With his wireless microphone in one hand and the audience in the palm of the other, Arizona football coach Dick Tomey is doing his best Jerry Springer imitation, inviting participation. "Anybody else have any questions...anybody?" Tomey asks. He is standing beneath the very low ceiling and between the very near walls of Dell's Pizza in Casa Grande, Ariz., a desert town halfway between Tucson and Phoenix. The table behind him is lined with roses, the room filled with cardinal-and-navy-shirted Arizona fans who 10 years ago would have been clothed in the maroon and gold of Arizona State.
"Anybody at all...," says Tomey.
A woman raises her hand. "Coach Tomey, I know you don't like to count your chickens, but don't you just love those roses?"
The building quivers with knowing laughter. The temperature outside is roughly a buck-fifteen, and pizzas could be baked on the summer sidewalk as easily as in the oven. "Well, as soon as you start looking too far ahead...," Tomey begins.
August 28, 1994
The woman nods patronizingly. "But the roses," she persists. "Aren't they pretty?"
Tomey, who swallows defeat like chicken bones, surrenders. "They're beautiful," he says, looking very much like a man whose cover has been blown.
First, a word about Arizona's place in the history of college football: Absent. The Arizona label should bear the warning: "Tradition-free." The Wildcats are the only Pac-10 team never to have played in the Rose Bowl. They have not played for the national title. They have never been ranked higher than No. 7 after Halloween. Says Tomey, "We don't have that old team from '35 that people remember, or '45 or '55 or '65, for that matter." Alabama has Bear Bryant; Arizona has "Bear down," which passes for a rallying cry.
In the small society of Top 10's and major bowls, this is anonymity of the purest form. But there's no shame in that, because Arizona is fiercely rooted in the present. The Wildcats are SI's No. 1 team because they are built for today, not for yesterday.
Like so: They are led by a 56-year-old coach who draws on equal helpings from self-help guru Tony Robbins (empowering himself to play serious summer baseball with 20-year-olds) and male-bonding icon Robert Bly (taking his coaching staff on a three-day mountain retreat to discuss anything except football, just before the start of fall camp). They have a catchy, marketable nickname (Desert Swarm), one foot in your living room (via New Year's Day's stunning 29-0 trashing of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl) and even a nod in the hit movie Speed (Keanu Reeves to Sandra Bullock, after noticing the school's helmet logo on her shirt: "Arizona Wildcats? University of Arizona? Good football team").
There's more. The '90s belong to the schools that can evaluate talent, not stockpile it. While college football titans of the past have bemoaned the downsizing of their monolithic programs through scholarship reductions over the last half decade, Arizona has been building with the castoffs and the undiscovered. "Nobody wanted a lot of guys on this team," says senior guard Warner Smith. "That's made everybody a little hungrier." Hell hath no fury like a player unrecruited given the chance to lay leather on the teams that passed him over.
Arizona offers that chance in some creative ways, none more intriguing than its inscrutable double-eagle flex defense, which has held opponents to 11.3 points and 45.5 rushing yards per game over the last two seasons, and which, says Oregon coach Rich Brooks, "people just haven't figured out how to attack." And which has six starters returning from last year's 10-2 Pac-10 co-champions.
On defense or offense the Wildcats are a melting pot of personalities, with players from such far-flung beginnings as Lebanon and Samoa, and from as near as eight Tucson high schools. They include a fierce defensive end (Tedy Bruschi) who rides a tiny motor scooter and blanches at the sight of a spider, a transfer quarterback (Dan White) who only recently began beating his blockers in the 40 and a throwback guard (Smith) who is called Chewbacca by his teammates, in homage to the forest of red hair that covers his squat, 290-pound body.
"We've got guys who are just out there," says Bruschi. "But when you've got a bunch of characters acting as one character, then you've got some good football team. We're going to get to the Rose Bowl, and why not throw the national championship in there too? Our goal is to win every game. This is the year."
The climb began with Tomey, a native of Bloomington, Ind., who, as certification of his roots, was in the Butler University gym that March night in 1954 when Milan High upset Muncie Central in the basketball game that inspired the movie Hoosiers. Tomey himself was duly inspired to spend predawn winter mornings shooting free throws in the Elston High gym in Michigan City, Ind., but for the past 32 years he has been strictly a football coach. Tomey took over the Arizona program in 1987, after six years as an assistant at UCLA and 10 years as the head coach at Hawaii (Los Angeles, Honolulu, Tucson: Have Sunscreen, Will Travel). He has moved the Wildcats into the elite: from an injury-scarred 4-7 in '91, to 6-5-1 and the John Hancock Bowl in '92, to last year's 10-2 and that stomping of Miami.
