What’s the golden era of Arizona Wildcats football to this point?



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The Arizona football team begins its 2013 season against Northern Arizona at Arizona Stadium on Aug. 30, which is 39 days away. From now until then, this Web site will count down the days with facts about the Wildcats, their players, coaching staff and opponents. This is not a ranking, only a list of 100 facts and observances related to the 2013 Arizona football team and coach Rich Rodriguez.


In a brief Facebook communication I had yesterday with former Arizona running back David Adams and defensive lineman John Barthalt, in which Barthalt posted photos from when he played in the early 1980’s, Adams posted this comment: “The 80’s were the best time in U of A history”.

That decade was one of the best but better than the 1990’s? Certainly better than the 2000’s. What about the 1970’s? Too long ago?

The Wildcats have played three full decades since joining the Pac-10 in 1978 — the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s. For the sake of this argument (and my memory) I will limit the time frame to those three decades.

With Arizona reaching the depths of the program during the 2000’s, mostly because of the failed John Mackovic experiment, that decade can’t compete with the 1980’s and 1990’s. The following is a point-counterpoint involving those two decades for Arizona. (Keep in mind Arizona has yet to win an outright conference title and berth in the Rose Bowl. The 1980’s and 1990’s will have the spotlight until that happens).

1980’s: Two words — “The Streak”. … Arizona reversed the dominance ASU had over the Wildcats before Larry Smith and the 1980’s came around. From 1982 until 1990, Arizona did not lose to the Sun Devils. The Wildcats compiled an 8-0-1 record against ASU in that stretch. Arizona was 2-15 against mostly Frank Kush’s teams from 1965-1981.

1990’s: Good point, but here’s two other words — “Desert Swarm”. Arizona may never field a defense like this again, at least in our lifetime. In 1993, the UA led the nation in total defense (236.9 yards allowed per game) and rushing defense (30.1 yards per game). In 1992 and 1994, the Wildcats were No. 2 nationally in rushing defense.

1980’s: From 1980 to 1989, Arizona suffered only one losing season and one .500 season. More often than not, the UA won in the 1980’s. During the 1990’s the UA had three losing seasons, including a humbling 4-7 record in 1991. The Wildcats did not lose more than four games in a season from 1982-1989. If it weren’t for an NCAA bowl ban in 1983 and 1984, the Wildcats would have likely played in five bowl games in the 1980’s instead of only three. Before the 1980s, the UA played in only one bowl — the Fiesta Bowl after the 1979 season — over an 11-year stretch.

The best Arizona defensive player of the 1990's -- Rob Waldrop --and the best of the 1980's -- Ricky Hunley (Arizona Athletics video stills)

The best Arizona defensive player of the 1990’s — Rob Waldrop –and the best of the 1980’s — Ricky Hunley — played exactly 10 years apart (Arizona Athletics video stills)

1990’s: Speaking of records, the Wildcats had their two best season records in the 1990s — 10-2 in 1993 with the Desert Swarm and 12-1 in 1998. Both seasons culminated in victories over traditional powerhouses in a bowl game. Arizona concluded the 1993 season by beating Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl, which remains the only shutout in the illustrious bowl’s history. In 1998, the UA defeated Nebraska 23-20 to finish with a school-record 12 victories. Arizona finished ranked No. 4 that season, the highest finishing ranking in school history. In the 1980’s, Arizona’s wins in bowl games were impressive — if you live in North Carolina. The UA beat North Carolina (Aloha in 1986) and North Carolina State (Copper in 1989).

1980’s: Don’t forget the 1985 team also tied an SEC team in a bowl game, Georgia 13-13 in the Sun Bowl, and it came close to winning but Max Zendejas uncharacteristically missed a 39-yarder with 10 seconds left. The 1980’s also featured Arizona’s highest ranked team in school history, the 1983 team that reached No. 3 in the AP poll in the fourth week of the season despite being on probation. The decade also included Arizona’s first victory over a No. 1-ranked team, against USC and Marcus Allen at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1981. USC was in the midst of a 22-game winning streak at the Coliseum. In 1980, Arizona also beat No. 2 UCLA (which was ready to be No. 1 after top-ranked Alabama lost earlier that day). One of the most memorable wins in school history came in 1982 at South Bend, Ind., against an unbeaten Notre Dame team with Zendejas kicking the game-winning 49-yarder with no time left.

