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Greg Hansen: Mr. Football talks stadium construction, FieldTurf and freshmen

Greg Hansen: Mr. Football talks stadium construction, FieldTurf and freshmen

Dear Mr. Football: Why didn’t the UA celebrate its $75 million project at Arizona Stadium with some bold scheduling? Aren’t thousands of empty seats tonight going to diminish the whole project?

A: The Wildcats were fearless when showing off Arizona Stadium’s new upper deck in 1976, playing (and beating) Auburn, and again in 1989 when they hosted (and beat) Oklahoma the year the stadium debuted luxury suites.

But they failed to sell-out either game, drawing just 52,206 against Auburn and 50,931 for the Sooners.

The one constant about UA football: With the exception of marquee Pac-12 games, the Wildcats need considerable help to sell 58,000 seats. They needed 10,000 Ohio State fans to show up, as they did in 2000, and they needed 8,000 Iowa fans (2010) and legions of Latter-day Saints, that made the 2006 BYU game a sellout.

A year ago, one of college football’s most entertaining teams, No. 19 Oklahoma State, drew just 45,602 in Tucson. That’s sad. That’s also Arizona football history. As good as the Cowboys have been, their fans don’t travel the way those at BYU, Ohio State and Iowa do.

It’s not going to be much different the next five years. Arizona’s scheduled nonconference home games are against UNLV, Nevada, Grambling, Houston, UTEP and BYU. Sad. True.

Dear Mr. Football: What change will fans notice most tonight?

A: The voice of Jonas Hunter, who is the new public address announcer.

Hunter will be Arizona’s sixth PA man since treasured Bumps Tribolet, a 1933 UA grad, retired almost 40 years ago. In post-Bumps days, the UA used, among others, a politician, Roger Sedlmayr; a weather man, Jimmy Stewart; and a radio sports-talk guy, Jody Oehler.

All were ordinary, rivaling UA football.

The most distinguished football PA man in Pac-12 football is Oregon’s Don Essig, who is so popular in Eugene that he wrote a book. I’d pay just to sit in Autzen Stadium and hear Essig read a lineup card.

Hunter is a former disc jockey who has worked the PA system for Arizona softball and Tucson Padres games. In that regard, he has seen the top and the bottom. At Arizona Stadium, he’ll mostly see the middle this season.

Dear Mr. Football: Has anyone waited longer than Phil Wright to play football at Arizona Stadium?

A: Phil Wright was an offensive tackle at Long Beach State in 1987, the year the 49ers eliminated football and, with it, a proposed game at Arizona Stadium in 1989.

Wright went on to become a national-level fastpitch softball player and coach of the Cal Haze girls softball team, an AAU power. More recently he became head coach of the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College women’s softball team, where his ties to the UA athletic department grew twofold.

First, Wright is on the SRJC coaching staff with Craig McMillan, men’s basketball coach, a starter for Arizona’s loved 1988 Final Four team. Second, Wright’s son, true freshman Phil “Scooby” Wright, could possibly start at linebacker for Arizona tonight.

The first true freshman to start at Arizona was Terry Vaughn, a receiver, in 1990. It is so difficult and rare that even future College Football Hall of Fame linebacker Ricky Hunley didn’t start until his seventh game at Arizona, 1980.

Scooby is such a good athlete that he caught nine touchdown passes as a high school senior and has a 38-inch vertical jump. As for making a debut in his first college game, Scooby probably has the best advice possible on first-game jitters, from his sister, Ashley Wright.

In her college softball debut, Feb. 9, 2007, as a pitcher at Illinois, Ashley Wright won both games of a doubleheader against Louisville.

Dear Mr. Football: Why has the NCAA taken so long to determine receiver DaVonte’ Neal’s eligibility?

A: Neal left Notre Dame on March 26. It has been five full months of limbo. But it compares closely to former Arizona point guard MoMo Jones, who left Arizona for Iona on May 16, 2011. and was declared eligible at Iona on Oct 20, 2011, almost exactly five months.

A good barometer comes from Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller who on Wednesday said that UA sophomore forward Zach Peters, a Kansas transfer who filed for medical hardship, expects to learn if he is eligible “next week.”

Peters was cleared medically in February and became a Wildcat on May 12. Time marches on and on and on in the NCAA world.

The NCAA has often worked at a snail’s pace with little regard for the athlete. When Arizona All-America point guard Damon Stoudamire awaited a ruling on his Senior Day weekend, 1995, snagged in a case in which his father was accused of accepting a free airline ticket, the NCAA eligibility staff left the office at 5 p.m., on a Friday and took the weekend off. That left Stoudamire hanging; he missed his Senior Day. When the NCAA staff returned to work the following Monday morning, it ruled Stoudamire eligible.

The damage was done.

Dear Mr. Football: Is Arizona’s new Field Turf the state of the football art?

A: It is one of six artificial turf surfaces used by BCS schools. Cal uses Matrix Turf; Baylor plays on Hellas Matrix; Arkansas’ field is SportExe Powerblade; Kansas State plays on GameDay Grass 3D60H; and Maryland installed Revolution Cool Play turf.

It’s not that artificial turf is a must-have amenity in college football. Ten SEC schools still play on grass, as do Pac-12 partners ASU, USC, UCLA, Stanford and Colorado.

More important than Field Turf is that Arizona finally eliminated the track surrounding the playing surface, which was dangerous and gave the look of small-college football. The only thing to detract from the look tonight will be empty seats.

Dear Mr. Football: Could this be the youngest, most inexperienced Arizona football team in 25 years? Or 50 years?

A: Thirteen freshmen are listed on the two-deep depth chart. That’s scary. It’s also reality at Arizona, which is now feeling the recruiting losses of the Mike Stoops staff of 2009 and 2010.

It’s possible that three freshmen (or redshirt freshmen) who have never caught a college pass — Nate Phillips, Clive Georges and Samajie Grant — will be starters or play considerably.

Arizona went into the 1990 season with listed starters James Bullock and David Lockhart having never caught a pass, and with tight ends Kyle Jan and Richard Griffith having combined to catch six balls.

That Arizona team stunned No. 11 Illinois 28-16 in the opener, won seven games and played in the Aloha Bowl.

By the time this team has gone 3-0, likely beating three bantamweights to start, it has a chance to be better than the ’90 Wildcats. But it might be uncomfortable for a bit tonight; Arizona 31, NAU 20.

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