Arizona Football

No. 27 game in Arizona history: Smith era ends as UA wins first bowl behind “heat-seeking missile” Cecil

Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is 27 days away. To go along with the countdown to kickoff, this site will publish the Top 50 games in Wildcat football history.

NO. 27

SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 30, North Carolina Tar Heels 21

DATE: Dec. 27, 1986

SITE: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii — 26,743 in attendance

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Arizona capitalized on big defensive plays in the Aloha Bowl to coast to its first victory in a bowl game in school history after 65 years and five tries. The Wildcats were 0-4-1 in bowls before this game. The tie — a 13-13 standoff with Georgia in the Sun Bowl — occurred a year earlier.

Arizona Daily Star clipping of Arizona’s win over North Carolina in the 1986 Aloha Bowl.

The game was also the last at Arizona for seven-year coach Larry Smith, who accepted the head coaching position at USC. Ironically, his replacement, Dick Tomey, coached Hawaii at the very stadium Smith ended his Wildcat stint. Smith, who passed away at age 68 in 2008, became the first and last UA coach to win his final game as a Wildcat coach since 1951 when Bob Winslow’s team capped a 6-5 season with a 32-21 win over — you guessed it — Hawaii.

Seven coaches led the Wildcats between Winslow and Smith. Winslow, by the way, was a star defensive end for USC. He was forced out at Arizona after three brief years because his team lost 61-14 at ASU earlier in the 1951 season and other off-the-field matters, including a chicken-stealing incident involving a player.

Dave Silver

Dave Silver

From the Press Box — Dave Silver, former KGUN-TV sports director

“Christmas Week in Honolulu!!! It was Arizona coach Larry Smith’s final game at the UA. Arizona had a solid team in all areas. Offense, defense and special teams. David Adams led the rushing attack with QB Alfred Jenkins and receivers Jon Horton, Jeff Fairholm and Derek Hill. Plus the defense was loaded with future NFL players including Byron Evans and Chuck Cecil. They pretty much had their way against North Carolina all game. There had been some talk all week about Smith being in the running for the USC job, which he denied. They played the football game in Hawaii and returned to Tucson. The news picked up in the coming days and just after New Year’s, he was named the new coach at USC. On a personal note, I was the host of the Larry Smith Show during his final two seasons in Tucson. He never gave any indication that he was interested in leaving Arizona. But USC gave him a chance to coach in a more prestigious program and under a multi-year contract.”

All-American free safety Chuck Cecil, the MVP of the Aloha Bowl in 1986, led a defense that forced five fumbles against North Carolina. Senior tailback David Adams finished his career with 81 yards rushing and a touchdown and three receptions for 77 yards. Offensive MVP Alfred Jenkins completed 12 of 28 passes for 187 yards and a score.

A Jim Birmingham fumble recovery led to a 31-yard Gary Coston field goal to begin the scoring. Later, Boomer Gibson partially blocked a punt, and the Cats put seven more on the board with an Adams one-yard run.

Danny Lockett’s sack of Mark Maye caused a fumble, and the Cats cashed in with another Coston field goal for a 13-0 halftime lead.

Larry Smith coached his last game with Arizona in the 1986 Aloha Bowl ( photo)

Larry Smith coached his last game with Arizona in the 1986 Aloha Bowl ( photo)

Arizona’s Jeff Valder booted a 52-yard field goal to set an Aloha Bowl record in the third quarter. Then Cecil clobbered Jonathan Hall, and Jerry Beasley recovered the fumble at the Tar Heel 30. Jenkins found Jon Horton from 13 yards out for the quick score. Another Tar Heel fumble led to Art Greathouse’s 5-yard scoring run, and the Cats were in control 30-0.

The Tar Heels rallied for three touchdowns in the second half, but the UA defense held firm in the last nine minutes.

“At the half, we had controlled the game,” Smith told reporters. “Then the guys must have started thinking about bikinis.”

Former Arizona assistant coach Duane Akina recounted a story with’s Anthony Gimino about Cecil in the Aloha Bowl while Akina was working with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Akina scouted Adams in the Aloha Bowl and Cecil caught his eye.

“Chuck had some great hits. I remember sitting in the stands going, ‘God, I wonder who that kid is?'” Akina told Gimino after Cecil was chosen to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

Cecil was directly responsible for two fumbles against the Tar Heels. A three-time Pac-10 All-Academic selection as a safety, Cecil was given the nickname “Heat-Seeking Missile” by a North Carolina assistant coach afterward because of his bone-jarring tackles.

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! 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, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, 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.

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