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I was a guest of the KVOI (1030-AM) Wake Up Tucson show this morning in which we discussed this site’s Top 50 ranking of Arizona football games in history and other matters pertaining to the Wildcats.
During the interview, co-host Matt Neely asked me what I believe to be the best year for Arizona football. I realize I could have mentioned the 10-2 team of 1993 — with the Desert Swarm defense — that beat Miami in the Fiesta Bowl or the 1998 team that went 12-1 and defeated Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
I chose the 1982 team that went 6-4-1.
I’ve always contended that team, with All-American linebacker Ricky Hunley leading the defense and steady quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe guiding the offense, provided the most meaningful season in Arizona history.
That was the year Arizona football came of age.
In the Wildcats’ 39 years in the conference, they have not experienced leadership more valuable from two players on one roster than Hunley and Tunnicliffe. Arizona returned only 14 seniors in 1982.
Historians can note the Wildcats became relevant in college football that season. Arizona was 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.
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.
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.
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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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.