From Pop to Lute: 100 Years of Wildcat Hoops
By Scott Barker
Tucson Lifestyle Magazine
(atricle originally appeared in the November 2003 issue)
George Kalil, president of Kalil Bottling and long-time U of A men’s basketball fan sums up the history of the b-ball program in one succinct comment: “We’ve had it so good for so long that most people probably don’t realize how rare the basketball experience in Tucson has been.”
Stop people on the street and ask them about the Wildcat basketball team, and most will talk about our 1997 National Championship win, or mention players like Sean Elliott or Steve Kerr who’ve gone on to great success in the NBA, and the mathematically inclined may recall Coach Lute Olson’s amazing 499-147 UA win-loss record.
That’s what we think of when we picture Wildcat basketball: fast break scoring, high-flying slam dunks and point guards whose uncanny ball-handling skills look like a circus act.
But few Tucsonans realize that the program has had a history of success that dates back 100 years, to tiny gyms and contests against Morenci and Bisbee YMCA teams, when centers were 6’3”, and there was a jump ball in the middle of the court after every basket. Even before they were called the Wildcats, the student-athletes circa 1914 had a secret weapon in their coach, the unlikely athletic powerhouse named James Fred “Pop” McKale.
The story of how the Cats clawed their way to the top plays out like a John Ford movie, filled with larger-than-life characters, moments of high drama, a touch of tragedy, and proof that a community can unite behind a man and his dream.
A Canadian, A Peach Basket & A Soccer Ball
It’s hard to believe, but once upon a time there were no $200 Air Jordan shoes, no seven-foot athletes, and a gym the size of McKale would have served no purpose, since team sports were played outdoors.
Then, in Springfield, Massachusetts, a 5’10” educator from Almonte, Ontario, Canada, named James Naismith, was given the assignment in 1891 of developing a game that could be played indoors at Springfield College because the fierce winters in that part of the U.S. did not lend themselves to sports alfresco.
After trying unsuccessfully to play football indoors (where the contact on the hard floors resulted in broken bones), soccer (outcome: broken windows), and lacrosse (busted equipment), the intelligent and physically skilled teacher recalled a game he used to play called “duck on the rock,” involving throwing a stone at a stack of rocks to knock one off. It occurred to him that if he devised a sport based on this principle of finesse as opposed to brute force, he might have something that wouldn’t trash the gym or the players.
Using equipment at hand ?- a soccer ball and peach baskets, nailed 10 feet up in the gym ?- he developed 13 simple rules for the game that was originally known as “Basket Ball.” These rules laid down the basic elements of the contest (i.e., “The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands”), and detailed what would be considered a foul (“No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed.”)
When the U of A began playing basketball in 1904, with Orin Albert Cates (some records list him as “Kates”) as a coach, and teams drawn from local YMCAs as opponents, the game hadn’t changed all that much. It was just as the good Dr. Naismith (he earned a medical degree in 1898) envisioned it: a game of strategy that favored hand and eye coordination over raw strength.
Pictures of the Arizona basketball players from the earliest days reveal young men in football pants and sleeveless undershirts, who, though quite fit, would clearly lose an arm-wrestling match with the muscular jocks of today. Basketball was pretty much a static game at that time, a half-court contest that centered on passing the ball to whoever had the best angle on the basket. There was no dribbling, no dunks, no cheerleaders, no Dick Vitale, just two 15-minute halves of dishing and shooting, with a five-minute break between. The first game Arizona played ended in a whopping 40-32 victory over the Morenci YMCA.
A Man Called Pop
It’s hard to imagine where U of A athletics would be today if it were not for Pop McKale. When he was lured away from a teaching and coaching job at Tucson High School in 1914 to take over the directorship of UA’s athletics program, there was already a tradition of winning, but McKale took things to a new level, posting a 9-0 record his first season as a basketball coach. It’s oft been reported that round ball was Pop’s least favorite sport, but he chalked up three undefeated seasons, and a career-winning average of .803, which has never been bested by a UA coach who has held the post for at least three years.
