Chuck Cecil has his own office at Arizona’s Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, a building that didn’t even exist when he became well-known as a hard hitter, an ASU killer and a UA all-timer playing safety for the Wildcats 30 years ago.
There’s not much on his office walls outside of a white board, but Cecil doesn’t seem to mind. He’s done most of his work on the football field.
Cecil spent 21 years in the NFL, first as a player and then as an assistant coach. Now he’s come full circle, back at Arizona, on Rich Rodriguez’s staff with the title of “senior defensive analyst.”
The 53-year-old Cecil spends a lot of time helping UA defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and safeties coach Jahmile Addae, though in his current position he can’t technically coach Arizona’s players. Still, he watches film and helps the coaching staff as needed.
“It’s been great. It’s a blessing, really and truly,” Cecil said. “It’s very special to me just having an opportunity to come back and try to help out. I’m not game-changing anything but just being able to help out in whatever little ways, little things. It’s been nice.”
This week, Arizona could use Cecil for more than film breakdown. At the very least, he brings some good juju to rivalry week.
“ASU was and is the game of the year for us,” Cecil said on Tuesday. “I don’t know if it’s big of a deal for them as it is for us, but, you know, this definitely is a special week and a special game.”
After all, few players have ever had a better four-year run in the Arizona-ASU rivalry than Cecil. He’s one of Arizona’s most accomplished former players ever, and he’s still best known for one play — a 106-yard interception return of Jeff Van Raaphorst for a touchdown that sealed a 34-17 win in 1986.
“You see it almost every week when you’re here,” Rodriguez said. “What an iconic play. Maybe the most recognizable one in our football history.”
Added UA senior safety Dane Cruikshank: “I saw it this past week, everybody was posting it. He looked super fast. I didn’t know he was that fast. Chuck was a great player, that’s why he’s a part of this program.”
When Cecil arrived at Arizona in 1983, a skinny walk-on from Helix High School outside of San Diego, he had no idea that there even was a rivalry — or what it meant to people in Tucson and Tempe.
“Unless you’re actually part of it you don’t really understand,” Cecil said. “People talk about other places, like Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, all that kind of stuff. I’m just, for us, this is every bit if not more than any of those. It was just inbred in me from jump street … by the time we got to the game, I hated ASU.”
Cecil is measured in what he says now, but he was unfiltered back then.
It’s not hard to find old articles where Cecil expressed his dislike for the Sun Devils. When he was hired earlier this year, he still referred to ASU as the “Scummies.”
Immediately after that game in 1986 — Cecil’s miraculous interception helped the Wildcats upset the No. 4 Sun Devils, who were on their way to the Rose Bowl — Cecil summarized his feelings for the Sun Devils succinctly.
“I hate ASU,” he said. “The main reason is — we’ve beaten them, year in and year out since I’ve been here, not only in football but in baseball and basketball. Still, I go home and everybody says I go to Arizona State.
“It’s just something that gets inside you, where you hate Arizona State. That’s all there is to it.”
ASU wasn’t all too fond of him either.
He clinched both the 1985 and 1986 wins over the Sun Devils with late interceptions, and also forced a fumble at Arizona’s 3-yard line in the 1986 game. In 1987 he intercepted another pass which led to a field goal, and recovered a fumbled punt with 13 seconds left to set up a game-tying field goal.
Cecil moved quickly during his pregame warmups at Sun Devil Stadium, he said, to avoid getting hit by objects thrown from the stands.
Cecil performed jumping jacks in front of the stands right before his final game against ASU in Tempe. Sun Devils fans responded by hurling oranges and ice at him.
“It was quite a day,” Cecil said. “Clearly, they didn’t have a lot of fondness for me, for several different reasons.”
Cecil said he hasn’t really watched the video of his famous interception. He doesn’t need to: Cecil still remembers details of the moment, vividly.
How could he forget?
“It’s amazing how fast you run when you’re scared. I thought (ASU star) Randall McDaniel almost got me,” Cecil said. “It’s funny, people are like why’d you come out (of the end zone)? I couldn’t even tell you why. I just caught it and took off.
“That was the end of a drive where they had gone 10 or 12 plays before that. It was a pretty significant drive. I was tired before they snapped the ball. I remember after I got past Randall and I saw how far I had to go, I thought, ‘Gosh, why didn’t I just kneel? Why didn’t I just go down?’ Clearly, I’m happy I was able to make it. It was obviously a very incredible experience.
“To say it was special would be not be a big enough word.”
• UA coach Rich Rodriguez on the upcoming Territorial Cup: “All coaches will tell you they all count as one, they’re all the same. This one is different.”
• Quarterback Khalil Tate said he did not intentionally step on Oregon defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux last week. “If I intentionally stepped on him, it would’ve hurt,” Tate said. “Put it that way.” Tate was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
• Defensive tackle Finton Connolly is from Gilbert. Saturday will mark his first Territorial Cup appearance. Connolly’s dad went to Arizona, so Connolly grew up a Wildcats fan.
• Priority No. 1 for the defense against Arizona State: stop the run. If the Wildcats can’t, they’ll be in trouble. “We’re not a very big team,” Rodriguez said. “We have to be very active. We’ve gotta get a lot of guys to the ball. And certainly we have to tackle better.”
• Both Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said the difference in recent weeks defensively is that Arizona is not getting as many takeaways. The Wildcats have had one each of last three games after getting two or more in seven of the first eight games.
• Safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles struggled last week. Yates said Flannigan-Fowles has been “hot and cold” this season but noted that he’s been extremely focused and on point in practice this week.
• Senior tailback Nick Wilson on ASU fans: “They say outlandish stuff. That’s the reason I don’t respect some of them, because they’ll come up to my mom and (curse). It’s just outlandish.”
• Expect Arizona to huddle more on offense this week than normal. The Wildcats had players bring in plays in last season’s Territorial Cup. It not only prevents signal stealing but helps keep the defense off the field.
• It appears that Connolly and Parker Zellers will start at defensive tackle. The primary backups will be Marcus Griffin and Larry Tharpe Jr., who will slide over from defensive end. Starters Luca Bruno (concussion) and Dereck Boles (ankle) are iffy to play at best. The official injury report is scheduled to be released Friday.
• Griffin has another year of eligibility but is listed as a senior. After the season he’ll potentially look into becoming a grad transfer, but he’s not thinking about that right now.
• Another Wildcat on the move to defense is fullback/tight end Jamardre Harris-Cobb ... for the scout team. With the D-line depleted, Harris-Cobb, who’s listed at 275 pounds, has been helping give the offense looks this week.
• Do you go into a game like this expecting trick plays? “Yes,” Rodriguez said. “You just prepare your guys to have great eye discipline, to understand the structure of the defense. You want them to still play fast. You don’t want them to play tentative.”
• Rodriguez said the plan is to keep one or two spots open in the 2018 class for grad transfers “at positions of need.” Both lines remain positions of need.
• One of the ideas behind the new early signing period (Dec. 20-22) is to reduce the number of late flips. There’s also this take from Rodriguez: “Obviously if a guy is committed to a school, he’s been committed for a while and he doesn’t sign in December, then he’s truly not committed.”
• Senior right tackle Gerhard de Beer’s family is in ton from Pretoria, South Africa. The de Beers attended the Oregon game last week and will be at the Territorial Cup on Saturday.
• Arizona will have meetings at 11 a.m. Thursday, followed by a light practice. The team will have a Thanksgiving meal at 1:30 p.m. Players then have time off to spend with their families.