July 23, 2006
In 109 years of collegiate sports, the University of Arizona has ascended from its beginning as an athletic island in the desert, to the Border Conference, to the Western Athletic Conference, and finally to the Pacific-10 Conference.
The story of reaching the summit that is the Pac-10 is a story of vision, and perseverance, and neighborly kindness, even when that neighbor would rather wallow in the mud than plant a field.
The first sower of progress was Arizona athletic director Dick Clausen. In 1998 he told the Arizona Daily Star, "I remember trying to plant a seed with USC athletic director Jess Hill during the '60s, telling him that someday soon the (old Pacific-8 Conference) would want to get the two plums from Arizona for their league."
Why did that desert fruit remain forbidden at this time? "Hill wouldn't listen to me, not at all," Clausen continued. "He'd say, `Those guys in Tempe are a bunch of outlaws. We'll never take them.'" Understood, Jess. Understood.
It would take a miracle-worker to overcome such obstacles, so it's fitting the righteous deed was done by a man named John Paul Schaefer. In August of 2002, the Arizona Republic wrote:
For any ASU fan thatůsavors the victories and moments associated with playing the powers of the West Coast, go ahead and say it.
"Thank you, U of A."
Namely former University of Arizona President John Schaeferů. Against the will of ASU fans and coach Frank Kush, Schaefer spearheaded the idea that a couple of WAC schools in cactus country could play with the big boys.
President Schaefer had heard USC was tired of losing money every time it traveled to the Pacific Northwest, so he approached the Trojan President Jack Hubbard while the two were on an academic trip in 1976. Schaefer proposed an alliance with the more geographically friendly Arizona schools and Hubbard took the idea back to Los Angeles where momentum started building for Pac-8 expansion.
There was only one problem: Only one school in Arizona was interested.
As the fall of '76 rolled around, Arizona State was coming off an undefeated football season. The Devils were riding a 13-game winning streak and talking national championship. The season opened on September 9 as ASU hosted UCLA, the defending Rose Bowl champions. All was sunny in Tempe untilů
UCLA 28, ASU 10.
The ASU fan base - to use the technical term - freaked out. On September 16, 1976 the Arizona Republic announced, "The Sun Devil Club and the Sun Angel Foundation both released statements to the Phoenix Press Box Association urging ASU to stay in the Western Athletic Conference." A letter to the editor asked, "Isn't it better to be first in the WAC, than last in the Pac?" Even ASU athletic director Dr. Fred Miller admitted, "I think at this time we are better off staying where we are."
People associated with the University of Arizona were disappointed and confused. In the September 21 Republic a UA official was quoted as saying, "I can't understand it. Don't they want to grow?"
President Schaefer was not about to give up. He told the Daily Star, "The possibility of affiliation with the Pac-8 continues to look attractive to the University of Arizona. I personally look forward to meeting with the presidents of that conference to explore further the pros and cons of membership in the Pac-8." The UA boosters stood firmly behind him. The Republic reported, "A Wildcat Club straw vote saw an overwhelming 299-1 in favor of switching to the Pacific-8 if asked."
As Arizona State continued to lag behind, Schaefer realized his school might have to act alone. On October 9 the Daily Star stated, "Dr. Charles Young, the UCLA chancellor who heads the Pac-8 presidents' committee, responded affirmatively when asked if Arizona would come into the conference should Arizona State decide not to." The next day Arizona Regent Rudy E. Campbell of Tempe was quoted as saying, "The UA really wants to go. ASU at this time is not too interested."
(Here's my impression of Rudy E. Campbell as a Menlo Park regent in the 1800's: "I'm sorry, Mr. Edison. I voted against the light bulb because I think we're doing just fine with these here candles.")
Sun Devil negativity wasn't the UA's only problem. In the October 21 edition of the Star Wildcat athletic director Dave Strack said one of the items being negotiated was how long before the new member(s) would be eligible for the Rose Bowl. I still can't believe we accepted a 28-year waiting period.
As we now know, the Devil did finally see the light and Arizona would have a moving buddy after all. But one of the last enemies of progress was none other than ASU football coach Frank Kush. The August 2002 Republic article said the ASU president tried to explain to Kush how much the move would enhance ASU's academic image. Kush replied, "Have you ever seen them check transcripts at the goal line?" We understand, Jess Hill. We understand.
On November 28, 1976 the Arizona Board of Regents ignored the opposition of Rudy E. Campbell and took less than thirty seconds to approve the Arizona schools' bid to join the Pac-8. The official invitation came from the Pac on December 13 and President Schaefer's hard work was rewarded. "We're naturally very delighted with the invitation," he told the Daily Star.
The last step was for the Board of Regents to accept the invitation. That step was taken on December 17, 1976 and everyone rejoiced. Well, almost everyone. The next day's Star reported, "Regent Rudy E. Campbell of Tempe voiced the lone dissent."
(It's a good thing Rudy E. Campbell wasn't around in 1776. "England? Are you crazy?! Why don't we declare our independence from Guam instead?")
According to the Republic, even at this late date the Sun Devils continued to tread gingerly: "Arizona State president Dr. John Schwada suggested the schools be 'authorized' rather than 'directed' to accept the invitation." Bravery with a back door, right, guys?
Thankfully, common sense prevailed and we are now approaching the completion of three decades of Pacific-10 athletics. With every big bowl victory, every high tournament seed and every second in the national spotlight, college sports fan throughout the state should give thanks to John Paul Schaefer and the University of Arizona.
(No offense, Mr. Campbell.)
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