Tomey is no more run-of-the-mill than his players. On spring and summer nights he plays in the Tucson City Baseball League, and on June 20, 1993, his 55th birthday, Tomey played all nine positions in a game, including an inning as catcher for his then 23-year-old son, Rich, a former Arizona pitcher with a nasty split-fingered fastball. "I just tried to keep everything in front of me," Tomey says. The summer before that Tomey was hit on the chin by a pitcher less than half his age, throwing heat.
"A lot of us thought the kid hit Dick on purpose," said teammate Greg Hansen. "We started to run out of the dugout, but Dick stands up and yells, 'Get back! Play ball.' He's got blood running down his face, and he just stays in there." Two days later the outline of a baseball's seam was still visible on his chin.
"Hanging on to youth." says Oregon's Brooks, a close friend of Tomey's from their days as UCLA assistants. Tomey says, "I don't do things the same way as a lot of people."
To be sure. He doesn't sleep on his office couch at night, and, in fact, after beginning his day at 5 a.m., he chases his assistants out of their McKale Center cubbyholes at dinnertime, so they can spend evenings with their families. As for his own family, Tomey is in the final stages of his second divorce; the first, in 1982, he calls "one of the most painful things I've ever been through." He remains close with his two children from that first marriage—Rich, a graduate student at Arizona, and Angie, a 20-year-old sophomore-to-be at Prescott (Ariz.) College, with whom Tomey spent six days in July hiking in Alaska—and with his 15-year-old stepson, Sonny Arquette.
Tomey's softer side is turned at times to his players. When a promising 1992 season started 1-1-1 before a game against No. 1 Miami in the Orange Bowl, Tomey called each member of the traveling squad into his office for individual confidence-building sessions that went on until 1 a.m. "He's always used positive reinforcement." says Cedric Dempsey, the Arizona athletic director who hired Tomey and who is now executive director of the NCAA. Last spring, when undrafted defensive end Jimmie Hopkins was cut in minicamp by the Miami Dolphins, Tomey called several NFL teams, telling them that, yes. Hopkins was too small to play defensive line, but that he was versatile enough to try at tight end. (So far, no team has taken his advice.)
But Tomey is very much two people. Seen from his other side he is a square-jawed, militaristic football man, a guy who would rather punt on third down than risk an interception and who once worked under Bo Schembechler (at Miami of Ohio, in 1963). Ask Tomey what he expects from a quarterback and you get the following response: "Leadership, judgment and toughness. The world is full of quarterbacks with great arms who look good but who can't get anything done."
Nowhere are Tomey's two sides more in sync than at his staff retreat, at a cool 9,000 feet up in the Santa Catalina Mountains outside Tucson. Coaches spend three days in cabins, cooking their own meals, running and hiking together in the morning and unburdening themselves of deeply personal experiences in nightly group-therapy sessions. "Hirings, firings, ups and downs in their lives." says Tomey. "We don't talk about football."
Defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff says, "The whole thing reinforces guys' feelings about each other." And there's a motive to all of this that could pay off on the field. "When things go bad for a football team," says Mac Duff, "it unravels from the inside first." Not when you've been to the woods together, it doesn't.
Arizona's recruiting approach has been similarly unusual. The Wildcats' roster is populated by the too short and too light, by players overlooked for their seeming academic deficiencies or for simply not conforming. Damaged goods, unworthy of recruitment by the elite. From these cracked bricks. Arizona has built a fortress, ignoring what defensive line coach Rich Ellerson calls "stature." while emphasizing athleticism (read: speed and quickness) and a certain manic enthusiasm.
"When we love a guy on film and we love the way he plays, we're not going to stop loving him when he walks through the door and he turns out to be short," says Ellerson. "This isn't track. The heart and soul are important." Says Brooks, "They've got guys there who are not necessarily No. 1 NFL draft choices but who are great college football players."
Part of this philosophy springs from necessity. "The most important thing in recruiting is to be realistic," says Tomey. "You get who you can get. We like guys who love to play football, even if that makes us just about the shortest team in the country." Without past glories or weekly national television appearances, Arizona can't match wish lists with Southern Cal and hasn't even tried to. Among Arizona's 22 projected starters, no more than half a dozen took the five NCAA-allotted campus visits as high school seniors. This blueprint is only vaguely similar to the one used by Miami and Florida State in the '80s. Those schools, also without significant history or instant appeal, grew by tapping into the vast pool of talent in Florida, which has since taken its place alongside Texas, California and Pennsylvania as the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. Arizona, with no such territorial advantage, has prospered with athletes who don't look so great on paper but who turn out to be terrific on the field. Such as:
•Jim Hoffman, senior defensive tackle.