In those pre-conference years, basketball games were played at tiny Herring Hall in the UA campus. In a 1996 interview with Tucson Lifestyle, the late Roy Drachman recalled the facility, which was where the KUAT studios are today. “Because the hall was so small, it could only seat about 50 people at one end. There was no out of bounds on the side because the court was right up against both walls! It just barely fit in the building.”
Major games were played in the City Armory, which became the sole court for UA b-ball from 1922 until 1925 when Bear Down Gym was opened up. Another transition took place during this time, too. Pop gave up the coaching reins in 1921 so that he could focus on football and baseball, and the job went to James H. “Jumbo” Pierce, who racked up an impressive 10-2 record, including two defeats of USC. One of his star players was Harold Tovrea, who had the distinction of a scoring average of 15.8 points (huge for that time), and records indicate he is quite likely the first UA basketball player to rack up 1,000 career points.
Rhymes With Ink
In what is certainly one of the most bizarre chapters in UA sports history, Pierce caught the acting bug and relocated to Tinseltown, where he starred as Tarzan in several silent films. He was replaced by Basil Stanley, who posted good numbers (17-3 his first season; 14-3 his next) before being replaced by Walter Davis, whose abbreviated season (11 games) was only 7-4.
After the hiring of Pop McKale, the most significant moment in UA basketball history was the appointment of Fred A. Enke to the position of head coach. Jon Alquist, who recently retired after many years working in the UA Athletics Department, states, “Under Fred Enke, the basketball program became probably the first UA sport to receive national recognition.”
Enke took over in 1925, squeaked through a dismal 6-7 first season, and then quickly gained speed, jumping up to 13-4 the next year. More importantly, when Arizona joined the brand new Border Conference in 1931, he posted an 18-2 season and took the conference championship, beating teams such as Pomona, Arizona State (then known as Arizona State Teachers College at Tempe) and New Mexico State. They came in first again the following year, and took second place in the conference in 1933-34. Although Enke’s teams experienced their share of losses, in his 36-year career he averaged better than a 60 percent win-loss record, and racked up 509 victories, making him the winningest coach in UA history. Under Enke, Arizona won 11 Border Conference championships, and beat out all the other teams in the conference in terms of the number of total league wins (an amazing 231).
And if that doesn’t whip your head around faster than a no-look pass, consider his 81-game winning streak in Bear Down Gym.
Tell The Team To Bear Down
Many in the Old Pueblo have never seen the Cats play in any venue other than McKale Memorial Center, but once upon a time, Bear Down Gym was not only the team’s home, but one of the great sports venues in this part of the country.
Completed in 1926, the gym was first used for a b-ball game in 1927. “At that time, it was the largest and best on-campus, basketball facility in probably the entire West,” Jon Alquist notes. “Most of the larger arenas on the West Coast were municipal-type courts ?- they weren’t on campus. None of the colleges that you think of now as having big facilities ?- Stanford, Cal, UCLA, USC ?- had anything comparable to Bear Down Gym. It was a showcase in the Western United States.”
The name of the facility, of course, is part of the U of A tradition of creating legends. John “Button” Salmon, a football/baseball star with the Cats, was gravely injured in a car accident in October 1926. While dying in the hospital, he allegedly beseeched Pop McKale to “tell the team to bear down.”
Though the story has been disputed over the years, no one can deny that this popular phrase, which was given even more authority when UA Band Director Jack Lee wrote the school fight song “Bear Down Arizona” in 1952, is a rousing piece of athletic history.
The Wildcats Sharpen Their Claws
As hard as the Great Depression was on America, impacting virtually every area of life, World War II presented its own set of challenges and tragic circumstances. George Genung was a member of the “lost” class ?- the one that was supposed to graduate in 1944 ?- before Dec. 7, 1941 changed everything for his generation. A Tucson High graduate, he was able to earn letters in basketball and baseball at the U of A, before being drafted into the Army and sent overseas to fight under “Blood & Guts” Gen. George S. Patton. At a time when he should have been working on his jump shot, he was keeping his head down in foxholes around Europe, until at last his division was sent home. “I was glad to get back,” he remarks in his quiet, unassuming way. “I didn’t think much of shooting anybody, or anybody shooting me.”
