Yes, when the Tucson Weekly first burst on the local scene two decades ago, distributed at health-food stores and head shops across town, the state of athletics in the Old Pueblo was sorry. Especially when it came to the University of Arizona athletic program.
Back then, the identity of Tucson was inextricably linked with the UA. Fortunately, we've shrugged off that mantle, and nowadays, Tucson is best known for high taxes, crappy local radio and urban sprawl.
Actually, not everything was horrible, just the stuff at the top. (The UA baseball team, for example, had won a national championship in 1980 and would win another one in 1986. Women's teams were being added to the athletic department, and "minor" sports like track and golf were faring well.)
The UA football team had been placed on NCAA probation for recruiting violations and misusing funds during the reign of coach Tony Mason. (Two guys at the Arizona Daily Star won a Pulitzer Prize for going through public financial records and discovering, among other things, that Mason used UA money to rent out an S&M lounge at a local nightclub.) In the fall of 1983, the UA was one of five Pac-10 teams on some kind of probation and was ineligible for a bowl game. It was bleak.
Things weren't much better in the basketball arena. After having a glorious run through much of the 1970s, Coach Fred "The Fox" Snowden had been fired when his teams had three straight sub-.500 seasons. The UA brought in Ben Lindsey, who had coached at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix. Lindsey's team was absolutely dreadful. The team went 4-24, and were it not for a miraculous victory in the last game of the season, it would be the only Pac-10 team EVER to go 0-18. My favorite memory of that team was a time Lindsey called a timeout, shouted at his squad for 45 seconds and then, by mistake, sent only four players back out onto the court. Attendance at the games was around 2,000, and I remember writing at the time that most of the people in McKale were students who went there to study because it was quieter than the library.
Mercifully, they fired Lindsey after that one year, and they hired some guy named Lute Olson, who has done sorta OK. (See accompanying story.)
Things were bad all over. The first thing I ever wrote for the Weekly involved sports and social injustice. The growth of girls' sports had caused a crunch at some schools around town, mostly involving gym availability and qualified coaches. Most schools in the TUSD have only one gym, so finding time and space for six teams (freshman, junior varsity and varsity for both boys and girls) to practice was a headache. So the geniuses in Tucson and Phoenix came up with a creative (if horribly misguided) plan to deal with the situation: They would have girls play basketball in the spring after the boys were done with the gym and had moved on to baseball. This would necessitate the girls playing softball in the winter (sometimes in freezing rain or snow flurries), but hey, they're only girls, right?
Marana High School girls coach Mike Dyer filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit, claiming that girls were being denied equal opportunities to college scholarships by being forced to play basketball out of season and after much of the college recruiting process had been completed. This made him unpopular with his fellow coaches in town, because many of them double-dipped, coaching the girls' teams after they had finished the boys' seasons. One such coach actually told me, "It's not as important for girls to get scholarships as it is for boys."
As the lawsuit plodded along through the courts, TUSD Interscholastics Director Sheila Baize decided to drag the district, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. Somewhat surprisingly, the schools in conservative Mesa agreed to join the TUSD, and eventually, the rest of the schools in Phoenix and Tucson had to go along. It really wasn't that long ago, and certain small elements of inequitable treatment of boys and girls still exist today, but things have gotten much better.
Things got better at the UA as well. Lute Olson suffered through a losing season that first year, but then started a string of NCAA Tournament appearances that continues today. In the past 20 years, the Cats have made four trips to the Final Four, and they won the national championship in 1997.
The football team saw brighter days, too. First under coach Larry Smith, and then under Dick Tomey, the UA football team became a perennial power in the Pac-10. They also, maddeningly, became a perennial just-missed-winning-the-conference-championship-and-going-to-the-Rose-Bowl team. They finished second several times, including one time when they lost, 10-9, to an upstart Oregon team that went on to shock all observers by winning the conference title.
Then, in 1998, the Cats went 12-1, beat national powerhouse Nebraska in a bowl game, and finished fourth in the nation in the final polls. Alas, that one loss was to UCLA, which won the Pac-10 and went to the Rose Bowl. (Had Dick Tomey gone with quarterback Keith Smith instead of Ortege Jenkins against UCLA, the Cats very well could have gone undefeated and won the national championship.)
Tomey got fired a couple years later, and Arizona hasn't fielded a football team since.
Here is a very subjective list of the seven most important people in local sports over the past 20 years:
1. Lute Olson. The UA is checking to see if the descendents of Gutzon Borglum would be willing to carve Lute's head into the Catalinas. Hey, at least it's not as dumb as those people who want to add Ronald Reagan to Mount Rushmore.
2. Sean Elliott. The homegrown kid who starred in high school, then stayed home to elevate the UA to a national prominence from which it hasn't backslid in the 15 years since he left school.
3. Jim Livengood. The UA athletic director who succeeded Cedric Dempsey and, despite the one near-fatal misstep of hiring John Mackovic to coach the UA football team, has led Arizona athletics into the 21st century in a most masterful manner. Under his guidance, the UA has vastly upgraded its facilities, become a national power in several sports and kept the community involved and interested in a time of short attention spans--and in a world of mega-competition for the entertainment dollar.
4. Greg Hansen. The columnist for the Daily Star is the freakin' man in local sports coverage. Love him or hate him, every sports fan in Southern Arizona reads everything Hansen has to say, sometimes to see which way the wind is blowing, and other times just to see if Greg is trying to start a windstorm all by himself.
5. Jennie Finch. The all-time poster woman for UA women's athletics, Finch is on the verge of superstardom. After she appears at the Athens Olympics this summer, her future is limitless. And forget about her Southern California looks (if you can); she's a stud athlete, a fierce competitor with a will to win rarely seen in any sport.
6. Mike Candrea. The longtime UA softball coach will be heading the USA team this year. He'll be best remembered for turning UA softball into a must-see event. Recruiting athletes like the aforementioned Finch, Laura Espinoza, Jenny Dalton and Susie Parra, Candrea first put the UA on the map and then compiled such a legacy of excellence that schools all over the West were forced to vastly upgrade everything just to keep from getting embarrassed by the Wildcat juggernaut.
7. Dick McConnell and Vern Friedli. The two old-school coaches just kept on going during the past 20 years, reaching stratospheric heights in win totals: McConnell with the Sahuaro High boys basketball team, and Friedli with the Amphi football program. McConnell has won more than 700 basketball games, and Friedli should reach No. 300 in football victories next year. They've both retired from teaching, but they keep on coaching out of love of the game(s) and love of the kids. And our community is much better for their having been here.
That's it. Check back in another 20 years to see if the UA has had another winning football season by then. There's always a chance.