In essence, Arizona can be a solid second-tier team with the ability to make a dash at glory every now and again. Even Athletic Director Jim Livengood sees it that way.
"It's not a hard equation," said Livengood in an interview with Cat Tracks after the dismissal of John Mackovic. "We present a football team that has a chance to win. I'm not saying we're going to win all the time. A chance to win and fun to watch, and people will spend entertainment dollars and come to it. It's very hard to go back and find two really good University of Arizona teams in a row. You might find two, you wouldn't find three. We need to string together two or three seasons where people have reason for optimism. Rather than coming into the 1994 season after the Fiesta Bowl or coming into the 1999 season after the Holiday Bowl, we need to have a season where we're excited and then have another good season. Not great, but just a good season, and then when you go into your next spring and summer campaign, people will say, ‘By golly, the Wildcats are developing a program.' We've not done that."
Kansas State has. Indeed, the resurgence at K-State has to be considered among the great Phoenix-esque rises in college football. KSU was a Big 12 and national doormat for decades, but Bill Snyder has made the program competitive. And he's strung together numerous winning seasons in the process.
But one thing has eluded the Wildcats from Manhattan. A Big 12 championship or an appearance in a major BCS bowl game. Yes, K-State was robbed from a potential BCS spot in a one-loss regular season a couple years back, when it eventually fell to Purdue in the Alamo Bowl. And there was the Cotton Bowl appearance in 1996.
Kansas State has done what Livengood suggests Arizona must. It has strung together a number of successful seasons. Yet it hasn't managed to get over the hump. Those honors are still reserved only for the likes of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas.
In the Pac-10, that honor could belong almost exclusively to USC. Arizona is a program with a chip on its shoulder. Despite a 10-2 season that culminated in a shutout of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, and despite a 12-1 season that ended with a riveting triumph over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, it hasn't been enough. Partially, as Livengood said, because Arizona hasn't managed to string together at least three consecutive winning seasons.
But just as much because of a stigma that still looms. No conference championship. And more importantly, no trip to the Rose Bowl. Ten wins and ranked sixth at the end of the year? Doesn't matter. A dozen victories and a No. 4 ranking at season's end? Just numbers. No roses. Even if UCLA had held up its end of the bargain and played for a national title, thus giving Arizona the berth to its first Rose Bowl in 1998, fans would have viewed it as a tainted accomplishment.
They see the success of the men's basketball program and believe that can be parlayed into similar results on the gridiron. They don't like the idea that on two occasions, in 10-year intervals, the up-state rival has been able to celebrate a trip to Pasadena. A trip that Arizona has never had the honor of making.
This is the true test that awaits Stoops. Not whether he can recruit the Midwest and make Arizona more competitive. Not whether he can make the UA a consistent winner, even in the mold of Kansas State. But whether he can get Arizona to the Rose Bowl.
The arrival of Stoops hearkens a new era. It ushers in a time of football interest not experienced in these parts in decades. But with all the hoopla, all the anticipation, all the hopes for better days to come, the real task still looms.
Kansas State might be the measuring stick. But the destination has to be Pasadena. How much time does Stoops have? Arizona spent much of the 80s and 90s toying with Roses, only to get November thorns. It's been on the doorstep too many times to count. How many close losses will the fans endure before frustration sets in again.
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