Playing as both a center and a forward from 1942 to 1947, he was a member of three Border Conference championship squads, and was a two-time team captain. From 1943-44 he led the team with a points-per-game average of 13.6. “I played 14 games for Coach Enke that season and was captain of the team,” Genung recalls. “That was the only time I ever had a decent average because (star player) Vince Cullen had graduated so I got to shoot more.” Incidentally, while in the service and on leave, he donned a uniform several times to play in UA basketball games. “I don’t think the NCAA would go for that now,” he says with a chuckle.
Genung ?- who earned an astounding 10 letters as a Wildcat, and went on to a highly successful career as a coach for Amphitheater High School ?- has the distinction of having played with several UA legends, including Lincoln Richmond, the school’s only six-year letterman, and Mo Udall, a future congressman and candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.
“Mo was my buddy and we ran around together,” Genung recalls. “He lived in the basement of the infirmary, which was where they used to put up some of the students during the war.”
The two had a number of adventures together, including traveling on road trips in a beat-up old bus to out-of-town games. Conditions on the vehicle were rather cramped, and it was tough to get a good seat, so players were reluctant to get out when the bus made a pit stop. The scramble to keep a comfortable spot got a little out of hand during a trip to play UTEP in El Paso. Udall ?- who was a talented athlete despite having only one eye as the result of a childhood accident ?- had exited the bus to get a beverage, and in his zeal to return to his seat, made an effort to dive in through a window. “Morris Udall came flying through the half-open window with a soda pop in his hand,” Genung recalls, “and took a semi-circle piece out of the window with his knee.” Needless to say, Coach Enke wasn’t amused.
One of the highlights of Genung’s UA career was playing in Madison Square Garden at the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) against Kentucky. The Garden, famous as a sports venue, was anything but glamorous back then. “There were 18,000 people there, and I think 14,000 of them were smoking,” Genung recalls. “There were two bands up there, but I never did see them because it was so smoky. It was hard to breathe after a while. I didn’t want the coach to take me out, so I just suffered the whole game.”
The Golden Years
The team’s winning touch certainly didn’t suffer during those post-war years. They were among the best seasons that UA basketball teams have ever put together. “Shortly after the war ?- 1946-51 ?- Arizona won six straight conference championships,” Alquist says. “And they did it almost completely with kids from Arizona schools. A majority of them, if not all, were war veterans. Some had even been on the team before the war. They were pretty old by today’s standards. But they dominated the Rocky Mountain Southwest area, made annual trips to the East Coast and beat some of the top teams back there. They made one trip where they played Duquesne (and lost by two points), West Virginia (won by one point), and beat CCNY (41-38) in a famous game in Madison Square Garden. During those years, basketball was the sport with which Arizona was identified.”
A number of the U of A’s top cagers came out of this era. Forward Leon Blevins was an all-Border Conference team athlete twice; Hillard “Junior” Crum played on four consecutive conference championship teams as well as in UA’s first-ever post-season NIT game; Fred W. Enke (son of the team’s coach) racked up 18 points in the famous NIT game against Kentucky, and was a three-time All-Border Conference selection (a multi-sport athlete, he went on to play football for the Detroit Lions); Bob Honea led the team in scoring for 1950-51 with a 12.8 points-per-game average; and Roger Johnson was the school’s first All-American basketball player, and later was drafted by the NBA.
“A lot of people don’t understand just how good Arizona basketball was under Enke because the game was so different then,” notes Richard Paige, UA’s associate director of media relations. “For example, only eight to 16 teams nationally played in the NCAA tournament. The NIT, although it was the premier tournament at the time, was still dominated by the East Coast just because it was far easier travel-wise for those teams to get there. For Coach Enke to do the kind of things that he did to win more than 500 games and 12 conference championships and take us to four post-season appearances, we were as good as any basketball program in the Western half of the United States.”