On paper: Undermotivated high school offensive tackle from San Diego. Too much beach time, too little incentive. Was prepared to enroll at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., in the fall of 1991.
On the field: Converted to defensive end and filled out to 6'4", 275 pounds. Quick hands, quick feet, best NFL prospect on the team. Tough? Took a surfboard to the head between double sessions as a high school freshman. "My buddy got out of the water and said, 'You broke my fin, dude,' " says Hoffman. "I made the afternoon practice." Arizona got him because a high school all-star coach called in the summer of '91, amazed that Hoffman had been offered no grants.
•Sean Harris, senior inside linebacker.
On paper: Local kid from Tucson High with no hope of academic survival. "I didn't have any grades at all," Harris says, "in my junior year I was below a 2.0 in my core and below 700 on the SAT." The recruiters all bailed out except Arizona.
On the field: A survivor. Took seven courses as a high school senior, including freshman and sophomore classes that he had previously failed, and improved his SATs and his grade average so much that he qualified to play as a freshman (although he red-shirted). "Arizona took a chance on me," says Harris. "I didn't want to let them down." He is on schedule to earn a degree in sociology as early as December. At 6'3", 235 pounds, Harris has defensive responsibilities that range from taking on offensive tackles to covering wideouts. Early in the Fiesta Bowl, Miami isolated 5'9", 165-pound sprinter Jonathan Harris on Harris, who shadowed him on a streak up the right sideline. The Hurricanes did not run the play again.
•Bruschi, junior defensive end.
On paper: Too short (6'1") pass-rush specialist from Roseville, Calif., outside Sacramento. Recruited seriously only by Washington State, Brigham Young and Arizona.
On the field: Relentless? How relentless? Last year he crawled five yards on his knees to sack USC quarterback Rob Johnson. In his first full-contact practice, as a true freshman in 1991, his tireless work moved Tomey to stop practice. "A freshman, Tedy Bruschi, is outworking all of you," Tomey said that August morning. Bruschi was team MVP and Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP on last season's squad, which included nosetackle Rob Waldrop, the Outland Trophy winner. He is a sight to behold on the Arizona campus, puttering about at a top speed of 33 miles per hour, long black hair trailing behind him, on a Honda 150 motor scooter better suited to a man weighing half his 255 pounds. He shares an off-campus apartment with Smith and linebacker Charlie Camp and amuses both of them with his fear of bugs. "Here's Tedy, one of the fiercest guys in college football," says Smith, "and he freaks out if a moth lands on him. Moths, spiders, anything." To which Bruschi adds: "Especially cockroaches."
•Brandon Sanders, junior strong safety.
On paper: Too short (5'10"), too light (150) defensive back from Helix High in San Diego, the alma mater of previous Arizona defensive backs Chuck Cecil, Allan Durden and Jeff Hammerschmidt. Recruited only by Colorado State and Arizona.
On the field: Grown to a compact 175 pounds, Sanders hits like Cecil and talks trash like Reggie Miller. Knocked out two Illinois players in one game last year. "Brandon, he takes on guards, tackles, fullbacks, and he hits harder than anybody, pound for pound," says senior free safety Tony Bouie, himself a potential All-America. Sanders is also the spiritual leader of the defense; he got votes for captain as a freshman.
Even some of the mainstream recruits have stories to tell. Smith (a.k.a. Chewbacca or the Big Red Creature), a drive-blocking specialist who was recruited by Georgia, Wisconsin, UCLA and Arizona State, grew up in San Manuel, Ariz., a copper-mining town in the mountains northeast of Tucson. "Everyone works in the mines," says Smith, whose father is vice president of a mining company. "I took a tour once, and they told us, 'There's 100 feet of dirt over your head.' I never wanted to work in those mines, that was the motivating factor to lift weights in San Manuel."
Or consider Hicham El-Mashtoub, a 295-pound senior center who was born in Beirut and raised in Montreal. Arizona snatched him from Michigan recruiters when Tomey found out that El-Mashtoub was eligible to graduate from high school in December of his senior year and had him enrolled at Arizona in January. What they got was a multilingual engineering major with surpassing football skills and a perilously short fuse. He took a crucial fourth-quarter personal foul when he came off the bench and decked a tackier on the sideline after Wildcat freshman Gary Taylor had returned a kickoff to the 31 in last year's 24-20 loss at California, a defeat that cost Arizona a spot in the Rose Bowl. One year earlier El-Mashtoub was held out of the Hancock Bowl for fighting with a teammate in the locker room after a practice.
"When he's in control, I don't think there's a better center in college football," says Smith. "But I've wasted an awful lot of valuable rest time between plays getting Hicham out of fights." Offensive tackle Joe Smigiel says, "He means well, and he's very bright, but he really does have a screw loose."
