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You may not know him by name, but Ben Bartley was the Wilbur the Wildcat mascot from 1995-98, which coincided with Arizona winning the NCAA title 25 years ago in the 1996-97 season.
Bartley, who now resides close to his parents in Louisville, Ky., and works as a systems analyst, talks about some of his experiences while he was Wilbur during that magical season in our latest podcast.
One of the highlights is his story about renting an Elvis Presley suit in Tucson before Arizona headed to Memphis for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament in 1997 because that’s the home of The King of Rock and Roll.l
When Arizona was trailing South Alabama by almost 10 points with close to 10 minutes left in the first round, Bartley rushed to change into the Elvis suit to get his money’s worth in case Arizona came up short in the game and had to head home.
“I was like, ‘Oh shoot, we may not get a second game in this tournament. I better go put the costume on,'” Bartley said. “So I put the costume on in the second half when we were down by 10 and then the team came back and won the game.
“Lute (Olson) in the elevator (the next week in Birmingham, Ala.) talked to me about that. He said, ‘Yeah, the crowd was really down and you came out in the Elvis costume. I noticed everybody started getting fired up and clapping behind it. I really appreciate your effort.’ I had no idea he had anything on his mind other than the fact that he was down by 10.”
A photo of Bartley wearing the Elvis costume as Wilbur is displayed in the Jim Click Hall of Champions at McKale Center along with Wilbur’s No. 100 jersey that year honoring the 100th anniversary of Arizona’s athletic department.
More than likely Olson was informed about Bartley changing into Elvis by his wife Bobbi, who also had some memorable moments that were shared with “Ben” as she always called him. Lute and Bobbi did not refer to him as “Wilbur” but as “Ben.”
The players called him “Wilbur,” including Miles Simon after Bartley quipped with him that he got in his way in the Sports Illustrated cover that showed Simon dribbling the ball with the title “Cool Cat.” Wilbur the Wildcat can be seen blurred in the background.
“Shut up Wilbur,” Simon said light-heartedly.
Bartley in the podcast also recalls his memorable experiences with other Arizona players and fans during that historic run.
He noted that one of the most rewarding aspects of that March Madness was the fact his parents Ralph and Jane Bartley were able to attend all six games traveling not too far from their Louisville home to Memphis, Birmingham and Indianapolis.
Ralph Bartley was the superintendent of the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind from 1993-95.
After hanging up his Wilbur costume, Ben’s mascot days were not over.
While teaching English As A Second Language classes in Hiroshima, Japan, for a little more than a year, he was the mascot of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp professional baseball team.
The podcast includes many memorable moments offered from Arizona’s 1996-97 season through the eyes of Bartley as Wilbur, including giving Dan Patrick and Kevin Costner “noogies” (knuckle grind on the head) in Indianapolis during the FInal Four.
They became part of the Wilbur’s famed “Noogie List” the mascot did on the heads of famous people.
Worth a listen.
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.