Hansen's Sunday Notebook: New look, feel gives Arizona stadium a new atmosphere

September 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Star sports columnist Greg Hansen's weekly report on all things Southern Arizona sports includes his take on the renovations and atmosphere at Arizona stadium, Solomon Hill's continued impact on the UA basketball team and a hot young football Wildcat with a bright future.

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  • From the luxury suites at Arizona Stadium,

    a fan at Friday’s Arizona-NAU game could see the distant lights at Salpointe, Rincon/University and Sunnyside high schools, a Friday night that historically has been sacred to prep football.

    Between them, Salpointe and Cienega drew about 8,000 on Friday. The remaining seven games in Tucson probably drew another 10,000, which surely cut into the UA’s announced crowd of 53,793.

    That doesn’t mean the Wildcats would have sold out on Friday, adding 5,000 fans who chose to follow high school football. There were too many empty seats in the new north end zone complex, seats that are a bit pricey compared to $5 charged to watch the high school kids.

    But it’s an indication that the game-day atmosphere for Arizona football has improved notably in Greg Byrne’s administration.

    It’s no longer just football. It’s Rich Rodriguez interacting with fans on the Wildcat Walk, capped by rubbing the head of the “Button” Salmon statue. It’s the Kiss Cam on the mammoth scoreboard. It’s Zona Zoo, 9,000 strong, creating a din.

    It’s copper helmets, the greener-than-green appeal of the new Field Turf and it’s the winning quarterback leading the band in “Bear Down, Arizona.” So much has changed.

    The UA fought some negative variables on Friday, including some of the worst traffic ever encountered on game night, the possibility of rain, two marquee high school games, a dismal opponent and an option to watch the game on TV.

    But remember this: Three years ago, 2010, without the amenities and appeal of a Byrne-created fan experience, Arizona drew 54,814 for a game against The Citadel.

    A year later, it couldn’t draw 50,000 against No. 6 Stanford, quarterbacked by Andrew Luck.

    College football in Tucson remains a fragile, sometimes fickle industry but it passed Friday’s test and then some.

  • When Sean Miller took his UA basketball team to Drachman Stadium for a mile run and conditioning work at 6:45 a.m. last Tuesday, Solomon Hill was there.

    The first-round draft pick of the Indiana Pacers continues to be an example even though his college eligibility is exhausted.

    “I’ll talk about Solomon Hill until my last days of coaching,” Miller said a day later, addressing about 400 people at the Rotary Club of Tucson. “He honored the process.”

    Miller recently read Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s book and absorbed Saban’s message, which was “grow out of yourself and into the team.”

    Isn’t that how a player like Hill, who averaged a modest 13.4 points a game last season, became a first-round draft pick?

    “At the end of October last year, (Pacers general manager) Kevin Pritchard quietly sat through three of our practices, watching Solomon,” Miller said. “By the time Kevin went home, the Pacers were 80 percent sure they would draft Solomon before we ever played a game.”

    Miller did some research and discovered that former Arizona basketball players have earned nearly $900 million in the NBA. The common thread?

    “About 80 percent of the wealth of our NBA players comes from those who played in the Final Four,” he said. “The better the team does, the more individual accolades come your way.”

    Hill is guaranteed $1,246,000 this NBA season and $1,302,000 next year. For him, honoring the process paid off.