For his part, El-Mashtoub says, "My goal this year is no personal fouls."
It is a team composed of players who were tested much too early, when injuries in the fall of '91 forced freshmen onto the field to be drummed by eventual national champion Washington and by UCLA by a combined score of 108-14. That 1-1-1 start to the '92 season brought distant rumbles calling for Tomey's head, which Dempsey ignored. And on the Saturday night following Tomey's daylong individual meetings, Arizona fell just one point short of upsetting the Hurricanes when Steve McLaughlin's 51-yard field goal attempt was wide right on the last play of the game, and Miami held on 8-7. "But that game was when we started going upward instead of downward." says Harris.
Ascension has been achieved in large part with that remarkable Desert Swarm defense, home to many of the undecorated recruits. And don't take the nickname lightly: "When you have an identity, you play differently," says Bouie. Desert Swarm is a goulash of concepts hatched by Tomey and Mac Duff in the mid-'80s at Hawaii and refined by Ellerson. It's an aggressive five-man front with one of the five functioning essentially as an outside linebacker, flexed off the line of scrimmage. The basic set seldom changes, but it's odd enough to bewilder offenses accustomed to more conventional approaches. "You hear the offense coming up and saying, 'What's that?' " says Hoffman. "We can screw up and still make a negative play."
The philosophy is simple: Stop the run. "Take the ball away, and stop the run," says Mac Duff. "That's it. Even if you play an offense that's two-dimensional, if you do a good job against the run, put 'em in third-and-five, where they've got to pass, you can do some things."
In 14 of Arizona's last 21 games, opponents have rushed for less than 50 yards, which means lots of third-and-fives (and third-and-12's too) plus lots of sacks for Bruschi & Co. There's a premium on playing with madness. After Sanders was flagged for unnecessary roughness on one of those big hits against Illinois, Mac Duff called his defense to the sideline and said, "Fellas, keep playing that same way."
There is, however, a plan for more offense. White, the transfer quarterback from Penn State, struggled early last year after not taking a hit for three full seasons. "He had these big ol' eyes at the beginning of the year," says Smigiel. "Most of the guys on the O-line were thinking, 'Just run the ball.' " But White steadied himself; after five interceptions in the first six games, he had just two the rest of the season. His 40 time has improved from a glacial 5.2 to 4.97. Senior Ontiwaun Carter needs only 1,100 yards to become Arizona's leading career rusher. The offensive line has five veterans returning, including Pulu Poumele, a Samoan from Oceanside, Calif., who is a cousin to Junior Seau, and Mu Tagoai, a Samoan from...Samoa.
Simply put, the Wildcats shouldn't need to shut everybody out. "But we still want to," says Tomey.
This brings a deep laugh, a sort of joy that is part of the Tucson landscape these days. Championship opportunity is nothing more than Same Time Next Year in Ann Arbor and Coral Gables. This is the first time for Arizona, a short step over the line that separates underdog from chalk. Innocence soon will be lost, best signaled by Arizona's hiring of 28-year-old Rob Ianello as full-time recruiting coordinator. Ianello comes to Arizona from Wisconsin, where he helped round up the athletes who took the Badgers from running joke to the Rose Bowl in four quick years. Of Arizona, Ianello promises, "We want to become a national recruiting school."
Says Tomey, "It's scary because sometimes high-class recruits can't play, and we don't want to quit recruiting the kind of guys that have made us successful."
Nevertheless, Ianello folds back a recruiting magazine listing its Top 100 players and says Arizona will be in the mix with more than 60 of them. There's a certain inevitability to this process, that the type of player on whom a climbing program built its foundation eventually becomes expendable, replaced by the ones who all make five visits. But that's an issue for the future.
Arizona's present is a wide, dry practice field in early summer, where roughly 35 players—many of them starters and fifth-year seniors—are working out on their own in bludgeoning heat. They play lively games of touch, survive agility drills, and at the finish they gather in a tight circle and chant, "Cats, Cats," as if breaking a midseason huddle rather than putting themselves through drills four times a week in summer school.
Sanders drops himself onto a mat against a chain-link fence and surveys the gathering. It has happened quickly. He and Bruschi still call each other "youngster," from their days as freshmen forced into the fire.
"I remember after the Miami game in '92, sitting on the grass in the Orange Bowl with all the lights off, all showered up, waiting for our bus," he says. "I was thinking. We had this place on tilt for a while. Right then we all realized what we had. We can beat everybody."
The present is the sweet smell of fresh roses, beckoning. It is players unwanted, grown to maturity and striking back. It is the first time to the top, the best time of all.