Coming Out Of The Desert Darkness With The Sun Devils

Arizona State is headed for the Rose Bowl, where, for a change, the team will play in daylight and receive some long overdue recognition
November 17, 1986

You think David Letterman invented lists? Phooey. We got lists. For instance: Five Things People East of the Mississippi Can Tell You About Arizona State, Which, If You Can Believe It, Is In the Rose Bowl.

1) Arizona State is either in Tucson or Tempe, although it could be Santa Fe.

2) Jim Lampley never has Arizona State scores.

3) The morning paper never has Arizona State scores.

4) Nobody cares about Arizona State's scores anyway, except two shuffle-boarders in Yuma with blue hair.

5) Luis Zendejas kicked for Arizona State, and his brother, Max, kicked for Arizona. Or was it the other way around?

However, by virtue of the Sun Devils' 49-nada plundering on Saturday of Cal and Joe Kapp, who was sacked earlier in the week (Kapp, who will step down at the end of the season, may be the only man ever to lose his job in part because he opened his fly at a press conference), ignorance of Arizona State will from here on in be decidedly uncool. Therefore and herewith, we offer a speed course on the best program you never heard of. You got a No. 2 pencil ready?

Part I: Obscurity U.

Arizona State is the only college football team currently playing on the dark side of the moon. The mirage in the desert—bikinis, Beamers and Buffy's Bank Americard—is sixth in the nation, but nobody knows it. For example, two weeks ago Arizona State, then ranked No. 6 by the AP, played No. 7 Washington, so you take a lap around the Sony remote. CBS had Miami-Florida State. ESPN went with Penn State-West Virginia. ABC aired Oklahoma-Kansas (before cutting away to LSU-Mississippi), which is unspeakable, but under the current TV college football plan thought up by Bert and Ernie, ABC couldn't have broadcast Arizona State-Washington, anyway. And Ted Turner's SuperDuper-Station had...had...Navy-Notre Dame. A Rose Bowl berth was being fought for in Tempe, and WTBS showed two losing teams playing Battleship.

And guess what? Nobody east of Phoenix cared. "We didn't get a single call or card or complaint from any fans," says WTBS sports director Rex Lardner. Ditto CBS. "Nothing," says CBS spokesman Mark Carlson. Arizona State football is Sally Fields before she got the Oscar. "I don't think anybody knows we're alive," says defensive end Jim Reynosa.

Problem is, the Sun Devils have always played at night because of the heat. Evening kickoffs keep pigskin devotees from ever seeing anything besides "Night" or "Later" next to Arizona State on the scoreboard shows. Also, because most Sun Devil games aren't over until midnight Central time, 1 a.m. Eastern, newspapers back East don't get the score, much less the stats, in the Sunday papers. And because the NFL hogs Monday's sports pages, most people never find out how Arizona State fared.

"If they kicked off at one, it would make all the difference," says Carlson.

Beyond that, Arizona just seems so remote to the East—a place where you might fake a moon landing. Yet Arizona State has begotten Reggie, John Jefferson, Curly Culp, Charley Taylor and, more recently, Danny White, Gerald Riggs and Mike Haynes. This is the school that has 21 alums in the NFL, but has had only eight consensus All-Americas since 1970. This is the school that is 5-2 versus USC, 1-0 versus Oklahoma and 1-0 versus Nebraska, and is having its 28th winning season in 32 years.

This is the team that's 8-0-1 and has made the Rose Bowl for the first time since joining the Pac-10 in 1978. The team that has defeated five opponents that have appeared in the Top 20. The team that became the first ever to beat UCLA and Southern Cal in Los Angeles in the same season.

Unfortunately, such accomplishments don't pull much rank in our leading time zones. "I was watching Arizona win the national baseball title [last June] on ESPN," says Arizona State athletic director Charles Harris, "and the announcers said 'Arizona State' as often as 'Arizona.' " Even the Sun Devils' quarterback, Jeff Van Raaphorst, was Temperarily bereft. "When they recruited me, I couldn't have told you what city the school was in," he says.

To be fair, Arizona State itself is partly at fault for the current state of affairs. The Sun Devils choked on Roses in 1982 and 1985, when they were upset by Arizona in the final game of each season. So when Cal failed to win one for the zipper on Saturday in Tempe, the fans were understandably confused about just what to do. Two-thirds of them were gone by the end of the game, and the other third were having a dickens of a time dislodging the north goalpost. They took five minutes to figure out that you can't have people pulling down from opposite ends. Practice, you know.

Part II: Name-Dropping.

