To encourage customer traffic and circulate his restaurant’s name in the community, Spaghetti Company owner Mike Pulos offered a free spaghetti dinner to all 14,586 McKale Center fans if the Wildcats could complete a historic 1979 sweep of UCLA and USC.
To be safe, Pulos ordered 2,000 cases of pasta and scheduled double-shifts for his waiters. In January 1979, that was about $50,000 of giveaway spaghetti.
“It was our first year in the Pac-10, and it was really big to have UCLA and USC on our court,” remembers 1980 Arizona all-conference guard Joe Nehls. “I think everybody in town ate free spaghetti.”
Only now, 38 years later, with the Trojans and Bruins a cumulative 45-9, is there a USC/UCLA weekend as appealing. In the Lute Olson years, USC and UCLA never arrived at McKale with more than 36 wins.
Rarely have the Trojans and the Bruins been good simultaneously, but in 1979 they were picked to finish 1-2 in the newly expanded Pac-10. UCLA was ranked No. 3 when it arrived in Tucson; the Trojans were ranked as high as No. 11 in the AP poll, and by the time they suited up at McKale, they had already played the nation’s most difficult schedule, enduring road games at Duke, Maryland and Texas .
The Bruins came first, a Thursday night game attended by 14,606. Like many other teams of the era, Arizona had not beaten mighty UCLA since 1923.
No one could have expected a sweep, or even a split. The Wildcats were bludgeoned 116-80 at Oregon State five days earlier.
“We had been embarrassed,” says Nehls, now a Tucson real estate broker. “They probably came in thinking they could walk all over us.”
On the biggest platform in McKale history, Arizona beat UCLA 70-69 when reserve guard John Smith made a single free throw with six seconds remaining. He was engulfed by hundreds of celebrating fans who not only attempted to cut down the nets, but carried Smith and several of his teammates off the court.
When coach Fred Snowden arrived at work the next morning, his first of dozens of congratulatory phone calls was from U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, a 1959 UA grad.
“It’s the biggest win of my career,” said Snowden, who earlier stunned No. 3 UNLV in the 1976 Sweet 16. “I’ve never seen it like this here. It was the first time I’d ever seen the crowd come onto the court and lift the players up on their shoulders.”
Then came the promise of free spaghetti dinners if Arizona could complete the sweep on a Monday night against USC.
Another sellout crowd squeezed into the arena, at which Arizona had gone 82-7 since McKale opened in 1973. But most of those victories were against regional opponents from the Western Athletic Conference.
It was the Joe Nehls Show. The shooting guard from the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, Illinois, scored 31 points, giving him 50 for the weekend. Arizona won 74-72, with two Nehls free throws providing the differential.
This time the crowd rushed the court with even more revelry. A small security force was overwhelmed; some fans got inside the UA locker room, embraced by Snowden and the players.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in back-to-back games anywhere,” says Nehls, who is a UA season ticket-holder. “We didn’t get to the postseason, not even the NIT, but that weekend was a highlight that can never be taken away from you. It was as loud as I can ever remember it at McKale.”
Los Angeles Times basketball writer Mal Florence described his weekend in Tucson this way: “I thought Oregon was bad, but this is the new Pit.”
How did it happen? How did an Arizona team that finished 16-11 and tied for fourth in the Pac-10, sweep NCAA-bound UCLA and USC teams? The Wildcats shot a combined 57 percent for the weekend.
The future NBA players from Los Angeles — UCLA’s Kiki Vandeweghe, David Greenwood and Brad Holland and USC’s Cliff Robinson — couldn’t overcome what has grown to be the West Coast’s leading game-day environment.
The USC-UCLA weekend has never been able to match the appeal and anticipation of the 1979 games. Over the last 30 LA weekends, Arizona is 50-10 against the Trojans and Bruins with 22 sweeps.
A few years ago, Nehls got a call from Arizona’s 1979 point guard, Russell Brown, who scored a season-high 18 in the upset over UCLA. He asked if Nehls had video of either of the games, or an old tape.
“Unfortunately, no,” says Nehls. “But I’d love to get my hands on one.”
The old Spaghetti Company restaurant on South Alvernon Way closed in 1982. The spirit of ’79 lives on.