Editor’s note Star columnist Greg Hansen is counting down the 100 best days in Tucson sports history. Today: No. 17.

Dec. 30, 1998: Arizona beats Nebraska in Holiday Bowl, finishes 12-1

For 98 years, no Arizona football team from any era or generation was able to say it was the best in school history. At least not with any conviction.

Tex Oliver’s 8-2 club of 1937? The Wildcats didn’t even have facemasks in ’37.

Jim LaRue’s 8-1-1 team of 1961? The single loss came to West Texas State.

Jim Young’s 9-2 powerhouse of 1975 lost its season finale at ASU. “The Catch” by John Jefferson lingers. It remains perhaps the most bitter loss in school history.

Larry Smith’s 9-3 squad of 1986, beloved forever for Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard interception return to beat Rose Bowl-bound ASU, was swept by USC and UCLA.

And Dick Tomey’s Desert Swarm teams always lost the game they couldn’t afford to lose, at Cal in ’93 and at Oregon in ’94.

This all began to change on a Saturday morning, Dec. 5, 1998. The 11-1 Wildcats sent representatives to the Tournament of Roses House in Pasadena, California, eagerly prepared to accept a formal invitation to play in the 1999 Rose Bowl game.

One final detail remained. UCLA, undefeated at 10-0, had to beat Miami that afternoon to clinch a spot in the BCS championship game. Once that happened, the Wildcats would go to the Rose Bowl.

As if eternally jinxed, the Wildcats’ various “watch parties” ended in football horror. The No. 3 Bruins blew a three-touchdown lead and lost 49-45 to a Miami club that had been routed 66-13 by Syracuse a week earlier.

A day later, at the UA’s annual year-end banquet, Tomey grabbed a microphone as he looked into the audience, seeing the faces of a team that had won 16 of its previous 17 games and was ranked No. 5.

“This is the best Arizona team of all time,” he said, “None of this is diminished by what happened in the UCLA game.”

From that moment, the Wildcats embraced the opportunity to beat 9-3 Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. It was almost unthinkable that an Arizona football team could win 12 games in a season, capped by a victory over the mighty Cornhuskers.

The ’98 season was a highlight reel, week after week.

  • It began when All-America cornerback Chris McAlister returned the season’s opening kickoff for a touchdown at Hawaii.
  • A month later, on third-and-goal from the Washington 9-yard line, no timeouts remaining, 12 seconds on the clock, quarterback Ortege Jenkins scrambled through the middle of the UW defense. Surrounded at the 3, he somersaulted into the end zone, landing on his feet. Arizona won 31-28. Ever heard of “The Leap By The Lake”?
  • A week later, No. 3 UCLA and No. 10 Arizona met in one of the most anticipated games in school history. It was tied at 28 entering the fourth quarter when UCLA roared to a 52-28 victory.

“It’s the game we’ve always waited for,” said Tomey. “But the score is misleading. This is going to be a very good team.”

  • In the Territorial Cup game, Arizona beat rival ASU 50-42 when tailback Trung Canidate ran for a school-record 288 yards, making 50-yard runs seem routine.

That set the stage for the Holiday Bowl, which drew 65,354 fans, then a record for the game at Qualcomm Stadium.

When Nebraska rallied for a 20-16 lead with 10:22 remaining, overcoming a 9-0 deficit, it looked like same-old, same-old at Arizona.

“We were talking in the huddle, saying, ‘This day won’t ever come again,’ ” said All-Pac-10 receiver Dennis Northcutt. “Everybody always talks about how they want to win, but we had to show it. We wanted each individual to say, ‘I’m going to do my job,’ because we didn’t want to live to regret it.”

Quarterback Keith Smith, who would be the game’s MVP, then led the Wildcats on a 68-yard drive to win it 23-20. A late interception by McAlister, a cornerback who would make the Pac-12’s All-Century team, destroyed Nebraska’s final drive.

At once, it was the best season in Arizona history and among the five or six most meaningful victories.

“This catapults our whole university,” said Canidate, who rushed for 101 yards. “This gives us respect all over the nation.”

During the trophy presentation after the game, Smith accepted the MVP award, walked down a few steps and was greeted by Jenkins, with whom he shared the QB job all season.

Jenkins was crying.

They embraced for about 30 seconds, reveling in the greatest moment of their football careers, the snapshot of all snapshots in Arizona’s 12-1 season.

When they broke apart, Smith, too was crying.

“I don’t know what this means yet,” he said. “But it’s something sweet, something real damn sweet.”

Where are they now: Smith is the offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Newbury Park (California) High School. Jenkins is the owner and operator of 1 Body Strength and Conditioning LLC in Los Angeles. His clients have included former UA basketball All-American Jason Terry.

How they did it: Defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson, later the head coach at Army, designed a special, stop-the-option defensive scheme to limit Nebraska’s running ability. He surprised the Cornhuskers by using an extra linebacker, a scheme Ellerson had not used all season. Ellerson is now the defensive coordinator of FBS power Jacksonville; the Dolphins went 9-2 last season.

Sports columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.