The late Larry Smith coached at Arizona from 1980-1986

The late Larry Smith coached at Arizona from 1980-1986

Dick Tomey coached the Wildcats from 1987-2000

Dick Tomey coached the Wildcats from 1987-2000

1990’s: Arizona also beat a No. 1 team in 1992, drubbing Washington 16-3 at Arizona Stadium. The Desert Swarm became a national phenomenon. The Wildcats also nearly defeated No. 1 Miami at the Orange Bowl Stadium that season but Steve McLaughlin’s last-second field goal was slightly wide right. What made those games possible were the exploits of College Football Hall of Fame inductees Rob Waldrop and Tedy Bruschi. The decade included five consensus All-Americans (Darryll Lewis, Waldrop, Bruschi, McLaughlin, Tony Bouie and Dennis Northcutt) and three unanimous choices (Waldrop, Bruschi and Chris McAlister). Consensus choices are those selected by at least three of the major All-American listings (Associated Press, Walter Camp, Football News, College Football Coaches Association and Football Writers Association of America) while unanimous is all. Ricky Hunley and Chuck Cecil were the only All-Americans in the 1980s, both of them consensus selections (Hunley twice).

1980’s: Hunley and Cecil are also Hall of Famers. Cecil achieved the best play in Arizona history with his 106-yard interception return for a touchdown against Rose Bowl-bound ASU in 1986. The Wildcats added to “The Streak” by dominating ASU in the 34-17 win at Arizona Stadium, which never has been louder than that game. Zendejas’ game-winning field goals against Notre Dame in 1982 and ASU (in 1983 and 1985) also rank high as does Doug Pfaff’s game-winning kick against Oklahoma in 1989.

1990’s: The 1990’s had some very memorable plays. Ortege Jenkins’ “Leap by the Lake” in 1998, flipping into the end zone at Washington with four seconds remaining to defeat the Huskies, can be matched against Cecil’s interception as the best play. The 1990’s started with Lewis’ game-saving tackle of Oregon quarterback Bill Musgrave at the goal line with no time left. No greater tackle in Arizona history exists than that one by Lewis in 1990.

1980’s: Two words — “The Streak”.

1990’s: Two words — “Desert Swarm”.


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The best Arizona player to wear No. 39, according to TucsonCitizen.com’s Anthony Gimino, is defensive lineman Pete Russell (1988-89). He also played fullback and tight end, and later became a UA grad assistant and NFL scout.

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Last year, this site and TucsonCitizen.com ran a Top 50 Games in the history of Arizona football series. I will relive that list here with less than 50 days to kickoff and add one game to it: Arizona’s improbable 49-48 win over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl last December. I will keep the ranking of that game secret in the new top 50 list until the day I publish it. Note, after clicking on the link, you will notice last year’s ranking. The list on this page is the current ranking.

No. 38 — Arizona shows signs of life under Mike Stoops with rout over No. 7 UCLA

No. 40 — Art Luppino “The Cactus Comet” rockets toward 38 yards per carry and five touchdowns

No. 41 — Fumblerooski enables Arizona to sweep USC, UCLA in L.A. for first time

No. 42 — Sun Devil nemesis Dan White quarterbacks Arizona into Fiesta Bowl with win over ASU

No. 43 — Struggling UA gets improbable win against ’83 Pac-10 champ UCLA

No. 44 — Closing chapter of “The Streak” includes Arizona’s dramatic fourth-quarter heroics

No. 45 — Arizona overcomes rival Texas Tech with unfathomable late-game rally

No. 46 — Dick Tomey, the Desert Fox, does a number on UCLA by changing offense in midseason

No. 47 — “The Streak” reaches three games, UA achieves best Pac-10 finish

No. 48 — Arizona’s first game at Arizona Stadium in 1929, a 35-0 win over Cal Tech

No. 49 — Underdog Arizona’s 2011 thriller over arch-rival Arizona State

No. 50 — Arizona’s first win over arch-rival Arizona State, then known as Territorial Normal

Dropped out — Arizona’s first win in program’s history: 22-5 over Tucson Indians

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WILDABOUTAZCATS.net publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes blogs for Lindy’s College Sports, TucsonCitizen.com and Sports Illustrated-sponsored site ZonaZealots.com.


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