It was halftime of the Arizona-Utah game last Saturday night in Tucson, and although the home-standing Wildcats were ahead 14-0, they'd had a frustrating, uninspired and erratic time of it. Coach Larry Smith zoomed in on the problem when he addressed his troops. "We let them have all the fun the first half," said Smith. "Now it's our turn."
Whereupon the Cats rushed back to the field and frolicked to a 38-0 victory. Make no mistake, Arizona—for the first time in its long and largely unstoried football history—is a national power (2-0, ranked third by SI), perhaps the cream of the Pac-10 and not a bad long-shot bet to be the best in the land.
Thus, it seems the crudest possible irony that the Arizona football program is on probation, sentenced four months ago to no bowl appearances after this season or next and no television appearances in '84 or '85. The Wildcats' sins, most of which they pleaded guilty to, had to do with big-time cheating committed between 1971 and '79.
This is the first time since Arizona started playing football in 1899 that a no-bowl, no-TV penalty would matter. Consider that the Cats have never been to a major bowl and have lost in all four of their appearances in minor ones; that none of their regular-season games has ever been televised nationally; and that they haven't won their conference title outright since 1936, when they were in the old Border Conference.
And because the NCAA list of Arizona's violations extends back to '71, it means that some of the current Cats who are paying for the infractions were 6 years old when the offenses were committed. Smith, who arrived in 1980 from Tulane, gets to pick up the pieces. Though he's furious that the NCAA fiddled around so long before lowering the boom—its investigation began in '80—Smith has gone forward stoically. He has a sign outside his office that he put up his first year, outlining the five goals of Arizona football. Point 3 used to read: WIN THE PAC-10 AND THE ROSE BOWL.
Smith put a piece of black tape over "and the Rose Bowl." Actually, the Cats are ineligible for the league title as well, but should they have the best record, that accomplishment would reside forever-more in the players' memories as a Pac-10 championship season.
Arizona's chances are good because it has a schedule rated between a marsh-mallow and a cream puff, depending on how you feel about Utah, Cal State-Fullerton and Colorado State. Also, its football team is a marvelous mixture of a can-do offense guided by Quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe, a splendid kicking game, and, most of all, a clawing and experienced defense.
Indeed, there are times when the Cats play defense like they invented it. Against Utah, Arizona gave up a stingy 87 yards rushing and 78 passing while picking off two interceptions, including one by Cornerback Randy Robbins for 37 yards and a touchdown, blocking its second punt in two weeks and being generally ornery. Now, this kind of performance against Utah, a team that's likely to lose again—as is Oregon State, which the Cats thrashed 50-6 in the season opener—isn't the ultimate test. That's why Defensive Tackle Ivan Lesnik says of his line, "We're the Iron Curtain, I tell you. But we want that to be self-evident, not self-proclaimed."
What's already self-evident is that Arizona's defense is likely to get increasingly tougher, thanks to senior Inside Linebacker and team motivator Ricky Hunley, the first All-America Arizona has ever had, and the fellow who plays beside him, his brother, Lamonte, a junior. They are Fire and Smoke, Mean and Nasty, Gotcha Now and Getcha Later. "I want to run through people," says Ricky. "I want a hit you'll hear for days. I dream, I mean dream, of hitting a wide receiver in midair. Something hellacious. If a team has no business on the field with us, I want to let 'em know it."
Adds Lamonte, "I've got a long way to go before I'm as great a player as Ricky." But, in fact, not all that long a way. Stung by criticism from Defensive Coordinator Moe Ankney that he'd played soft against Oregon State, Lamonte created wrecks all over Arizona Stadium on Saturday—16 tackles, one pass broken up, two hits for losses and one interception. You can bet that whatever Lamonte does, he learned it back in Petersburg, Va. from Ricky, who made 11 tackles as the Utes tried to stay away from him. They are two of 11 kids in a family that also took in foster children. Money was always short, but somehow the Hunleys' mother, Scarlette, found a way to manage. Recalls Ricky, "Scarlette always said, 'Hungry stomachs make sticky fingers.' So there was always food."
Ricky came to Arizona at the urging of an assistant coach at the local high school. Bob Odenwelder, who had played at Arizona in 1961. Says Smith, "He's the finest linebacker I've ever coached or seen." And how does Smith rate Lamonte? "He's just like Ricky."
In the Arizona scheme of things, the defense is designed to set up the tackles for the two inside linebackers. Thus far in his career, Ricky has 231 unassisted and 173 assisted tackles. "The reason I like to hit," he explains, "is that it's so much better than being hit." Utah Coach Chuck Stobart was suitably impressed. "I've never seen a better linebacker than Ricky Hunley," he said. "His brother isn't too bad, either."
On the other side of the ball, Tunnicliffe was also impressive with a 17-for-26 passing performance, good for 298 yards—in only three quarters of action. That moved him up to eighth on the list of alltime Pac-10 passers in yardage. Tunnicliffe passed for one touchdown, a four-yarder in the fourth quarter to Tight End Mark Walczak. The Cats' other three TDs came on two short runs by Vance Johnson and one by Tailback Phil Freeman. Having repeatedly heard, as have so many others, that at 6 feet he's too short to play quarterback, Tunnicliffe says, "I'll be a lot taller when I'm standing on top of my victories."
So will everyone else connected with Arizona football. The idea of paying for crimes committed by someone else is hardly what made America great, but Lamonte brushes it off, saying, "Aaah, it was something people I don't even know did a long time ago." Ricky is similarly calm: "Every day there's a new day and another one that's gone. But the most important thing is, our defense is going to get better, a lot better—and just wait until Lamonte gets good."