Arizona Football

Arizona Wildcats Lost Opener With New Coach: What History Has Taught Us

Arizona was coming off a 1979 Fiesta Bowl appearance against Pitt and was entering its third year in the Pac-10 when former WAC rival Colorado State came to Arizona Stadium to meet the Wildcats in the season opener under first-year coach Larry Smith.

The Rams, 14-point underdogs, won 15-13 on a 29-yard field goal with three seconds left.

The Wildcats fumbled five times in the game and lost all of them, failing to take advantage of their 304 yards rushing. One of the best running backs Arizona has ever featured — Hubie Oliver — had a crucial fumble at the Colorado State 10-yard line with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter after Arizona drove 66 yards leading 13-6.

Arizona Daily Star columnist Glen Crevier questioned, “What happened to the wide-open offense we were told to expect? Quarterback Mark Fulcher threw 16 passes, completing seven, for 84 yards. … Arizona’s offense became so conservative it looked like it was designed by Ronald Reagan and his Republican cronies.”

Arizona Daily Star’s headline after Larry Smith lost his first game as Arizona’s coach in 1980 against Colorado State.

Colorado State also passed for 330 yards and scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning field goal, which was set up after an onsides kick was recovered.

Arizona, under the cloud of an NCAA investigation after Smith’s predecessor Tony Mason was fired, went on to finish 5-6 that season. The Wildcats won three of four games in one stretch after suffering three straight losses. One of those wins was an upset at home over No. 2 UCLA, which was in position to be No. 1 in the country after top-ranked Alabama lost earlier that day.

Smith went on to have a school Hall of Fame career with the Wildcats (with “The Streak” over ASU and upset wins over USC, Notre Dame, SMU and UCLA) before leaving to USC in 1987.

In 1987, Arizona was coming off its first bowl victory in school history, a win over North Carolina in the Aloha Bowl. Dick Tomey was in his first season after replacing Smith. Iowa came to Tucson for the opener.

A similar score to the loss against Colorado State — Iowa won 15-14 — came at the expense of the Wildcats under Tomey.

Arizona Daily Star clipping of Dick Tomey’s loss in his first game as Arizona coach in 1987.

Arizona Daily Star writer Jack Magruder wrote, “The beginning of an era at times looked like the beginning of an error.”

Tomey’s newly installed run-and-shoot offense never got on track after after Arizona had four fumbles (three lost) and an interception on its first five possessions.

The Wildcats allowed Iowa to chew up a lot of clock, running for 221 yards. In the previous season, the Wildcats gave up only 84 yards a game on the ground.

“I’ve seen early losses set a tone that actually helps,” Tomey said after the loss. “I’ve seen devastating losses help you. It all depends on how well you analyze what happens.”

Tomey endured a 4-4-3 mark in his first season. He went on to improve to 22 wins over the next three seasons, chucking the run-and-shoot for I-formation offense. By his sixth season, the Desert Swarm defense was born. Arizona overpowered No. 1 Washington 16-3 in 1992. They routed big, bad Miami in the Fiesta Bowl following the 1993 season. His 1998 team went 12-1 and finished No. 4 in the AP Top 25 poll that season.

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From 4-4-3 to No. 4 in the nation.

Two years after the victory over Nebraska in 1998 Holiday Bowl, Tomey was forced to leave because fans and the administration thought they could do better than the 6-6 and 5-6 records Tomey had his last two seasons.

John Mackovic was hired. He won his first game convincingly at San Diego State 23-10 after the Wildcats spotted the Aztecs a 10-0 lead.

A headline in the Arizona Daily Star read, “Clear message: UA will not be fodder for anyone.”

Fodder they were that season for Pac-10 teams losing five straight conference games after going 3-0 in a weak non-conference schedule. After going 5-6 in his first season and 4-8 in his second, Mackovic was fired midway through the 2003 season when the Wildcats were suffering through an eight-game losing streak.

Arizona reached the depths of its existence, even more so when the Wildcats were on probation from 1983 to 1985. The late Smith prospered despite that cloud left from the Mason staff. The Colorado State loss is just a minor footnote to his career.

Arizona lost its opener to BYU last night at Arizona Stadium in Kevin Sumlin’s first game as the Wildcats coach and …

Well, let’s just see how this plays out.

Lessons learned.


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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.

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