Hansen's Sunday Notebook: Tucson's streetcar leads not to baseball but soccer

Star sports columnist Greg Hansen offers his opinion on recent sports news of interest to Southern Arizonans.

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  • This is the 20th anniversary of the decision not to build a downtown sports complex in Tucson, specifically a baseball stadium for spring training and a Pacific Coast League franchise.

    I thought of that Friday evening as I walked through tailgating parties at the Kino Sports Complex, near the North Stadium, where 1,853 would watch FC Tucson, a semi-pro soccer team, beat Vancouver in a rousing 1-0 playoff game.

    The soccer people, specifically FC Tucson’s management group — Greg FosterChris KeeneyJon Pearlman and Rick Schantz — have made the best of a bad situation.

    Friday’s game was a celebration for all those men have done to pump life into Tucson’s near-lifeless (non-UA) sports torso. They have a vision and a get-it-done drive that politicians of 20 years ago lacked.

    I bring this to your attention because on Friday night in Texas, the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas drew 8,777 fans, a sellout, to play the PCL’s Fresno Grizzlies. It was the 34th sellout El Paso has drawn in 47 games at their new downtown facility, Southwest University Park.

    El Paso replaced Tucson in the Pacific Coast League and, in minor-league baseball, has become the place to be. I’d laugh but it isn’t funny.

    The Chihuahuas have already drawn 394,090 fans and still have 19 games remaining. The Tucson Sidewinders/Padres never drew more than 300,460 in an entire season at Kino Stadium.

    The El Paso Times last week reported that commercial activity adjacent to the ballpark is thriving. Richard Venezuela, co-owner of the new Sparrows Spirits and Pies, across the street from the stadium, told the newspaper: “There are more people down here. You start feeling the beginning of downtowns in bigger cities. People are walking around. It feels good to be a part of it.”

    Twenty years after choosing to build a baseball facility on Ajo Way, Tucson debuted a downtown streetcar. For $4, you can ride it all day and most of the night.

    Its route goes next to the vacant land where a ballpark should have been built.

    Now we’ve got soccer and a street car. El Paso 1, Tucson 0.

  • Every incoming Arizona football player who was a two-way high school star, as was Salpointe Catholic’s Cam Denson, would be wise to study the backgrounds of ex-Wildcat NFL Pro Bowlers Darryll Lewis and Lance Briggs. Lewis arrived at Arizona as a tailback-cornerback from La Puente, California, in the fall of 1986 and chose to be a tailback. After a redshirt season, he gained 197 yards for Arizona in 1987. He learned that tailbacks are usually in excess; cover cornerbacks are in demand.

    Lewis switched to corner in 1988, and by 1990 was the Jim Thorpe Award winner and a consensus All-American. He played 10 NFL seasons.

    Briggs was a fullback in his first Arizona season, 1999, having arrived from Sacramento, California, as a two-way prep star. Briggs wanted the ball. But after gaining just 163 yards as a freshman, he asked to be switched to middle linebacker. Bingo. He became a three-time all-conference player and an NFL star, still going strong at 33.

    Denson quieted any potential controversy last week, agreeing with coach Rich Rodriguez’s assessment that (1) Arizona’s greatest need is at corner, and (2) Denson has a chance, much like freshman CB Antoine Cason in 2004, to make an immediate difference.

  • Sabino High grad Brooks Reed, a 2010 all-Pac-12 pass rusher at Arizona, has a new position this year. Reed will play inside linebacker for the Houston Texans, making room on the outside for coveted rookie Jadeveon Clowney. This is a time of great opportunity for Reed; his contract expires this season, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2015. I think Reed will thrive at ILB, where his ball-stuffing skills will be more important than rushing the passer, which requires more speed than he has. Reed is to be paid $1.49  million this season.

  • You’d never expect to find more unlikely associates in pro football than ex-UA tailback Nic Grigsby and ex-UA quarterback Gene Dahlquist. But they have become bonded as members of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, of all things. Grigsby, the Blue Bombers’ top running back (287 yards so far in the CFL season), spends time in strategy sessions with Dahlquist, the club’s quarterbacks coach. Dahlquist graduated from Arizona in 1964 and went on to an exemplary coaching career at Boise State, Utah, Texas, Oregon and Illinois. He is 71. Grigsby 25.

  • Salpointe Catholic grad Rich Ellerson told me last week he will not coach this season. It will be Ellerson’s first year without coaching since 1977, when he was a graduate assistant for Dick Tomey at Hawaii. Ellerson has returned to Tucson after being the head coach at Army for five seasons. Before that, he was the head coach at Cal-Poly for eight years and has an 80-82 record. Ellerson was one of the key elements to Arizona’s Desert Swarm success in the 1990s. He’s only 61; I would expect someone to hire him as a defensive coordinator by 2015.

  • Two of Arizona’s College Football Hall of Fame stars, Tedy Bruschi and Chuck Cecil, return to work this week. Bruschi will again be an NFL analyst for ESPN; Cecil is the secondary coach for the St. Louis Rams. Even though Cecil left Arizona after 1987 and Bruschi didn’t begin his UA career until 1991, they have become close friends. They flew to Craig, Alaska, in June and spent a week fishing with Tucson attorney Burt Kinerk.

