“A moral victory don’t mean nothing to me. I’d rather have an ugly win than a beautiful loss. A loss is a loss.”
— Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden
As good as the Seminoles were under Bowden, who made this statement after losing to arch-rival and No. 1-ranked Miami 28-27 in 2002, his program must have taken its share of character-building lumps along the way.
Is it true like Vince Lombardi said: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”? If that’s the case, why did Lombardi’s Packers use a five-game losing streak in his first season of 1959 to propel them to greatness? That skid culminated with a hard-fought 28-24 loss to defending NFL champion Baltimore, which had Johnny Unitas at quarterback, on Nov. 15, 1959.
“This is a club that stays in there — it never quits,” Lombardi was quoted as saying by the Appleton (Wis.) Post-Crescent after his team rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit but came up short. “That certainly is a credit to them.”
After that loss to the Colts, Green Bay ended the 1959 season with a four-game winning streak. In the following season, the Packers lost in the NFL championship. They went on to win consecutive titles in 1961 and 1962. Winning became the only thing to Lombardi, but at one time, losing with a fight got the Packers to that level.
The phrase, “There’s no such thing as a moral victory”, is simply not true. Arizona and its fans know about this all too well. The Wildcats, searching for their first Rose Bowl trip, have their share of moral victories through the years. Some of them helped shape the program.
With that in mind, we bring you Arizona’s Top 10 Moral Victories in the history of the program. They will make you feel proud or boil your blood. Arizona is 42-104-1 against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll. The Wildcats have 34 losses by seven points or less to ranked teams.
10. Arizona’s 13-10 overtime loss to No. 19 TCU on Sept. 27, 2003
TCU kicker Nick Browne made a 33-yard field goal in overtime after missing from 36 and 25 yards in regulation. His 24-yard field goal with 1:07 remaining in regulation sent the game into overtime. The Wildcats, 1-4 with the loss, had been outscored 166-30 in their previous three games, including a 59-7 loss at Purdue the week before. Rumors swirled about coach John Mackovic’s job status. “We are proud of this,” Mackovic was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “This is a real good stepping stone. This is the first time that we sensed that we could line up and play.” Mackovic was fired the next day. Arizona’s defense (limiting TCU to 4-of-19 in third-down conversions) and freshman Kris Heavner’s passing (276 yards) kept the Wildcats in the game. Heavner’s third interception came at the wrong time, in overtime, setting up Browne’s winning kick. Arizona went on to lose six of its last seven games under interim coach Mike Hankwitz.
“We’re proud of this. This is a real good stepping stone.”
— John Mackovic, commenting on Arizona’s 13-10 overtime loss to TCU in 2003, a day before he was fired
9. Arizona’s 9-7 loss to No. 20 Wisconsin on Sept. 18, 2004
In only his third game as Arizona coach, Mike Stoops returned hope to the moribund program (albeit briefly). Wisconsin used a 16-play drive to move into field position for a game-winning 23-yard field goal by Mike Allen with 3:47 remaining. The game was delayed 88 minutes because of a storm system that pushed into Southern Arizona by Hurricane Javier hundreds of miles southwest. Arizona drove into position for a potential game-winner, but Nick Folk’s 47-yard attempt sailed just left of the upright with :43 seconds remaining. “It was a disappointing outcome but the kids played well throughout the game,” Stoops said. “Wisconsin was able to make all the plays and we were not able to make near enough in the last quarter. Wisconsin is a very good football team but we made them work, so I’m proud. I have been around football for a long time and I know what this team is capable of. We are a good team — we were only a field goal away from winning.” In the next game, Arizona squandered a potential win over Washington State with a late fumble. Arizona went on to finish 3-8 but the close loss to Wisconsin brought back memories of the kind of success Arizona had before Dick Tomey was forced to resign.