A Cold War ... And A Cold Team
It’s tempting to remember the 1950s as being all about duck tails and leather jackets, Harley Earl’s amazing designs for Chevrolet, and doo-wop songs on the jukebox. The reality was that from 1950 through 1953, we were fighting a bloody and enervating war in Korea, and Washington waged a daily battle of words with Moscow.
The Wildcats seemed to fall prey to the miasma that was choking the country. From the 1951-52 season on, the yearly stats were less than stellar, and we failed to dominate the Border Conference as we once had. “Following the 1951 season, the program went into limbo,” remarks Alquist. “Enke wasn’t interested in recruiting that much. He kind of thought that kids in the state owed it to play for the U of A, and he wasn’t inclined to go much out of state for players. These days, if you get a good Arizona kid on the team it’s a rarity.
“Prior to that we didn’t have much competition from Arizona State College. They were considered more of a minor program, and then they started to expand toward a full university status, and they became more active in recruiting the better in and out of state players.”
In fairness to Coach Enke, the game had come a long way since he first began coaching in the 1920s. Players were bigger, stronger, more athletic. Scores were doubling (during the 1953-54 season for example, Arizona narrowly lost to Arizona State in overtime, 103-104), and the once state-of-the-art Bear Down Gym just wasn’t big enough to accommodate the needs of the athletes or the fans.
Perhaps the most telling point about the gym was the game against Long Island University in 1951 that was attended by 4,600 screaming fans, about 1,000 more than were supposed to be allowed into the facility.
The writing was on the wall in the 1950s: the U of A’s program needed something special to snap its descent into mediocrity.
Monsoon Clouds, And A Little Sunshine
Even in the midst of some dreary seasons, Arizona managed to show the nation a thing or two. From 1953-55, forward Hadie Redd was a top scorer for the team, becoming a two-time All-Border Conference selection, and the first African American letter winner for the U of A.
Also, Arizona finally acknowledged that its basketball program needed more help, and hired the first full-time assistant coach ?- former UA Basket Cat Bruce Larson. “That shows how backward the program was before then,” comments Jon Alquist. “The assistants Enke had, even during the time that we had great teams, were just part time, and some were other members of the athletic staff, like Frank Sancet, the legendary baseball coach, or they were ex-players.”
Larson knew the school and the program, and he was quickly groomed to replace Fred Enke, who retired in 1961. Another huge change took place in the same time period when Pop McKale stepped down in 1957. His contributions as athletic director for more than four decades, and as the school’s first outstanding b-ball coach, cannot be overstated.
“Pop McKale was a highly successful basketball coach here,” remarks Richard Paige. “He won more than 80 percent of his games, had three undefeated seasons, including a winning streak that lasted 21 games. He set the tone for Arizona excellence across the board, and every one of our athletic achievements can be traced to him. He was good at everything he did, whether it was baseball, football, basketball, administration ... there was a reason why Pop was a legend, and why his name is on the building. He was that special of a person.”
Not-so-special was our affiliation with the Border Conference, which by 1961 Arizona had definitely outgrown. The school joined the new Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and struggled a bit at first. Though we beat teams like BYU, Utah and USC within the first few years, we didn’t post the best numbers the school had ever seen, and we never went to the post season in the 11 years (1961-1972) that Larson led the team.
Still, Alquist is quick to give the coach his props. “Larson made good progress toward getting the program back on its feet, and he had some teams that contended for the WAC title. At that time the conference was very strong ?- teams like New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming. Although Arizona never won a WAC title, they were competitive. Several times, a game here or there might have made a difference.”
One of the coach’s star players was guard Warren Rustand, who was the U of A’s first Academic All-American, and the only player to ever lead UA in free throw and field goal percentage for three consecutive years. His career free-throw percentage was an eye-popping .814, and it’s no surprise that the NBA snapped him up in the 1965 draft. The renowned athlete-turned-entrepreneur later went on to serve in President Gerald Ford’s administration as the White House scheduling director.
The Fox Is In The House
To most Tucsonans who’ve been around the Old Pueblo 40 years or more, the history of UA basketball greatness begins with Fred Snowden. Nicknamed “the Fox,” the magnetic coach with the hip clothes and Afro hairstyle was just the guy to inject new energy into a program that needed it as much as wildflowers need rain.
