A few days before school ended in the spring of 2008, a photographer and 68 UA swimmers gathered on the steps of Old Main to pose for an image reflecting the bountiful times of Arizona’s athletic department.
All-American swimmers Lacey Nymeyer and Albert Subirats hoisted the 2008 NCAA men’s and women’s swimming championship trophies, side by side. It was symbolic of an athletic department that had won 44 Pac-10 championships over a 20-year period, more than holding its own against California super powers Stanford, USC and UCLA.
Since the NCAA’s athletic directors introduced the Director’s Cup standings in 1994, Arizona had finished in the top 10 eight years in succession and only once dipped as low as No. 24 nationally.
In 2008, Arizona was viewed as a training ground for the NBA, the PGA and LPGA tours, the USA’s Olympic swimming and softball teams, a school laden with elite distance runners and one that had recently won the Pac-10 women’s soccer championship, played in seven of nine NCAA women’s basketball tournaments and soared to volleyball’s version of the Final Four. The Wildcats were even favored to win the 1998 men’s track and field NCAA championship.
No one could’ve seen the crash coming.
Here are the Pac-12 championships won this decade, 2010-19, in sports sponsored by Arizona:
10: Arizona and Colorado
8: Oregon State
2: Arizona State
0: Washington State
For the first time since the 1983-84 academic year, Arizona failed to place a football, basketball or baseball team in a postseason game.
A lot of angst was created when the Wildcats were not included in the NCAA baseball playoffs Monday, but cries of “this is a baseball school” no longer hit home. Arizona has won just one Pac-12 baseball championship in 27 years. It hasn’t made the NCAA Regionals in 16 of the last 30 years.
Not only that, but Arizona’s position in the Director’s Cup has become uncomfortably low. The Wildcats are currently No. 53, although it is likely to improve after the Women’s College World Series is complete. In 2017 and 2018, Arizona ranked No. 51 and No. 42 in the final Director’s Cup standings, by far the lowest in school history.
Two questions arise: One, how did Arizona ever become a top-10 athletic department from 1994-2006? Its average finish in the Director’s Cup was ninth. Two, why has it fallen so far? Its average finish this decade is 32nd.
The successful part is easy: The Pac-12 began sponsoring women’s sports in 1985-86, and few schools in America were more prepared than Arizona.
Mary Roby, the school’s first WSA — women’s senior administrator for athletics — was taken into confidence by new athletic director Cedric Dempsey and became a administrator of historical significance. She identified and hired iconic coaches Mike Candrea, Frank Busch and Dave Rubio, and, upon retiring in the mid-1990s, had set a standard for excellence that her replacement, Rocky LaRose, carried to the highest level until her retirement in 2012.
During the 1990s, when Arizona won a decade-high 22 Pac-10 championships, Roby, LaRose, Dempsey and his replacement, Jim Livengood, all but gave a clinic on how to operate a Power 5 conference athletic department. Their top assistants — Chris Del Conte and Bob Bockrath — were so skilled they went on to be ADs at Texas and Alabama, respectively.
The coaching staff was second to none: Golf’s Rick LaRose coached the UA men’s and women’s teams to national championships and his men’s team reached the NCAA meet every year between 1987 and 2007. Arizona has not reached the NCAA men’s golf finals since LaRose retired seven years ago.
Busch coached Arizona’s women’s swimming team to top 10 finishes in 18 consecutive years, and the men’s team to 11 consecutive top 10 seasons. It seemed contagious: Joan Bonvicini turned the Pac-10’s most woeful women’s basketball program into a regular NCAA Tournament team, winning the league championship in 2004. Track and field coach Dave Murray won five Pac-10 cross country championships and consistently produced elite athletes; Fred Harvey followed in kind.
And of course there was Lute Olson and Dick Tomey, both hired by Dempsey.
The culture of success was undeniable.
About 30 years ago, Dempsey’s lead fundraiser, Tom Sanders, fostered a relationship with Bill Hillenbrand, a burial services millionaire from Indiana. Hillenbrand fronted the money for the UA’s aquatic center and softball facility, which put Arizona’s non-revenue sports on a trajectory for success before billionaires like Oregon’s Phil Knight and Stanford’s Arrillaga family took it to a higher level, changing the Cardinal and Ducks forever, and truly making Pac-12 athletics a money game.
Once Busch, Bonvicini, Tomey and Rick LaRose left, those programs hit bottom.
Arizona couldn’t keep up and now it shows.
The Wildcats did not win a Pac-12 championship or an NCAA title this year. Dating to 1985, the only other times that happened was 2009 and 2016.
It’s not like the inclusion of Utah and Colorado into the Pac-12 has changed Arizona’s status. CU’s only conference titles are in cross country; Utah won three of its four in gymnastics.
In the current Director’s Cup standings, Stanford, USC, UCLA and Oregon are all in the top 18. Over the next decade, it will be difficult and unexpected for any Pac-12 school to break into that foursome.
It used to be that the most coveted goal in UA sports was to get to the Rose Bowl. Now just getting to any bowl game, or even to the NCAA basketball tournament, seems to be difficult enough.