8. Arizona’s 54-48 overtime loss at No. 18 Stanford on Oct. 6, 2012
This is the game that indicated Rich Rodriguez, in his first season with the Wildcats, could be a factor at Arizona. The Wildcats, coming off two disappointing losses against ranked Oregon and Oregon State teams, played at the same level as heavily-favored Stanford for the entire game. Stanford’s Chase Thomas intercepted a tipped pass by Matt Scott, who played his best game at Arizona, in the extra period and Stepfan Taylor ran for a 21-yard touchdown two plays later for the win. Scott completed 45 of 69 passes – both school records – for 491 yards and three touchdowns until Henry Anderson tipped his final pass in overtime that Thomas intercepted. Arizona amassed 617 total yards, identical to Stanford. “Matt is a stud,” Rodriguez told the Associated Press afterward. “He threw the ball well. We just needed to make one more play. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Arizona went on to win four of its next five games, which propelled them to a New Mexico Bowl berth against Nevada.
7. Arizona’s 48-41 loss to No. 16 USC on Nov. 13, 1982
With 5:47 left in the classic game and the Trojans clinging to a 41-34 lead (after having been on top 41-20), the Wildcats drove to the USC 45. On third and 1, Arizona tailback Vance Johnson went 4 yards for a first down, but USC’s Darrel Hopper ripped the ball from his grasp and went 41 yards the other way for the touchdown. Arizona got within a touchdown again and was going to get the ball back in good field position with two minutes left. However, an official made a controversial call that Arizona’s Al “Bubba” Gross threw an elbow at USC punter David Pryor on the play. USC retained possession and ran out the clock. Arizona was one year removed from its upset of No. 1 USC at the L.A. Coliseum. This near upset showed that game was not a fluke. After a disheartening loss at Oregon the following week — the grueling 48-41 affair took a lot out of Arizona — the Wildcats bounced back with a 28-18 win over ASU to begin “The Streak” against the Sun Devils.
6. Arizona’s 28-20 loss at No. 9 Ohio State on Sept. 20, 1997
Arizona rallied from a 28-point deficit with a fourth quarter surge that came up short in front of 91,152 spectators in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State was coming off a 1997 Rose Bowl win over ASU. The Wildcats were 5-6 the season before under Tomey and were in search of an identity after the Desert Swarm years of 1992 and 1993. Arizona put the ball in the end zone on all three of its fourth quarter possessions against Ohio State to cut the lead to 28-20 with just 2:26 to go in the game. Smith capped off the first drive of the quarter with a 9-yard quarterback draw to put the Wildcats on the scoreboard. T.J. Rodriquez’s extra-point attempt was wide left. Ohio State then drove 43 yards on 10 plays before a field goal attempt by Dan Stultz was blocked by Joe Salave’a. Smith then found Brad Brennan for 47 yards to the Ohio State 28-yard line. A few plays later on a fourth-down play, Smith again connected with Brennan for a touchdown to cut the lead to 28-13. The Arizona defense then forced Ohio State to punt. The Wildcats moved the ball 70 yards on 10 plays as Smith found Jeff Nadeau for the Wildcats’ third touchdown in 10 minutes. Arizona’s onside kick attempt failed and Ohio State ran out the clock to escape with the win. Arizona went 6-3 the rest of the season before putting together the best record in school history — 12-1 — the following year.
“Some of the Michigan writers were trying to get me to say yes to their ideas that this was a moral victory for us, but I wouldn’t do it. We can’t be satisfied with moral victories.”
— Bob Weber, commenting after Arizona’s 20-9 loss at No. 8 Michigan in 1970
5. Arizona’s 16-10 loss to Pittsburgh in the 1979 Fiesta Bowl
Pitt freshman quarterback Dan Marino and the 10th-ranked Panthers, who entered the game 10-1 overall, were an 8-point favorite over the Wildcats. Tony Mason, who would coach his last game for Arizona amid an NCAA investigation for recruiting violations, somehow got his team to believe it had a chance. The Wildcats finished 6-5-1 with the loss. Arizona cut the lead to 16-10 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Hubert Oliver with 5:20 left in the game. Pitt recovered the onside kick and held on to win. Marino was ineffective against Arizona’s defense, completing only 15 of 29 passes for 172 yards with two interceptions. “I thought we should have won,” Mason was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “We’ve been underestimated all year long but we can play with anybody.” It was Arizona’s first bowl in 11 seasons. After Mason’s firing, Larry Smith took over in 1980 and elevated the program another level.
