WHILE MAKING THE midsummer drive to the border town of Douglas, I'm reminded of Richard Shelton's book, Going Back To Bisbee. That's not to say I have his poetic flair nor his cockeyed appreciation of a Sonoran monsoon. In his book, he wrote of how he would smell summer rain on the creosote bushes and harken back to blissful days of misspent youth. I smell the same thing and all I do is think how pissy hot it is and wish that Augustus Caesar had never been born so we could go from July straight to September.
About as poetic as I can get is to realize that the term "prickly heat" sounds so much better in theory than it turns out to be in practice.
This could have been a most nostalgic trip for me, seeing as how it came 25 years, almost to the day, from the first time I drove to Cochise College to begin my (insert antonym for "illustrious") collegiate basketball career. But my nostalgia shall remain carefully tucked away where it can't hurt anyone who might've picked up this column in hopes of reading something even remotely interesting.
Instead we focus on those Wildcats, that rag-tag collection of misfits brought together under the brilliant leadership of the field general played in the movies by Lee Marvin.... Whew, I guess I should take the advice of friends and start using the air conditioning in my car. That heat can be tricky.
The Lee Marvin thing came to me as I was driving past the Douglas Prison on State Highway 191 (it used to be called Route 666 for just about ever, but then a handful of insecure Christians complained, so they changed the number). It's true, though. Lee Marvin would play Dick Tomey and Cary Grant would play Lute Olson, providing, of course, that somebody actually wanted to make a movie about those two guys and we could find a way to bring long-dead actors back to life. We should ask Ted Turner to look into that, sorta like colorizing. Maybe he could resurrect his wife's career.
All right, on the way back, I'm definitely using the air.
These are heady times for Wildcat football fans. If that sentence were written about other football programs, the adjective "long-suffering" would've been inserted. But Cats fans don't really suffer all that much; instead, they just shrug and harrumph a lot.
Remember last year, when one bad quarter against UCLA might've kept the UA from the national championship? Shrug.
Or in 1994, when the highly-ranked Cats failed to score a TD right before halftime, settled for a field goal, and then lost 10-9 to Rose Bowl-bound Oregon? Harrumph.
The Dick Tomey years at Arizona have been pretty good, all things considered. Only two losing seasons in 12 years, and even those were 4-7 and 5-6. Tomey's record at Arizona is 84-52-4, for an average season of 7-4. Last year's 12-1 mark is the best season in Arizona football history, unless you count 1910, when the Cats went 5-0 with two close wins over Tucson High and a 1-0 default victory over New Mexico.
Amazingly, Tomey remains even-keeled through everything. Never too high, never too low. Heck, never anything. Architects could use his emotional demeanor as a straight-edge. I don't know how he does it. He's basically the same guy whether his team is dropping one of six gut-wrenching, one-point losses during his Arizona tenure or if the Cats are performing rectal reconstruction on the Miami team during a New Year's Day bowl game.
While he doesn't allow himself to get too high or low, he does want fire in his players. At the Media Day press conference, he mentioned that he was concerned with losing last year's emotional team leader Kelvin Eafon, who is now trying out for the Oakland Raiders.
At the first practice I saw, I could see exactly what Tomey was talking about. Guys just standing around, trying to stay out of the sun, mumbling to themselves. No wait, those were the beat reporters.
Only two years removed from a season where cries for his head echoed through the one-third-empty Arizona Stadium, Tomey stands on the brink of immortality. Fewer coaches have won major-college national championships than there are people who have run for President of the United States. And yet here he is, the same guy who has been preaching steadiness and the old-fashioned things like hard work and discipline all these years, with his best team ever, itching and ready to stomp through the NCAA mudpile.
This national championship thing can be elusive. Georgia Tech won it a few years ago with a team that virtually no one outside of...well, Georgia Tech remembers. Brigham Young won a national championship by going undefeated against a schedule that included a home-and-home set with Palo Verde High.
For the Cats to win the mythical title (and make no mistake about this!), they're going to have to run the table. Win at Penn State, win at tough Texas Christian, win at UCLA, win at Arizona State. Gee, that shouldn't be too hard.
Through it all, Tomey rolls along. The Douglas weather doesn't cooperate? No big deal. Players screw up here and there? We'll work on it. Uh Coach, some polls have Penn State ranked No. 1 in the country. That's okay; they haven't played us.
Here's the story on Dick Tomey. During this most exciting and important of times, Tomey took part of a day off to go visit with some of the guys at the prison who are in an education program. He said afterwards that he was moved by their efforts.
Heck, if the ASU coach visited a prison, it would count as a recruiting trip.