We have reached 24 days until the Arizona Wildcats kick off their 2018 campaign under new coach Kevin Sumlin. The season begins when Arizona hosts BYU on Sept. 1 at Arizona Stadium.
To get ready for the upcoming season, All Sports Tucson offers another countdown, which will include memories from former Wildcats, history notes and a look ahead to the season. Think of it as a way to keep Arizona football on the mind in the summer months leading up to fall camp in early August and then kickoff against the Cougars marking the start of the Sumlin Era.
The season marks some substantial anniversaries. It is the 40th anniversary since the Wildcats left the WAC to join the Pac-12 (went from the Pac-8 to the Pac-10 then) and also the 20th anniversary of the 1998 team with the best record in school history, 12-1, and the 25th anniversary of the 1993 team that went 10-2 with a win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
To catch up on the countdown — which included in-depth analysis and reader polls on The Great Debate of which team was better — 1993 or 1998 — click on this: Arizona Wildcats 2018 countdown to kickoff.
Top 25 developments in Pac-10/12 era
Over the last part of the countdown we will rank the top 25 developments of Arizona’s Pac-10/12 existence that started in 1978 when it arrived with ASU from the WAC. The ranking will include player highlights, team accomplishments, coaching moves and other off-field developments. If a player is involved, the ranking includes happenings during the course of that athlete’s time at Arizona.
The ranking up to now:
Chris McAlister’s career
One of six unanimous All-Americans to play for Arizona during the Pac-10/12 years, McAlister was a game-changer that puts him in an elite class of athletes in the history of the program overall.
The cornerback from 1996 to 1998 had these lists of accomplishment other than being a unanimous All-American in 1998: Third-team All-American by the Sporting News in 1997, won the 1998 Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation’s top special-teams player and was a first-team All-Pac-10 player in each of his three seasons at Arizona.
The phrase “He shut down half the field” was never more appropriate than when uttered about McAlister. He intercepted 18 passes in his three seasons at Arizona (third-best in school history), transforming the defense’s nickname “Desert Swarm” to “Desert Swipe.”
McAlister initially signed with UCLA, but the Bruins challenged his jump in SAT score. He never enrolled there, and spent a season in junior college before joining Arizona coach Dick Tomey, who was a longtime friend of the McAlister family. Tomey was an assistant on the UCLA coaching staff in the early 1970s when Chris’ father James was such a renowned running back/long jumper that he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in May 1971.
Chris was an obvious elite athlete the day he showed up at Camp Cochise in 1996. He intercepted a UTEP pass on his first defensive play for the Wildcats. McAlister just kept on making plays, including a 100-yard kick return at Hawaii on the first play of the 1998 season to start the Wildcats’ run to a 12-1 record.
Defensive backs coach Duane Akina, who has coached three Jim Thorpe Award winners (Darryll Lewis and two at Texas) said it was “criminal” that McAlister didn’t win the Thorpe Award in 1998. Ohio State’s Antoine Winfield took home the trophy.
McAlister remains the standard.
“Out of the all the defensive backs, Chris Mac is still the measuring sticks for all the pro scouts that come out,” Akina said in 2011. “They say, ‘How does he compare to Chris?’”
McAlister did win the 1998 Tatupu Award for special-teams play. In addition to his 100-yard kick return, he blocked two punts, deflected another and had a 69-yard punt return for a score. He became the seventh player in NCAA history to score on a kick return, punt return and interception return in the same season.
A look back at No. 24
— The best Wildcat to wear No. 24 was legendary running back Bobby Thompson, who was part of the 8-1-1 team of 1961. He teamed with “Jackrabbit” Joe Hernandez to form the “Touchdown Twins.” He still holds the school record for yards per attempt — 7.6 for his career. The Wildcats concluded their dream season in 1961 with a 22-13 win at ASU, which was coached by Frank Kush. That game included “The Run in ’61” in which Thompson broke at least four tackles en route to a 67-yard TD run in the fourth quarter that gave Arizona a 16-13 lead.
Wearing No. 24 now
Redshirt freshman safety Rhedi Short, a standout at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles, is set to begin his career with Arizona. He registered 47 tackles in 10 games as a senior at Cathedral. He added 12 passes defended, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
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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.