Snowden had been recruited by new UA Athletic Director Dave Strack and college President John P. Schaefer. McKale Center was already being built, and it was more or less Strack’s job to fill the 13,658-seat facility (which is now 14,545 seats). He knew about Snowden ?- a standout high school basketball coach from the Detroit area ?- and realized his potential for the U of A not only as a great leader, but also as a symbol that the 1970s would be a new decade. “Snowden broke a lot of barriers,” remarks Jon Alquist. “He was the first African American head basketball coach at a major university.”
He was someone who didn’t come up through the ranks of the program created by Pop McKale and Fred Enke, and he brought in fresh ideas of what UA basketball could be. His very first season (1972-73) he posted a 16-10 record, guided the team to second in the WAC, and broke in McKale Center with a rout of Wyoming, 87-69.
“He really shook everybody up,” enthuses Alquist. “The team had a dynamic offense. They were up and down the floor. They set school records for shooting and scoring and everything under the sun and had people really excited. The first year they missed winning the WAC title by one game.”
Snowden’s recruiting efforts drew on schools he was familiar with around Detroit, Chicago, and Gary, Indiana, and he pulled together a group that people still speak of reverentially today ?- the “Kiddie Korps.” Because the NCAA had ruled that freshmen were eligible to compete in athletics, coaches like Snowden saw the potential in having a team comprised of guys like Herman Harris, Coniel “Popcorn” Norman and Eric Money, who were untested in college competition, but had skill and energy to spare.
Although the staff of the U of A athletics department had seen its share of talented coaches over the years, Snowden was probably the first one to become a bona fide celebrity. He had his own TV sports show and an enthusiastic following, for which he may or may not have been prepared.
He also made citywide heroes of young players who became known for a vastly entertaining style of play where last-second wins were not uncommon. But not everyone who played for the Fox has been properly recognized. “The Fred Snowden era, that’s probably the point in the Arizona timeline where more really good-to-great players get overlooked than in any other time period,” says Richard Paige. “All the people who played for Enke, they sort of get their historical due, but guys like Bob Elliot, Joe Nehls, Popcorn Norman, Eric Money, Russell Brown, Al Fleming or Larry Demic, those guys, for some reason, have a tendency to be more overlooked.”
Russell Brown and Larry Demic should definitely be on many fans’ lists as players who made a big difference in the Snowden years. “Brown still holds the school records for single-game assists, season assists and career assists,” observes Alquist. “He was the unique, pure point guard. He could make some of the most spectacular no-look, blind passes. He never averaged more than 5 points per game, but talk about a guy who could run the offense. He was a classic.”
Unlike Kiddie Korps members like Eric Money, Larry Demic didn’t make much of an impact at first. “This was a guy who was kind of a journeyman player until late in his junior season, and then he just blossomed his senior year,” says Alquist. “I think he had a 34- or 36-point game in Pauley Pavilion against UCLA. He was a consummate shot blocker. He really didn’t get credit for them all. I remember one game we played in El Paso. He was swatting balls all over the gym, and when the stats came out, he was credited with one or two blocks. I got the tape of the game, re-scored it myself, and came up with nine or 10 blocks. He was a guy who went from being sort of a marginal player as a junior to an NBA draftee who played pro ball in the NBA.
“Jim Rappis was another overlooked one. He was kind of the glue that held the team together. A point guard, defensive player, role player ?- a guy who just fit in anywhere. Not the kind of player who gets the all-conference type recognition, but one of the ones who’s so key to the team’s success.”
From A Bang To A Whimper
Round up 10 UA basketball fans who followed the games during the decade that Fred Snowden coached and ask them what went wrong in the end, and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Maybe the pressure of his celebrity was too much; maybe he lost some of his passion for the game; maybe he was just out-recruited by other, bigger programs.
The fact is that the coach took his team into the NCAA tournament in 1976, the first time in 25 years that had happened for UA. Arizona beat UNLV 114-109, and then lost to UCLA. It was a disappointing defeat, but the next year we had another top-ranked team, and Cat fans had every reason to be hopeful.
