedtime. Olson had taken Arizona to preseason classics and March Madness regularly which exposed them to more nationally televised air time. That was not really the case for the football team back then. That changed when I reached elementary school.
My father loaded me into his truck one day in 1989 and took me to meet the Singleton twins at Arizona Stadium. It was the Blue/White Scrimmage and I was able to stand on the field. At 7 years old, the sheer enormity of the players left me so awestruck that I didn’t pay attention to a single play. Chris Singleton was in his final year and Kevin Singleton had just been diagnosed with leukemia earlier that summer and would be sidelined for that season. After I had a chance to meet them and after someone explained to me what leukemia was, I began following Chris’ season and Kevin’s recovery.
To help hone my 2nd grade reading skills, my parents had me read newspaper articles about Arizona football that season. Games were still aired past my bedtime on tape delay and it was the only way for me to follow Wildcats football. After spending months following Chris Singleton’s senior season, watching him get drafted by the New England Patriots in the first round, reading all about Kevin’s epic comeback to Arizona’s linebacker corps and having met them, I felt personally connected at that young impressionable age. I was hooked to UA football through and through. I began memorizing the names of players and their numbers.I would call out their involvement in every play before Keith Jackson would.
Dick Tomey would coach the Wildcats against juggernaut, non-conference opponents such as No. 4 Oklahoma (1988), No. 6 Oklahoma (1989), No. 11 Illinois (1990), No. 22 Ohio State (1991), No. 2 Miami (1991), No. 1 Miami (1992), No. 10 Miami (1994), No. 14 Utah (1994), No. 22 Iowa (1996), No.9 Ohio State (1997), No. 14 Nebraska (1998), No. 3 Penn State (1999), and No. 18 Ohio State (2000). In conference play, Tomey faced the Washington Huskies year in and year out while they were enjoying a dynastic era in their history. The Huskies completely dominated college football at the time and the LA schools were the same perennial contenders for a Rose Bowl berth as they are now.
In 1988, Tomey took Arizona to Norman to face the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners in Week 3 and then faced No. 3 USC in Week 5 and No. 1 UCLA in Week 7. Three top five opponents in five weeks. In 1989, Arizona faced five top 25 teams in eight weeks. In 1991, four top 25 teams in seven weeks. Five top 25 opponents in 7 weeks in 1992. Three in six weeks in in 1993. Four in eight weeks in 1994. There was a dip in the number of ranked talent Arizona faced consistently in 1995 and 1996. The 1997 season saw the Wildcats face six top 25 teams in nine weeks. After that, the Wildcats rarely saw top 25 talent line up on the field against them until Tomey’s last season (2000) when Arizona faced five ranked squads in nine weeks.
Arizona was constantly in match ups against unranked, quality programs in those years. Teams like Iowa (1987 and 1998), Texas Tech (1988 and 1989), North Carolina State (1989), Syracuse (1990), Baylor (1992), Illinois (1993, 1995 and 1996), Georgia Tech (1994, 1995) and TCU (1999). In Pac-10 play, Arizona faced bowl caliber opponents as well.
Desert Swarm was born after Arizona played Oregon State to a tie in Corvallis in 1992. Having started the season with a record of 1-1-1, Tomey met with each member of his team individually the week after in an attempt to hone his players’ focus on the preparation for what was to come the following weekend: A nationally televised game in Miami against the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes. Remember: A nationally televised Arizona game was a huge deal for me. Everyone I knew planned to watch it.
Josh Miller faked a punt on a September day in 1992 and converted a 4th down on the legendary “U.” Arizona was at the Orange Bowl taking on the Hurricanes in a defensive battle that would eventually become legendary. At 10 years old, there wasn’t enough scoring for me. Bored to tears and my football prowess not yet having developed enough to appreciate the genius of what the Wildcats were doing, that fake punt lit a fire under me. It got my attention. I had no clue fake punts were even a thing. I seriously remember telling my father, “Wait! That’s cheating! Right?” I had begun to realize there was a strategic aspect to what Tomey and his staff were doing.