4. Arizona’s 27-26 loss at No. 12 LSU on Sept. 22, 1984
Nobody, especially a team from the West coast, gives LSU a scare in a night game at Baton Rouge, La. Arizona and place-kicker Max Zendejas, a late arrival to Baton Rouge because he missed the team flight from Tucson, almost pulled off the upset. The tardy Zendejas made field goals of 50, 49, 34 and 33 yards. He missed the team flight because he was stuck at the Student Union buying batteries for his Walkman while his teammates boarded the bus for the airport. He took a later flight and arrived at midnight. Arizona’s Allen Durden also returned an interception 96 yards for a touchdown. In the final 30 seconds, Arizona opted to go for it on fourth down instead of letting Zendejas try a 60-yarder (the Louisiana air was too thick to try). The Wildcats failed and LSU held on for the win. “Had we gotten it (first down), we could have won that game,” Arizona coach Larry Smith told Corky Simpson of the Tucson Citizen. Arizona’s defense recorded five sacks in the game. “We made a game of it,” Smith told Simpson. “I mean, it went right down the wire. We had nothing to be ashamed of.” The Wildcats won five of their last seven games to finish 7-4 but did not play in a bowl because it was serving the last year of a two-year bowl ban by the NCAA.
3. Arizona’s 20-9 loss at No. 8 Michigan on Sept. 19, 1970
Bob Weber’s team was coming off a 3-7 season heading into the season-opener at Michigan, which was the defending Big Ten co-champion. For 56 minutes, the Wildcats clawed the Wolverines to a virtual standstill at the Big House, trailing 10-9. Up until the last couple of minutes, it was still anybody’s ball game with Michigan leading, 13-9. A back-breaking pass interception set up a touchdown that finally subdued the Wildcats with 1:08 to play. “Some of the Michigan writers were trying to get me to say yes to their ideas that this was a moral victory for us, but I wouldn’t do it,” Weber told Tucson Citizen sports columnist Carl Porter. “We can’t be satisfied with moral victories. We’ve got to beat Big Ten teams because we play them every year.” Arizona followed the loss with three straight victories before falling apart and finishing 4-6. The Wildcats nearly upset No. 3 Michigan again in a 21-17 loss at Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1978 under Mason. But Arizona lost three straight afterward in a 5-6 season. Therefore, that game does not make this list.
“If you take too much consolation in coming close, you just come close. Right now, none of us feels very good.”
— Dick Tomey, commenting after Arizona’s 8-7 loss at No. 1 Miami in 1992
2. Arizona’s 8-7 loss at No. 1 Miami on Sept. 22, 1992
This is the game that introduced the “Desert Swarm” defense to the nation and generated a strong wave of success in the program under Tomey. After Arizona’s surprising near-upset of top-ranked Miami — it was a 28-point underdog and Miami was riding a 47-game winning streak at the Orange Bowl — the Wildcats enjoyed their most successful run in school history at that point. They dominated No. 1 Washington in Tucson with a 16-3 win, which culminated a five-game winning streak after the loss to Miami. In the following season, Arizona had a 10-2 record, capped by a 29-0 drubbing of the Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami’s only touchdown — the game’s final points — came on Gino Torretta’s two-yard pass to Dietrich Clausell with 3:50 to play in the third quarter. Arizona, starting its last possession with 3:38 left in the game, drove the ball from its 35 to the Miami 35. After a quarterback sneak by George Malauulu, Steve McLaughlin lined up for a 51-yard attempt that barely missed to the right. “If you take too much consolation in coming close, you just come close,” Tomey said in the AP article of the game. “Right now, none of us feels very good.”
1. Arizona’s 14-0 loss at Occidental on Nov. 7, 1914
How could any moral victory top this one? The Arizona “Varsity” earned the nickname “Wildcats” because they reportedly fought like that against the mighty Tigers, who were unbeaten in the previous two seasons. Arizona challenged Oxy to the last quarter. The “Red and Blue” could have cut the deficit to a touchdown in the last quarter but halfback Franklin Luis fumbled after receiving a pass. The account from Bill Henry of the L.A. Times: “Arizona put up a great fight and once had a touchdown almost cinched when Luis, with practically a clear field, fumbled a forward pass and the Tigers were saved”. The “Varsity” went on to beat New Mexico State 10-0 and Pacific champ Pomona 7-6 in the last two games. J.F. “Pop” McKale, in his first season, started to become a legend.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.