We didn’t win the WAC title that year, however, and we never returned to the Final Four under Snowden’s leadership. “It’s kind of a mystery as to what happened to his program,” Alquist admits. “As we entered the 1980s, it was clear that he just wasn’t able to keep up that initial level of competitiveness. Interest was dropping, his last few teams were not very good, and were not even competitive in the Pac-10 (which we joined in 1978), although there were occasional big victories here and there. Everyone was looking forward to USC and UCLA coming in here, and we beat them in two very exciting games. That was kind of the highlight. When we went over there, they blew us out.”
A Blessing In Disguise?
Snowden’s last year as head coach at the U of A ended with a lamentable 9-18 overall record (4-14 in the Pac-10). But if Cat watchers thought it couldn’t get any worse, they were wrong.
Athletic Director Dave Strack brought in Ben Lindsey to replace Fred Snowden, and on the surface, it seemed like a reasonable move. After all, Snowden hadn’t had any college coaching experience prior to the U of A, but he had leaped out of the box with both guns blazing. Lindsey had junior college expertise, having had a successful career at Grand Canyon University, where he won two national titles. And, as Alquist notes, “That’s a lower level of competition, but you have to consider that big college coaches can be successful because they can recruit big time players. At the level of the junior schools, in my opinion, the difference is coaching, because the players are all pretty equal.”
So in theory, Lindsey’s coaching acumen should have served him well at the U of A, but that definitely wasn’t the case. His overall record was 4-24, with only one Pac-10 win.
“The team was worse than awful,” Alquist states, “they were dreadful. So the question is, what happened to Lindsey when he came to the U of A where he should have been able to apply his skills? Maybe the step up was too much. Who knows?”
It didn’t help his tenuous standing in the community that there were rumors swirling around about his off-court antics that may have caused some parents to think twice about sending their kids to The University of Arizona to get an education. Clearly, he had to go.
Oddly enough, his one-season career at UA may have helped the program enormously.
“In my sort of jaundiced opinion, the greatest thing that ever happened to U of A sports was the hiring of Ben Lindsey,” notes Alquist. “I think that was probably Strack’s last important decision. If Lindsey had not been such a complete and utter flop, he might have stayed around for a couple of years, and Lute Olson would never have entered the picture.”
A Silver-Haired Wizard Appears
There may be very little that Wildcat fans don’t know about Basketball Hall of Famer Robert “Lute” Olson; he’s as popular around these parts as a two-scoop cone on a hot summer day. Even when he first arrived to take over the UA program, the North Dakota native was a familiar face to all who feverishly follow college hoops.
A multi-sport jock in high school, he excelled at basketball, taking his team to the North Dakota State Championship in 1952. After playing for Augsburg College in Minneapolis (where he was the school’s all-time leader in steals), he launched his career in high school coaching, leading teams in Minnesota and Southern California before landing at Long Beach City College in 1969. His LBCC teams won three Metro Conference titles, as well as the Junior College State Championship in 1971.
But, as we all know, Olson was just getting warmed up. He took over at Long Beach State for a 24-2 season, and then moved on to the University of Iowa, where he became the winningest coach in that school’s history, capturing the Big Ten Championship in 1979, and playing in the Final Four in 1980.
One of the things that certainly impressed UA Athletic Director Cedric Dempsey about Olson was how he had turned Iowa’s program around in a very short time. The Wildcats needed someone experienced and sure-handed at the throttle to rev up the team and get them to play at their full potential ?- and sooner, not later.
“Dempsey pulled the coup of the century by getting Olson to come to the U of A,” Alquist understates. “The first year, he got the program back on its feet, within two years made it to post-season play, and within three won a Pac-10 title.”
The Building of a Dynasty
It can never be said that Coach Olson doesn’t love a challenge. When he took over the UA basketball program, it was in worse shape than motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel after his Caesar’s Palace crash. “I knew we had a tremendous amount of work to do,” Olson recalled in a recent interview with Tucson Lifestyle. “The program was in shambles at that point, after the terrible year before. Attendance was a problem because we weren’t marketing what we were trying to do. I think any time you go in as a coach you think it’s probably going to take you four to five years to turn it around. After seeing how far down this program was, we were all sort of wondering if we could get it done in that length of time.”