  • Arizona enters the football season without any of its quarterbacks having thrown a pass of any type in college football. Rich Rodriguez last week on ESPN termed his collection of three transfer QBs — Jerrard Randall of LSU; Connor Brewer of Texas; and Jesse Scroggins of USC — as “Island of the Misfit Toys.” That’s a reference to an animated 2001 movie in which Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tracks down a villainous toy maker. Remember this: The most statistically successful UA quarterback in history, Nick Foles, was a transfer from Michigan State who had first made a commitment to play at Arizona State. How’s this for a statistic: Foles has a 13.5 to 1 touchdown/interception ratio in the NFL, best in history. As good as B. J. Denker was last year, he had a 2.3 to 1 TD/interception ratio. Foles married former UA volleyball player Tori Moore in the offseason.

  • It was entertaining watching RichRod and ASU coach Todd Graham sit side-by-side on an ESPN coaches’ panel show last week. They are not exactly chummy. ASU and Arizona’s football training camps couldn’t be more different.

    ASU will have 13 indoor practices and four in the White Mountains before opening. Arizona will have all 26 of its practices outside on campus.

  • Former Sahuaro High football standout Niko Kittrell has left San Jose State and transferred to Arizona. In two seasons at SJSU, the defensive tackle played in four games, making three tackles.

    Set to be a linebacker at UA, Kittrell will be a third-year sophomore in 2014.

  • Cholla High grad Vance Johnson, an All-Pac-10 running back at Arizona in 1982 who played in three Super Bowls as a Denver Broncos receiver, announced on his Facebook page last week that he is in a Florida treatment center attempting to overcome an addiction to alcohol. On Saturday, Johnson filmed a video, sitting on a chair on the side of a neighborhood road, and said, “I wanted the American dream; I lost it, too. I’ve had it all; I’ve lost it all.” Johnson is 51.

  • Salpointe Catholic football coach Dennis Bene is back at it, entering his 13th season at Salpointe after winning the 2013 state championship. His team starts practice Monday. “We’re really going to be good,” he told me. No surprise there. The Lancers are 64-9 dating to 2008. The high school football season doesn’t wait for anyone. The Lancers open Aug. 22 against Buena. Bene completed his so-called offseason by working for USA Football, which included a seminar for 2,000 youth players last week in San Francisco.

  • The Houston Rockets have not announced a contract agreement with Nick Johnson, but various NBA media outlets say Johnson has accepted a three-year, guaranteed deal worth about $2.3 million. Johnson made his case while playing well in 14 summer league games in 15 days. He then flew to Hong Kong for what was supposed to be a benefit for those made homeless by Typhoon Yolanda, but the event was canceled before he could reach the Philippines. He finally gets a few days off to go deep-sea fishing after playing basketball almost non-stop since last summer.

  • The path to a college basketball coaching job is rarely predictable. Paul Reed, who made a mark coaching the Tucson and Cienega high school girls teams the last decade, was hired by Long Beach State last week. Reed graduated from Langston (Oklahoma) University and got a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix. ... Tucsonan Pam Reed continued her remarkable distance running career last week. At 53, Reed ran 135 miles in the Badwater Marathon, much of it in the California desert, finishing second of all women’s entrants and ninth overall in 29 hours, 30 minutes. Next? She’ll run the 100-mile Run Rabbit Run race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in September.

  • How unbeatable is Rory McIlroy? In his five appearances at Dove Mountain’s Match Play championships, he lost to Oliver WilsonBen CraneHunter MahanShane Lowry and Harris English. Golf isn’t like international swimming, where the favorite almost always wins. If you win twice a year on the PGA Tour, you’re a Hall of Famer.

  • Catalina Foothills grad Christian Muscarello, an all-conference shortstop at Trinity (Texas) University and the SCAC’s Freshman of the Year in 2011, has agreed to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals. Muscarello hit .319 in 43 starts for Trinity last season. He played for the KFC team in Tucson American Legion baseball. That’s a good lineage. Ex-KFC shortstops Anthony SandersSeth Mejias-Brean and Mike Brownstein all signed pro contracts.

  • Ever-resourceful UA softball coach Mike Candrea, who had everything but a dominant pitcher in 2014, is working to change that. San Diego State junior-to-be Danielle O’Toole, who was 31-10 with a 1.91 ERA last season, hopes to transfer to Arizona and have two seasons of eligibility remaining. The only catch is that O’Toole, a lefty and the Mountain West Conference Pitcher of the Year, has yet to obtain a release from the Aztec coaching staff. If not, she would have to redshirt in 2015.

  • Danielle Steinberg, who was Arizona’s No. 1 singles tennis player and the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete for tennis in 2009, was named the tennis coach last week at Kansas State. Steinberg, only 27, had been the head coach at McNeese State, where this season she was the Southland Conference’s Coach of the Year.

  • One of the most intriguing items of college basketball’s July recruiting evaluations, which end today, is whether new Cal coach Cuonzo Martin can cut into Arizona’s pipeline to the motherlode of players at the Oakland Soldiers AAU program.

    Arizona coach Sean Miller was successful in getting Nick JohnsonAaron GordonStanley Johnson and Brandon Ashley from Oakland, while Cal coach Mike Montgomery came off as a man contemplating retirement.

    The nation’s No. 1 recruit, 6-10 Ivan Rabb, is an Oakland Soldier. Miller and his staff have been in hot pursuit for two years. Cal is late to the race, but it has homecourt advantage.

    And second-year UCLA coach Steve Alford is now flexing his Bruin-linked recruiting muscle in California much more than his predecessors.

    Staying on top isn’t going to be easy.

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