PHOENIX — Arizona and Arizona State are two Pac-12 schools separated by 115 miles. They have different mascots, different colors, different histories, but as football season sets to kick off this month they are bound by an infuriating truth:
Outside the state, many can’t tell the rival schools apart.
For two fan bases that want nothing more than to be nationally relevant in football, this stings something fierce. It never fails: Every year, usually multiple times, folks on national television or radio will refer to ASU as the “Arizona State Wildcats,” totally unaware that mixing ASU maroon and gold and UA cardinal and navy doesn’t work.
It’s gone on for so long that the two schools actually have discussed the possibility of making some sort of public service announcement video, politely, yet firmly explaining that the Wildcats hail from Tucson, while the Sun Devils live in Tempe.
“It just shows a lack of respect for both schools,” said Shawn Malkind, a 2013 ASU graduate. “I’d like to think that a mistake that some ESPN broadcaster makes or someone else makes couldn’t make me mad, but it certainly is annoying.”
In 2013, well-known sportscaster Dan Patrick picked up an ASU helmet on his show — which was great publicity — until he identified the school as the Arizona Wildcats.
In 2014, CBS Sports Network analyst Aaron Taylor apologized after repeatedly calling ASU “Arizona” during an ASU road game at New Mexico. Later that year, the American Football Coaches Association sent UA running back Ka’Deem Carey’s All-America plaque to the school in Tempe, not Tucson.
Media relations officials at both desert schools say they regularly get interview requests for student-athletes who attend the other school. On past road trips, ASU basketball players have boarded a bus that displayed a sign that read “Welcome Arizona State” only to see the UA logo at the bottom.
Just last month, a major news organization distributed a photo of ASU coach Todd Graham at Pac-12 Media Days, but referred to him as coach of the “Arizona State Wildcats.”
“I’ve tried to wrap my head around why it doesn’t happen with say Florida-Florida State, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, places like that,” said Blair Willis, associate director of communication services at the UA. “And I really don’t have a good answer. Somehow, I just think Arizona and ASU get lumped together as this big Southwestern state with sunshine and hot air and it never rains, and that’s all people think about even though our colors are different, our mascots are different and the schools are different.”
Cody Havard, an associate professor of sports and leisure commerce at the University of Memphis, has studied college rivalries for nearly 10 years, and he admits: He’s never heard of anything like this. Told that New Mexico and New Mexico State suffer similar identity issues, Havard said, “but that’s a little understandable because neither one is competing at the highest level of college athletics.”
That’s obviously not the case for the UA and ASU.
The crazy thing is, Havard not long ago researched every rivalry in college sports. He asked fans how they felt about academics at their rival school. How they felt about their rival’s fan behavior and if they ever would support their rival in a championship or postseason game. Havard took that information and ranked the “25 Most Intense Fan Rivalries” in college sports.
ASU-UA ranked No. 1.
Yet somehow that intensity doesn’t leak out of the state.
“People are confusing them with their rival school, so it’s not like they’re saying, ‘Oh, you’re better than your rival,’ ” Havard said. “It’s almost like (they’re saying), ‘You’re the same as your rival, and neither one of you are that important because we get you confused all the time.’ That has to be frustrating.”
Pac-12 Networks analyst and former UA standout Glenn Parker said a lot has to do with simple geography. In 1997, when he left the Buffalo Bills to play with the Kansas City Chiefs, people often told him, “Oh, you must be so happy to play closer to home.” Parker politely explained that Kansas City was nowhere close to the West.
“Let’s face it,” said Parker, who played for the Wildcats from 1988-89. “We know for a fact the average human being is not the brightest bulb in the box. If it’s not in their backyard, they don’t know. They just don’t. Ask people in New York City. They think it goes New York City to LA with nothing in between. It’s like, LA is right over the river.”
An ESPN SportsCenter anchor and 2001 ASU graduate, Matt Barrie hears from fans on Twitter whenever his network confuses the Arizona schools. (Just one example: Last year, an ESPN.com headline read: “Arizona State Wildcats quarterback Manny Wilkins expected to play against Colorado.”) It’s not often pretty.
“Your network stinks! How come you guys can’t get it right! That’s embarrassing for you as a Sun Devil.”
“I say, ‘Look, win more games and be nationally relevant for more than two or three years at a time and it will take care of itself,’ ” he said. “And I don’t mean that as a slight. It’s my alma mater. I grew up there. My family had Arizona State season tickets. But I know (Graham) came in and had back-to-back 10-win seasons, but it hasn’t been great lately. If you get yourself to the level of national – and by national conversation I’m talking about Top 15-20 every year — when you get to that point, the confusion will stop.”
In the meantime, the schools will do their best to correct the mistakes. It’s their intention to inform, not to embarrass. That’s why they’re somewhat serious about the PSA. If it happens, ASU media relations director Doug Tammaro said it would just explain the differences between the two schools.
UA, Lute Olson.
ASU, Frank Kush.
UA, Tedy Bruschi.
ASU, Pat Tillman.
Maybe then, folks outside of this great state might start understanding another basic truth. Wildcats and Sun Devils don’t mix.
“It’s like we should morph into one team at some point,” Tammaro said. “Wild Devils? Sun Cats? I don’t know.”