History records how hard he had to work that first year. The team posted an 8-10 record in the Pac-10, but managed to beat teams like Oregon, Oregon State, ASU, USC and Stanford. For a rebuilding year, it was mighty impressive, especially the 69-58 Wildcat mauling of the Beavers, which found the UA freshmen and junior college transfer players performing like champions, hitting 25 of 35 field goal attempts; this .714 field goal percentage still stands as a school record. And the same season, the Cats beat ASU 71-49, in a game that is perhaps best remembered because guard Steve Kerr had just lost his father ?- the president of American University in Beirut, Lebanon ?- a few days earlier to an assassin. Kerr bravely took the court and played a solid 25 minutes, leaving the floor finally with 12 points and a standing ovation.
The next year, the public definitely caught on that there was magic happening in McKale Center, and when the Cats clashed with Oregon State again ?- chewing them up 67-52 ?- the arena recorded its first sellout crowd. Fans had plenty to cheer about that season: a 21-10 overall record, defeats of ASU, California, UCLA, Washington, Washington State, and Stanford, and a tie for third place in the Pac-10.
A Shot At The Title
Although Olson’s projection for turning things around may have initially been set at the five-year mark, his teams didn’t wait that long to show their greatness. In 1986, the U of A silenced the skeptics by being crowned Valley Bank Fiesta Bowl Champions, posting a record of 23-9 overall, and demonstrating to the other schools in the conference that there was a new sheriff in town. The coach recalls that season as one of his most memorable.
“When we won our Pac-10 championship with a very young team, that was meaningful, because it showed the changing of the guard,” he comments. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the final victory occurred on enemy turf, with an 88-76 dust-up of UCLA. Said Steve Kerr at the time, “Pauley Pavilion used to be the toughest place to play. UCLA used to be the toughest team in the league. Now the toughest place to play is in Tucson, and the toughest team to play is in Tucson.”
The Cats also played in the NCAA Tournament, and Olson was chosen as the Pac-10 Coach of the Year. Kerr, Sean Elliott and Coach Olson added to their victories that summer; Lute coached the 1986 World Championship Basketball team, which along with the two aforementioned Wildcat players included the likes of David “The Admiral” Robinson.
The year that followed saw Arizona play in the NCAA Tournament again, finish second in the conference, and gear up for what was to be an amazing 1987-88 season, which included taking the Great Alaska Shootout championship, the Valley Bank Fiesta Bowl Classic championship, the Pac-10 championship, and even making it to the Final Four. Finally, Tucsonans had hope that their basketball program could really earn the title of the best in the nation.
Another Run At It
Olson had firmly established UA’s dominance of the Pac-10. Over and over again, the Cats finished first or second in the conference, and in 1994 (the same year that Jim Livengood took over as UA athletic director), they returned to the Final Four. Under the backcourt leadership of future NBA players Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire, the Cats used their quickness and shooting proficiency to advance through the tournament, even upsetting highly favored Missouri 92-72. Alas, a national championship was not to be, but Cat supporters were confident that we would make it back to the big show, and in 1997, UA did just that. With Mike Bibby, A.J. Bramlett, Bennett Davison, Eugene Edgerson and Donnell Harris, this super-charged version of the Wildcats did something no one in the country had ever done: beat three No. 1 seeded teams to take the national title.
It was certainly a season that no Cat fancier can forget. The rest of the NCAA basketball world was stunned; Tucson was elated, turning out in droves to celebrate the victory (a party that got out of bounds, with a near-riot breaking out on Fourth Avenue, which fortunately did little to diminish what the team and the coach had accomplished.)
It’s perhaps inevitable that once a town tastes victory that sweet, it’s hard to settle for anything less than the whole cake with all three layers of frosting. But although the team consistently went to the NCAA Tournament, and held impressive records between 1998 and 2000, fans were clamoring for another Final Four fix.
