Greg Hansen: RichRod battling for local talent

2013-01-15T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: RichRod battling for local talentGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

At 4:09 p.m., Saturday, Salpointe Catholic junior receiver Cameron Denson tweeted "Good day to be a Wildcat." He did so while still in Rich Rodriguez's office with Lancers coach Dennis Bene.

At 4:49, Bene sent this text: "Just left RichRod's office. Cam Denson committed."

Denson would celebrate by having dinner with his mother at Red Lobster, and that was that. No suspense. One of the potentially epic recruiting Tucson battles, Arizona v. ASU, never materialized.

Sound familiar?

The Wildcats and Sun Devils have played football against one another since 1899, but only twice have they engaged in a notable recruiting struggle in Tucson.

The few elite Tucson football players to choose ASU - Tucson Badger tackle Ralph Zarate; Salpointe tailback Chris Hopkins; Amphi tailback Mario Bates; Sahuaro receiver John Mistler - didn't let any mystery develop.

Nor did Denson, who has a reasonably good chance to be a Parade All-American next year.

The most heated UA-ASU recruiting battles have forever taken place in the greater Phoenix area, but only twice, with Rincon running back Jesse Parker, 1973, and Cholla tailback Vance Johnson, 1981, did they rage in Tucson.

Parker was torn between new Arizona coach Jim Young and ASU legend Frank Kush. The Sun Devils had won eight consecutive games against Arizona; Kush played on that competitive gulf.

Kush had never successfully recruited an All-State player from Tucson - he didn't get a sniff from Tucson High brothers Bill Dawson, who chose Michigan State, and Mike Dawson, who chose Arizona - and was determined to break through with Parker.

At the end of Parker's recruiting visit in Tempe, Kush arranged for Parker to fly home, from Sky Harbor Airport, a special touch that Kush thought would seal Parker's signature. When Parker got to the airport, Kush also got on the plane. He made the short flight to Tucson and hoped to get a commitment from Parker that night.

But when Kush got to Parker's home, Young was in the house, chatting with Parker's parents. Neither coach would yield. Finally, after some extended awkwardness, Kush had to return to the airport and Young persuaded the Rincon standout to sign a WAC letter-of-intent with Arizona.

Alas, a week later, Parker signed a national letter with UCLA. He spent a year with the Bruins and then transferred back to Arizona. He lettered in 1977, but was never a starter.

The other memorable Arizona vs. ASU recruiting battle on Tucson turf came in February 1981, the night before Cholla's Johnson was to choose between the Sun Devils and Wildcats.

Two ASU coaches visited Johnson's house, staying late. How late? One of them spent the night in his car, outside Johnson's residence. Arizona coach Larry Smith showed up at sunrise, finding yet another Sun Devil representative, ASU track coach Len Miller in the group.

Johnson signed with Arizona, where he became an All-Pac-10 tailback and NCAA long jump champion.

That's it. Jesse Parker and Vance Johnson.

Mistler, a future NFL wide receiver, chose ASU because Arizona was then under Tony Mason, a running-game disciple who despised the forward pass. Zarate picked the Sun Devils the day before they played in the 1997 Rose Bowl game, influenced by their Pac-10 championship season.

Mario Bates, whose older brother, Michael, was an Arizona All-Pac-10 kick returner and Pac-10 champion in the 100 and 200 meters, said he would not attend Arizona on the day Michael signed with Arizona two years earlier.

I think Denson has a chance to become one of the dandy dozen, the 12 leading skill position recruits in Tucson history. Here's how I rank them:

• Hayzel Daniels. Two-time All-State running back at Tucson High, 1925-26. He enrolled at Arizona, but the school did not permit him to play varsity football because he was black.

• Joe Batiste, American hurdling record holder. Batiste was forced to enroll at Compton (Calif.) Junior College because the UA did not permit black athletes to play sports when he left Tucson High in 1938. After World War II, he enrolled at Arizona State.

• Fred W. Enke. The All-State quarterback in 1941 and 1942 (and future NFL quarterback), from Tucson High, Enke chose the UA, where his father, Fred A. Enke, was head basketball coach.

• Joel Favara. The state player of the year on Tucson High's undefeated 1952 state championship team, Favara chose Oklahoma State over Arizona.

• Pat Flood. Favara's quarterback at Tucson High, Flood was the first Tucson player to accept a football scholarship to Notre Dame. He completed his career at Navy.

• Parker. Rincon's all-state tailback of 1972.

• Mistler. Two-time first-team All-Stare receiver at Sahuaro, 1975 and 1976.

• Freddie Sims. A franchise back at Sunnyside, Sims signed with Oklahoma's Barry Switzer at the height of the Sooner's 1980s success.

• Johnson. A four-year starter at Arizona.

• Michael and Mario Bates of Amphi.

• Ka'Deem Carey. His CDO career was the most productive of any Tucson prep running back. He chose Arizona over ASU.

And now comes Cameron Denson, the first notable recruiting victory as RichRod adeptly protects his home turf.

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