    • The Tucson Padres’ final home attendance numbers put into context how much Tucson resisted GM Mike Feder’s promotional energy. The Pads drew just 200,077 this season, the lowest for a Pacific Coast League team in Tucson since 1989. That’s unreal. In three years at Kino Stadium, the Pads drew 643,000. The PCL’s Sacramento franchise drew over 607,000 this year alone. I’ve always thought the one reason minor-league baseball here struggled for 80 years is because of summer heat, no more, no less.
    • The UA moved quickly, employing Feder as supervisor of the Sands Club, its suite-of-suites at the Lowell-Stevens facility. Good move.
    • Jody Oehler’s departure from his sports-talk show KFFN (1490-AM) was predictable. He is a bigger-market talent who, in my opinion, wasn’t a good fit in Tucson. He chose to pursue the low-hanging fruit topics, day after day. He would bang out LeBron James, NFL and A-Rod chatter rather than do more homework and encourage conversation about, say, UA softball, Ironwood Ridge’s state championship football team or Michael Thompson winning a PGA Tour event. The best at the sports-talk craft in Tucson history is Mike Gabrielson, formerly of KTUC (1400-AM), who educated himself on local sports first, and not just UA hoops and UA football. Sports-talk radio ratings in Tucson are dreadful, with a typical audience of about 600 to 1,000. That’s less than one-tenth of one percent of the Tucson valley. Maybe they don’t want to hear about Bud Selig and Tim Tebow every day.
    • Arizona 1988 Final Four point guard Steve Kerr’s daughter, Maddy Kerr, a true freshmen volleyball player at Cal, started the Bears’ first game of the season Friday, a win over Nevada. Maddy, a libero, had 14 digs. Her coach, Rich Feller, said “the team has stopped being amazed. She is very, very good.” Like father, like daughter.
    • Tucson brothers Seth and Martin Pepper became Hall of Fame swimmers at Arizona in the ’90s; Seth won the 1993 NCAA title in the 100 butterfly and Martin won the same title in 1996. Now they are world travelers and the world is about to see their work. On Oct. 9, Martin’s “How the Earth Works” will debut on the Discovery Channel, an eight-week series that examines everything from earthquakes and floods to Mount Everest. Seth shot, edited and produced the video that got the Discovery Channel’s attention. Martin then produced the series. In whatever free time he has, Martin Pepper is completing his doctorate degree at Arizona. Yes, he will soon be Dr. Pepper.
    • Seth Mejias-Brean, Arizona’s steady third baseman during the 2012 College World Series championship, enhanced his value to the parent Cincinnati Reds this season. Through Friday, Mejias-Brean led Class A Dayton in batting average (.305) and RBIs (79) and also exhibited power with 10 home runs. The Cienega High grad is expected to be invited to the Reds’ Fall Instructional League and is a possibility for the Arizona Fall League, where leading prospects are assigned.
    • The Jacksonville Jaguars gave Matt Scott enough playing time to win a roster spot, including starting him against Atlanta last week. But he completed just 45 percent of his passes, none for touchdowns, in four games and 40 attempts. That’s not close to good enough. Scott was struggling from the start, playing under center rather than in his shotgun, spread-offense that he learned from Sonny Dykes and Frank Scelfo at Arizona. Scott is likely to be employed on another team’s practice squad at some point this season.
    • Hal Warnock was the first UA grad to become a major-league baseball player (St. Louis Browns, 1935); he continued after baseball to make a mark as an attorney here. His son, Tucson High and UA Law School grad John Warnock, a retired UA English professor, left an imprint as president of the Tucson High School class of ’59. Last week, after leading a fundraising campaign, John Warnock added to that legacy. The historic “T’’ on top of Tucson High’s main building was restored at a cost of about $7,500 and illuminated before the Badgers played Sahuaro in the annual Coaches for Charity Kickoff Classic. You can’t miss it. First class.
    • Former state golf champion Bob Gaona, Tucson High Class of ’58, who played on the PGA Tour’s Senior Tour from 1987 to 1996, will be honored by the Tucson Conquistadores on Sept. 13 at El Rio Golf Course. The Conquistadores will stage a benefit for Gaona, who is suffering from stage IV-A thymic-carcinoma cancer, which has spread to his lungs and heart. In addition to a 7:30 a.m. shotgun start, the Conquistadores and Gaona’s friends will hold a silent auction, a beat-the-pro contest, closest-to-the-pin competition and a clinic as part of the First Tee program. A lunch is to follow at 1 p.m. Entry information: contact Jerry Leyva at 404-5353.
    • Sunnyside High grad Michael Smith won’t play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year. He injured his foot in the preseason and was placed on the Bucs’ injured reserve list. He will be paid for the full season, about $650,000. Smith, a tailback, was a seventh-round draft pick from Utah State a year ago.
    • Mountain View grad Dan Moore was similarly placed on injured reserve last week by the Indianapolis Colts. A free agent fullback from Montana, Moore tore a shoulder muscle in practice Aug. 5.
    • Cholla grad Vance Johnson, an All-Pac-10 tailback at Arizona in 1982 and later a three-time Super Bowl receiver for the Denver Broncos, was honored by the Broncos at Thursday’s preseason game against Arizona. Johnson was asked to participate in the pre-game coin flip and spent the game on the Denver sideline. Hard to believe it was 32 years since his dazzling true freshman debut against UCLA.
    • It was encouraging to learn that Cholla High football coach Laurence Ruhf coached the Chargers to a season-opening victory Friday, breaking a 14-game losing streak. Coaching at Cholla, which has only 27 varsity players, isn’t easy. A lot of coaches would have walked away following 0-10 and 1-9 seasons, but Ruhf stuck it out. His twitter message after Friday’s victory – “the boys get all the credit” — said it all.
  • Early-season football games against NAU have often identified an emerging Arizona star. In 2004, true freshman cornerback Antoine Cason made 13 tackles and intercepted a pass against the Lumberjacks in his first-ever college game. He went on to be a consensus All-American.

    In 2007, junior Mike Thomas was electric in his season home debut, running four end-around plays for 80 yards against NAU, and catching five passes for 56 yards and a TD. He went on to become the Pac-12’s career receiving leader.

    On Friday, true freshman linebacker Scooby Wright started and made six tackles. He also blocked a pass that was returned for a touchdown by Tra’Mayne Bondurant. At a position of great need, Wright certainly passes the eye test.

    Arizona yielded a school-record worst 499 yards per game a year ago, a defense that Rich Rodriguez last week described by saying “it was bad. … bad defense.”

    On Friday, Scooby was good. So was Arizona’s defense, which yielded just 270 yards.

    At a school still known for the Desert Swarm, has the Scooby Doo era begun?

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