A New Millennium, A Hard Year
Officially, 2001 was the start of the new Millennium. It was also one of the most challenging years in UA basketball history. Lute Olson’s wife Bobbi, well known to players and fans alike as a steadfast presence on the sidelines, lost her battle with cancer.
The team, which had been a preseason pick by many to go all the way, had to soldier on without its commander for three long weeks. After Lute returned from bereavement leave, the Cats vowed to pick up the pace and dedicate their season to Bobbi. How well they lived up to their vow is extraordinary. With guard Jason Gardner, center Loren Woods and forward Michael Wright ?- each an All-American ?- leading the way, the Cats ripped their opponents to ribbons, beating Oregon 104-65, devastating USC 105-61, and charging through the Final Four like a hungry feline after a napping lizard. They took down Eastern Illinois, Butler, Mississippi, Illinois, and Michigan State ... only to be stopped by Duke in the last game.
Lute Gets His Due
Though the U of A had won the National Championship in 1997, and came this close to taking the title again in 2001, the man who was responsible for getting the team there had to wait until 2002 to be recognized for all his achievements. That’s when Lute Olson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of such b-ball greats as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Meadowlark Lemon, and Nancy Lieberman (whose credits include winning a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics, playing for the Phoenix Mercury and coaching the Detroit Shock). At the time, Olson remarked that it was “the crowning achievement of a career,” which sounded to some like retirement talk.
Fortunately, that was not the case, and the wily Cat wrangler returned for a 2002-2003 season that saw the Cats ?- led by Luke Walton (now with the Lakers) and Jason Gardner (named to six All-America teams) again take the Pac-10 title, win 28 games, and return to the NCAA tournament for the 19th year ?- the longest active streak of its kind in the nation. The big story that year, notes Richard Paige, “would probably be Luke Walton’s reoccurring ankle injury. That’s sort of the nature of the Arizona basketball program ?- for the second time in three years we were expected to be a serious national championship contender. One of three or four teams that could win it.” Injuries may have kept us from claiming the title, but with returning players like Isaiah Fox and Channing Frye, and new recruits like 6’10” Kirk Walters, there definitely is reason to be hopeful for the 2003-2004 season.
A B-Ball Revolution
The game has come a long way since Dr. Naismith channeled the divine muse by creating a simple, yet endlessly evolving, sport with two peach baskets and a soccer ball. In the time of Coach Pop McKale, no one could have imagined that one day there would be giants playing b-ball, high-flying men so powerful that their assault on the basket would shatter backboards and knock hoops to the floor. Players like Michael Jordan literally brought the game to new heights; in the beginning, basketball players rarely left their feet except to rebound, or for a jump ball. Now it’s aerial combat, with guards elevating for three-pointers, forwards sailing well above the rim to jam, and centers using their long legs and fearsome reach to pick the ball from the sky.
The trouble with all this progress toward improved athletic prowess is that college players don’t stick around long anymore. They’re too good too fast. “Before, you could recruit a player and expect four years to build and develop,” says Richard Paige. “Now that’s changed to two years. You can’t expect a great player to be in the program longer than that. And that’s changed the game a great deal because it forces you to continually go for the best players out there at every position. You can’t just sign a great guard and think in two or three years you’ll sign another one. You sign a guard one year, and look for another the next year. You have to continually build, as opposed to focus on one area one year, and another the next.”
The competition to sign top players is tougher than a bar full of Marines. Getting the best student-athletes to commit, and stay in the program, requires not only skill, but a certain amount of gambler’s luck. Just this year, the U of A recruited ?- and lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves ?- forward Ndudi Ebi. Notes Coach Olson, “People say, ?'Well, you get that scholarship money back to offer to someone else.’ Yes, but by then, all the good players are taken.”
The pressures on student-athletes today are, in many ways, much greater than those on their peers 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Media coverage has altered the nature of the sport.
“Guys who played under Fred Enke, for example, Roger Johnson, our first All-American, could probably expect to go to class somewhat anonymously,” notes Richard Paige. “When Channi