Somewhere across the years, Arizona’s 1973 WAC co-championship trophy lost its way.
Bill Baker found it five years ago, next to a McKale Center copying machine, gathering dust.
“The leg of the football figure was broken,” he remembers. “It was being used as a paper weight.”
The neglected trophy served as the working image of Arizona football: forsaken for 100 years.
Rescued by Baker, a retired NFL scout who played and coached for the Wildcats, the trophy was restored to its original luster and then some.
“It no longer says ‘co-champs,’ ” says Baker. “Now it says ‘champions.’ ”
Arizona has never won much in college football. Not really. Not even the Sun Bowl. It has engineered a few colossal upsets, knocked Arizona State out of the Rose Bowl and stunned unbeaten Notre Dame.
Champions? That’s a new one.
In 1973, when the Wildcats had strung together four consecutive losing seasons, Arizona hired 37-year-old Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Young to change the school’s distressed reputation.
When Young arrived at the Tucson airport, he walked from the plane unknown and unannounced. The greeting party missed him altogether.
“I walked right by them,” he told me. “I guess I didn’t look like a football coach.”
His 1973 championship team, which laid the foundation for the expansion of Arizona Stadium and the school’s entry into the Pac-12, shouldn’t need an introduction this weekend. About 30 members of that team and many from Young’s first coaching staff will be in Tucson for its 40th anniversary.
You might not recognize them.
Young went on to a career of such magnitude (he was a sizzling 26-7 in his first three Arizona seasons) that he is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
But the story of that ’73 championship team (or whatever you want to call it) isn’t that it opened 5-0, made their coach famous or created a demand for more seats at Arizona Stadium.
It’s what happened over the next 40 years.
Jay Bledsoe is a retired Brigadier General in New Mexico.
Don Proietti is a Superior Court Judge in Northern California.
Joe O’Sullivan is the North American president of NCH Corporation in Dallas.
John Workman is the CFO of Rufenacht Land and Cattle Co., in Phoenix.
“These guys are pretty impressive,” says John Johnson, who probably thought his life was over when he dislocated his knee in an Arizona Stadium practice 40 years ago, his football career at an end.
Johnson is the force behind this week’s reunion. He is the Vice President of Operations of Colorado’s vast Beverage Distributing Co.
The ’73 Wildcats were known for the “1-2-3 Backfield,” the UA’s most famous group since Tex Oliver’s Blue Brigade of 1937. Quarterback Bruce Hill, who would gain a gazillion yards in a Rich Rodriguez offense, wore jersey No. 1. Running backs Jim Upchurch and Willie Hamilton wore Nos. 2-3.
All three will be at Saturday’s Arizona-UCLA game, but the story is much deeper than 1-2-3.
Jerry D’Arcy is a retired San Francisco police sergeant who sang the national anthem at the 2012 World Series.
Mark Neal, an assistant football coach at Salpointe Catholic, is a global commodities manager at IBM.
Scott Piper is owner/partner of Twisted X Boot Company.
Tom Sather, who got a master’s degree at Stanford, is a physical therapist in the Bay Area.
The ’73 Wildcats were so good, so quickly, that it even caught the administration by surprise. After winning their first three games, the team caught a flight to Iowa for a nonconference game against the Big Ten’s Hawkeyes, a decided step up in class for Arizona.
On the plane, Arizona vice president “Swede” Johnson took a seat by Young and told him he had accompanied the Wildcats on 10 previous road games.
“We lost all 10,” Johnson said, glumly.
The Wildcats won the next day in Iowa City and returned home to draw a then-record crowd of 39,582 in a victory over New Mexico. After beating the Lobos, the UA drew 40,172 a week later against Texas Tech, the first Tucson sporting event ever to attract 40,000 fans.
Given that start, Young’s team drew 56,807 three years later. Soon Notre Dame and USC would be playing in the old stadium.
It can all be traced back to the ’73 Wildcats.
One of Young’s linemen on his first Arizona team was Jim Schuster, who had been part of the Illinois state champion Lyons Township football team.
At Arizona, Schuster’s career took an unexpected turn. He tore up his knee, requiring three surgeries. Young offered Schuster a chance to be a graduate assistant coach, but Schuster chose to pursue a business career.
Twenty years later, by pure happenstance, Schuster bought a home at Ventana Canyon. His next-door neighbor turned out to be a Hall of Fame football coach: Jim Young. What are the odds?
Schuster is now senior managing director for Mesirow Financial in Chicago, a flourishing business that has allowed him to send two sons to the UA; Danny Schuster is now part of the UA club tennis program.
In the planning for this weekend’s 40th anniversary, Schuster worked with the late Dave Sitton to produce a highlights video of the team that changed the landscape of Arizona football. Sadly, much of that work was lost with Sitton’s death.
But when the ’73 Wildcats gather this weekend for a little golf, a little fun and a lot of memories, they will have a shiny new trophy to remind them they once were champions.