Until that play, I thought football was simply, hold the ball and run faster than the guy trying to tackle you. When he does tackle you, get up and do it again. If you’re the one doing the tackling, hit him hard enough to give you the ball back. I had seen Arizona’s physicality on defense and actually thought that you had to hit your opponent so hard, that you get the ball back. The Wildcats had been forcing folks to cough up the ball a lot in those days. When Josh Miller got up and celebrated, I wanted to know exactly what was going on. I began to pay attention to every detail. My eyes were glued. Football began to click in my young mind that day. Formations, rules of the game, playing for field position, all the complexities that Arizona relied on to beat teams more talented than they. Arizona wasn’t going to beat teams simply by lining up across from them and just out run, throw, catch, kick or tackle them. Tomey believed strongly in the mental and psychological aspects of football.
George Malauulu and the Arizona offense had to be smarter than opponents. Playing smarter and perfecting the mental aspects of the game would then allow Tony Bouie, Brandon Sanders, Sean Harris, Rob Waldrop, Tedy Bruschi and company to make the most explosive offenses look foolish. Coach Tomey was called the “Desert Fox,” for a reason. An identity was born and an entire community identified with it. Arizona lost to the Canes on a missed last second field goal but later that season they would go on to face another No. 1 team in the Washington Huskies and beat them 16-3. By the way Arizona fans rejoiced after the win over the Huskies it was like the Wildcats won the national title. Goal posts were sacrificed to the football gods. Though Arizona ended with a 6-5-1 record and finished with a loss to Baylor in the Sun Bowl, something special was brewing in the desert.
The following year, to me, is still the single greatest football season in Arizona history. In 1993, Arizona went 10-2. Not the best year in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of accomplishments, the Wildcats established an identity in the complete woodshed action they dealt Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, The Rock (if you want to include the lone tackle Dwayne Johnson registered) and Miami’s top ranked offense in the Fiesta Bowl. Steve McLaughlin nailing a last-second field goal, kicking it between the southern goal posts at Arizona Stadium to register Arizona’s first ever 6-0 start, was huge. They would go 7-0 before losing to UCLA in Week 8.
The addition of Penn State transfer Dan White’s arm (you’ll realize the irony as we move forward in this series), in my mind, was a perfect compliment to Arizona’s massive O-line anchored in the middle by goliaths Hicham El-Mashtoub, Warner Smith and the late Pulu Poumele, along with Ontiwaun Carter, Gary Taylor and Billy Johnson in the backfield and jack-of-all-trades player Chuck Levy (the man could play anywhere on the field, maybe even O-line had Tomey lined him up there). That offensive combination along with the greatest defense in college football history, would provide Arizona with something I don’t feel they’ve ever had since: Balance.
Even McLaughlin earned national recognition kicking the ball.
In the interest of fairness to the 1998 team, the 1993 schedule was hardly stacked against them. After opening at home against UTEP, Arizona had to hold off Pacific and win 16-13 that year and barely beat an unranked Illinois team on the road with a 16-14 win. It wasn’t until Week 7 that Arizona faced its first ranked opponent at home and then would lose the following week against the only other ranked opponent on its regular season schedule, closing with perhaps the most memorable victory in Arizona history in the Fiesta Bowl. They made enough noise for Sports Illustrated to notice.
The 1998 campaign is held in the majority of Wildcat fan’s hearts as the most successful year of football in Arizona history. Still, they only faced four ranked opponents over the course of that that entire year and only one was a non-conference opponent. At 12-1, the Cats spent the entire year in the Top 25, peaking at No. 5 when they faced Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. They out ranked every opponent they faced, except No. 3 UCLA, which dealt No. 10 Arizona their only loss that year and went on to edge the Wildcats out of a Rose Bowl berth and Pac-10 title. Although the Bruins were 10-2 that year, a better conference record sent them to Pasadena. Tomey and the Wildcats wrapped up the season ranked No. 4. The highest ranking Arizona has ever achieved to date.