Anyway, none of this would have happened without the offensive line, a.k.a. the Home Boys, all of whom were bred in-state. How would you like to check into this Arizona Built-More: Danny (Pancho) Villa, tackle, 6'6", 293 pounds and one of the meanest hombres in the country; Jim (Chief) Warne, tackle, 6'7", 300 and the son of a full-blooded Sioux Indian; Randall (Amana) McDaniel, guard, 6'5", 261 and an occasional fullback; Todd (Hewlett-Packard) Kalis, guard, known for his continual cross-examining of coaches with the question, "What if..."; and center Kevin Thomas, the runt at 6'3", 260. It may be the best offensive front in the country. Indeed, against Washington, thanks to the Home Boys, Arizona State surpassed the Huskies' 60-yards-per-game rushing defense average on its first touchdown drive. By the end of the night, the Run Devils had piled up 273 yards on the ground, and Washington coach Don James was saying, "That may be the best line I've ever seen."

Says Van Raaphorst, "I can take a can of beans, some cooking utensils, whip up a meal and still get off the pass."

Of course, once upon a time, even with that much protection, Van Raaphorst would still get in the soup. Billed as Danny White and Mike Pagel rolled into one, Van Raaphorst is a generic quarterback, suitable for everyday use, but he's no Testaverde. What made some folks think differently was his 532-yard game as a sophomore against Florida State in 1984. That stuck with people. That the Sun Devils lost 52-44 didn't. Nor did the five interceptions that Van Raaphorst threw in the season finale. After a decent junior year, he came into '86 trying to complete two passes for every one attempt. "I was trying to please everybody," he says. He pleased nobody. He looked uncomfortable in the first two games and threw five interceptions in the third, a forgettable 21-21 tie with Washington State.

That's when coach John Cooper made a smart move: He came out in the papers as Van Raaphorst's biggest fan, appointed him team captain for the next game and left two-thirds of the playbook in the circular file. Arizona State now has seven basic running plays and throws the ball only 20 times a game, tops. As a result, Van Raaphorst has become the Sun Belt's answer to Michigan's Jim Harbaugh: cool and controlled, with only one interception in the last six games and a completion percentage of .68.6. Against UCLA he converted 16 of 19 throws. "Sure, I would like to throw more," says Van Raaphorst. "But I like winning better."

Van Raaphorst's transformation is just another reason that Cooper makes athletic directors around the country drool. He's more down-to-earth than a pair of Weejuns, keeps a great staff by letting them do the coaching, props up his players when they need it and looks good doing it. A Cooper family photo looks like the ones that come with eight-by 10-inch frames. It's a pretty package: a knockout wife and daughter, a clean-cut son, a Rose Bowl bid in his second season, a $220,000 salary and a rumor in the wind that, should Texas need a coach, Coop might get a phone call. Says Cooper, "If they called, I'd listen. Texas has got to be one of the three best jobs in the country."

Cooper's life hasn't always been so handsome. "I wasn't born on third base," he says. "I had to bunt, and steal second and third." He spent 14 years as an assistant at five schools before putting in eight years as the head coach at Tulsa, where the only way to get on TV was to be saved by Oral Roberts. When he went 10-1 in 1982 and didn't get a bowl trip, Cooper realized what he was up against at Tulsa. When Sun Devil coach Darryl Rogers announced he was leaving for the Detroit Lions, Cooper was, of course, the last person Arizona State was going to call. So Cooper called Arizona State.

"I said, 'Look, my name is John Cooper. I coach at the University of Tulsa. And I'd very much be interested in coaching there,' " he recalls.

Sure, sure. But don't call us.... Arizona State did eventually call, but not before trying everybody but Larry (Bud) Melman. They went through Terry Donahue, LaVell Edwards, George Welsh and Joe Morrison before picking Cooper. Says former Sun Devil coach Dan Devine, who now is director of the Sun Angels, the wealthiest Arizona State booster group, "We didn't know how lucky we'd just gotten."

They had gotten a lot. Cooper is a rouser. During games he'll occasionally stand on the bench and madly wave a gold towel to get the crowd boiling. "I've got too much at stake to let people sit on their fannies," he says. Cooper is a charmer. Says Devine, "He's got us eating out of his hand."

Mostly, though, Cooper is a sentimentalist. Rogers got the job after Frank Kush, currently the coach-in-waiting for the USFL Arizona Outlaws, allegedly punched a player and was heaved out on a slippery banana peel of lawsuits and politics after 21½ years as coach. In the Rogers years, Kush was an untouchable and, in fact, Rogers rarely mentioned him, much less invited him to a practice. And Kush stayed away. When he would attend a game, he would sit in the upper deck, three rows from the top.

