Arizona Football

Arizona had dwindling attendance, coach uncertainty 25 years ago before something magical happened

In the year the Desert Swarm was born 25 years ago, only 37,239 attended Arizona’s season opener against Utah State, a 49-3 yawner won by the Wildcats.

The crowd was not much better — only 39,112 — the following week against Washington State for another game at Arizona Stadium, one in which the Wildcats had only eight first downs, rushed for 58 yards and passed for 165 in a 23-20 loss.

Some of the few Arizona fans remaining when the Wildcats walked to the locker room, yelled derisively, “Run it up the middle!” at coach Dick Tomey, mocking his putrid offensive production.

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It did not help the attendance that the game kicked off at 3 p.m. when it was 100 degrees. The move accommodated a Prime Ticket telecast that netted Arizona $100,000, helping to cover the attendance shortfall against Utah State.

Tomey was coming off a 4-7 season in his fifth season, one ravaged by injuries and capped by 37-14 loss to ASU, putting an end to “The Streak.”

Dwindling attendance with a coach on the hot seat was a dangerous mix for Tomey, who was an unsightly 31-25-3 going into the first road game against hapless Oregon State.

The Beavers were coming off 1-10 seasons in 1990 and 1991 and were 1-9-1 in 1992, the tie a 14-14 what-didn’t-go-wrong game for Arizona in Corvallis, Ore.

How could Tomey survive that nonsense?

“Dick knows it and I know it,” Arizona athletics director Cedric Dempsey told the Arizona Daily Star after the game. “It comes with the game. This will be a test of character for everybody in the program, including our fans … I hope people stay with us.”

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Arizona played last week’s season opener against NAU, a 62-24 rout, in front of only 43,620.

Rich Rodriguez is 10-16 in his last two seasons.

The Wildcats’ game against Houston on Saturday thankfully will not be at 3 p.m., like the second game at home against Washington State 25 years ago. It starts at 7:30 p.m., which may be at the other end of the spectrum, starting too late.

A crowd of less than 50,000 is likely again as Rodriguez and the Wildcats are still in the midst of having to prove the naysayers wrong after a 3-9 season last year.

How important is a win over a credible Houston program for Arizona’s psyche after two dismal seasons under Rodriguez, whose seat is hot?

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How important was it for Arizona to beat Washington State almost 25 years ago to the day with Tomey winning only four games the previous season coming off an horrendous attendance figure in the Utah State opener?

The Cougars of Washington State that year went on to a 9-3 record and No. 15 AP ranking.

The Cougars of Houston were 9-4 last season.

A loss won’t be devastating tonight, but being competitive at least is a must.

Arizona heads off next week to UTEP, one of the historic worst programs in college football. The Wildcats tied Oregon State — traditionally one of the most moribund programs at the time — 25 years ago in the third game.

“I have no idea why, where, what, when, how,” Arizona’s Heath Bray said after tying the lowly Beavers.

The following week, Arizona took top-ranked Miami to the limit on the road before succumbing 8-7 with a chance to win in the last second but Steve McLaughlin’s field goal attempt went wide right.

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The Wildcats went on to win five straight games, culminating with a 16-3 beat down of No. 1 Washington at Arizona Stadium in front of 58,510 fans.

Can Rodriguez’s team this year make similar shocking gains of improvement in a time of doubt and despair among its fans?

The Desert Swarm defense, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, was one of college football’s most historic success stories. A drastic turnaround in 1992 occurred because of a unit that had Rob Waldrop, Tedy Bruschi, Sean Harris, Brant Boyer, Tony Bouie, etc.

This year’s team does not have a similar defense, not even close after yielding 562 yards to NAU.

What kind of identity will emerge from this year’s team in a time of uncertainty?

Arizona is calling on the Football Gods that uplifted Tomey by creating Desert Swarm to bestow upon Rodriguez similar blessings in a pivotal season.

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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