During my research for this piece, I realized the Wildcats had achieved the highest ranking in the program’s history during a time that the number of quality ranked opponents on its schedule year after year had dropped drastically. In the magical 1998 season, Arizona went up against Hawaii, San Diego State, an unranked Iowa team and Louisiana-Monroe for its non-conference schedule before they went on to beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. In 1997, the non-conference schedule other than a loss at Ohio State was Alabama-Birmingham (which had only started playing college football the year prior), San Diego State and New Mexico in a bowl game at Arizona Stadium. Those programs have largely been considered cupcakes, teams that perennial contenders place strategically on their schedule as tune-up games. Arizona had started padding its non-conference schedule with plenty fluff. Starting in 1994, out of the 15 ranked opponents Arizona faced through the 1998 season, only two were non-conference opponents. From 1994 through 1998, Arizona was 4-11 against ranked opponents.
In the early 1990’s, Arizona played and truly competed against the highest quality teams in the nation. Though the Wildcats may not have won them all, they competed well in them. Once Arizona got into the late 1990’s, they began to face the Middle Tennessee States of the world for more and more of its non-conference schedule. While they may have been able to handle those teams, in my mind, it certainly was to the determent of them being able to compete against upper echelon talent within the conference that would ultimately lead to Tomey’s departure.
It would be a major reason why Arizona would climb high in the AP poll one year, only to achieve mediocrity the next. They would blow through non-conference opponents and fall flat against teams they should have been more familiar with. After completing the most successful season in school history and beating Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, Tomey failed to earn a bowl berth over the next two years. From 12-1 in 1998 to 6-6 in 1999 and 5-6 in 2000.
The seniors on the 1999 team had gone their entire career at Arizona having only played two ranked non-conference opponents and losing 11 out of 15 games against ranked opponents overall over the course of their four years as Wildcats. When I was a boy, facing top-ranked talent in the non-conference schedule, tuned them up to face the top teams in the Pac-10. Losing a heart breaker to No. 1 Miami actually served useful against No. 1 Washington later in the year. Play a non-conference schedule fluffed up with nothing but the “who’s that?” of college football and you might find the stage too big and the lights too bright later on in the year when you face the top conference teams. USC and Stanford, for example, play teams like Notre Dame every single year. A conference stage will never be too big for them because of it. The gives them a better chance to smell roses.
Arizona was the preseason No. 4 team heading into the 1999 season. They were also headed into a buzz saw. My 17-year-old mind had been lulled for four years into thinking my Cats could take on anyone. Our defense lost Chris McAlister, the most prolific lockdown cornerback in school history, to the NFL, but a huge number of them were returning.
We had two returning quarterbacks that could have been starters on most college squads. Ortege Jenkins and Keith Smith led a QB by committee offense that averaged more than 400 yards a game during the 1998 season. The “Leap by the Lake” (another time marker in Wildcats lore) caught the attention of the college football world. Most of all, we had a Heisman hopeful running out of the backfield for us in Trung Candidate. As a boy, I saw Arizona compete against and beat Miami at its peak. We defeated the Irish, Sooners, Huskers, Huskies, Trojans, Bruins and Hawkeyes. We belonged in the conversation among them, I thought. Bring the rest of them on. We want a bite out of everyone. Bring on the Irish, the ‘Noles, Buckeyes, Wolverines, Longhorns and Tide.
Bring on the Nittany Lions.
To be Continued…
Jose Roman Jr. was born a Wildcat fan. Lifetime fanhood was solidified when he was able to meet Tedy Bruschi, Sean Harris, Brandon Sanders, Chuck Levy and Ontiwaun Carter as a sixth grader. Having served 10 years in the armed forces and been deployed all over the world, he’s still managed to make it to every Arizona home football game, bowl game and at least one away game for the last 12 years. Now combining his love of writing with his love of all things sports, Jose is proud and honored to be with AllSportsTucson.com as a writer.