The Day That Divided Arizona Football Into Three Eras: Part III




Part Three

The Pigskin Classic: The fan’s darkest day

It was the very first time in college football history programs were playing a game before Labor Day and adding a 12th game to their schedule. On Aug. 28, 1999, Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State, Miami, Penn State and Arizona began laying the groundwork for the NCAA to sanction a 12-game season.

The entire college football world was watching as Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit primed their ESPN College Game Day audience for what they billed as a contest that would establish a national championship frontrunner. For the very first time ever, my Arizona Wildcats were shown true respect and being named in the same breath as legendary programs.

Trung Candidate was seriously mentioned in Heisman conversations as well and Dick Tomey had Arizona perched on the highest spot that it had ever been to start a season. Ranked No. 4 in the nation and going against No. 3 Penn State, it was the first time the two programs met and millions across the country looked forward to the Pigskin Classic being a legendary slugfest. Being on a stage that enormous was what Arizona football fans had been dying to experience for generations.

For Joe Paterno, games like these were simply a day in the life of a legendary, all-time great coach. Arizona was now on the very stage that Penn State and Coach Paterno had a part in building and it was in their house. His name was synonymous with everything Arizona Wildcat fans dreamed our team could achieve. Paterno was beginning his 34th season as a college head coach, 50th on college sidelines. At the end of that day he would notch his 308th career win.

Penn State turned Happy Valley into Nightmare Alley that day for me. To this day, remembering it brings up feelings of dread and embarrassment. The research for this piece alone was rough. I’ve had to get up and step away from my desk a lot as I have forced myself to watch that game three times. I have had relationship break ups that didn’t hurt as much.

In the first half alone, Penn State racked up almost 400 yards of offense on a once proud, all-time great defense. Chafie Fields’ name was burned into my memory forever when I saw him single handedly carve up what was left of Desert Swarm in six plays. Fields ran for 110 yards on three plays and caught for 70 on three more.

LaVar Arrington, who was the single most hyped player going into the season, lived up to every bit of it. On Arizona’s very first drive, Keith Smith would hand the ball off to Candidate. Arrington dumped him for a loss so fast, that the man assigned to block him had just come out of his stance by the time Arrington got into the backfield. Before the first half was over, he had crushed Candidate’s Heisman hopes and was terrorizing Smith and Ortege Jenkins. Arrington led the Nittany Lion defense and held Arizona (who’s offense had averaged 400 yards a game the year prior) scoreless until 48 seconds were left in the game.

Cameras would show the Arizona sideline and the nation saw a team that had the look like it had given up even before heading into the locker room at halftime. What hurt the most was hearing for myself the defeatist statements Arizona players and coaches used after the drubbing. My father and I stared at our TV screen, watching the body language and faces of our boys as 100,000 fans rained down chants of, “OVER-RATED!” midway through the second quarter. “Anybody that doesn’t think that, is crazy at this time and based on this result,” Dick Tomey said after the game about the chants.

“They punished us like we were a Pop Warner team.”

Arizona LB DaShon Polk:
“That play (by Fields) messed us up. When something like that happens, a good team will come back to their sideline and make adjustments. But we’re not a good team and we didn’t.”

Arizona LB Marcus Bell to ESPN:
“I’m embarrassed for this team.”

Corso for ESPN Game Day:
“This was not a good day for the Arizona ‘Mildcats.’ Now, they looked good in the pregame warm up…the only thing they won all day was the flip of the coin. After that, it was all downhill.
The fat lady started to sing in the first quarter. Forget about it. They were bombed. ”

“So much for the speed of the Pac-10.”

I decided to spare you and post a 15 minute version from YouTube rather than post the full 3 hour version I have been watching.

From having its best year ever in 1998 finishing 12-1 with a win over Nebraska and kicking off Arizona 1999 season ranked fourth in positon to seriously contend for a national title, the Wildcats wound up 6-6 that season and failing to earn a bowl berth. In 2000, the Wildcats started the season off 5-1, only to lose five straight and finish 5-6. Tomey resigned immediately after the season was over citing public pressure for him to leave.

After losing the final game of the 2000 season, Tomey advised his team in the locker room and addressed the media saying, “I just told them that I didn’t think I could continue because the public debate has become so difficult for my family, for our team, for our coaches and their families. I have know other choice and that’s all I’m going to say. If I have something smarter to say I’ll say it later.” With that, 14 seasons of Arizona Football under Tomey were over. At 95-64-4 during his time at the helm at Arizona Stadium, Tomey finished as the winningest coach in Arizona history.

In my mind, the Pigskin Classic loss to Penn State set the Arizona football program back 10 years.

The Mackovic Era would set our program back even further.

To be continued…

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