"One of the saddest things I've ever witnessed was how Frank Kush was being treated here," says Cooper. "Frank Kush built this place."

Cooper asked Kush to address the team at practice last August. "It was a staggering moment," says Phoenix attorney Clair Lane. "I walked to the field with Frank, and he must have turned back three times. When he finally decided to do it, he was choked up. He cried."

Says Kush, "What I saw as I was talking to those kids was me 30 years ago. I played here. I coached here. I was thinking that those kids had no idea what it took to get this program to this point."

Part III: This Point.

The Sun Devils have been trying to reach this point for soooo long. "Forget flying to Pasadena," said one fan last week. "You'll be able to walk all the way there on the roofs of the mobile homes."

Along the way, there will be time to forget the fiascoes. Remember '85? As time was running happily out, the man in the Rose Bowl jacket was standing behind the end zone, ready to hand a bouquet of red beauties to Cooper. Then, suddenly, Arizona recovered a Van Raaphorst fumble and kicked a field goal with 1:43 remaining to upset the Sun Devils. The man stashed the roses under some bleachers and slipped away.

But this was '86, and players such as Van Raaphorst looked like suddenly pardoned men. In 1961, Van Raaphorst's father was the placekicker for Ohio State. He had helped the Buckeyes win the Big Ten title, but they were denied a trip to the Rose Bowl because Ohio State's faculty council, fearful that the players were becoming too much like "pros," voted that year to keep them at home. "That's one reason I went to a Pac-10 school," says his son 25 years later. "I promised Dad I would go to the Rose Bowl for him someday."

Now here was Cooper on Saturday night, with roses in one arm and his mother, Mildred, 76, on the other. Mildred came to watch her boy coach for the first time in his career. He had been carried off the field, showered with roses, hugged by all his players and drenched with glee. "Hey, Mom," he finally said, "it ain't like this every day, you know."

It sure ain't. "I'm just tickled to death," Cooper said. "Not for me but for my seniors, my players and these dad-gum fans who have waited so long. The first thing Monday morning, I have to send Jack Elway [whose Stanford team had knocked UCLA out of contention for the Rose Bowl that day] a bouquet of roses. The only other goal I have right now is to win the national championship. Maybe not this year, but someday."

Imagine that. Since jumping from the Western Athletic Conference, Arizona State has gone through four coaches, four athletic directors and six NCAA probations in five sports (football, baseball, men's gymnastics, wrestling and men's basketball twice). The big time means big pressures to win. The young, impatient money in Phoenix had gotten a little out of hand. How you gonna beat USC? Same way you turn arid desert into a lush country club. Money. This isn't Penn State. Football on the frontier is different.

The Tempe Touchdown Club used to throw dead fish at visiting speakers. One sports information director from an opposing school wore a catcher's mask and chest protector while speaking before the group. Another got so frustrated at catcalls about his toupee, he took it off and heaved it into the crowd. Somebody filled it with Roquefort dressing and heaved it back. Now that the natives are more decorous, more Pac-10 establishment, they just throw sourdough rolls.

Arizona State is college football's China, huge and getting bigger. More than 25% of its living alumni have graduated since 1981. The university estimates that by the year 2000, 60,000 students will be enrolled. That's a sizable booster base to add to what is already one of the country's biggest and richest. And as long as the Sun Devils can keep Cooper, there's more winning ahead. That's not a California earthquake you're feeling; it's just the balance of power doing the two-step. BYU's gain in the WAC (would the Cougars have finished 13-0 and won the national championship in 1984 if Arizona and Arizona State had still been in the conference?) has turned out to be UCLA's and USC's loss in the Pac-10. By walking into Pasadena on Jan. 1, a good part of the Sun Devils' ID complex will be immediately cured. Even the networks can't beg out of this one.

Can't you just hear it? A packed house, fans going bonkers, goose bumps the size of hubcaps and Dick Enberg opening up the New Year's Day telecast with, "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Rose Bowl, where the Arizona State Sun Devils from the great city of Tempe, Arizona....

"Or is it Tucson?"

PHOTOPETER READ MILLEREvening kickoffs in Tempe often keep the games out of Sunday papers back East. PHOTOANDY HAYTWith the Home Boys, Van Raaphorst could "whip up a meal and still get off the pass." PHOTOANDY HAYTBy Saturday, linebacker Scott Stephen was awake enough to make an interception. PHOTOANDY HAYTTailback Darryl Harris, who has a team-high 822 yards, made hapless Cal look helpless. TWO PHOTOSANDY HAYTAfter they won the run for the roses, the Sun Devils paid lofty tribute to their leader.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)