University of Arizona basketball does not begin or end with Lute Olson, despite the four Final Fours and one NCAA title to his credit.
Olson’s 24 seasons at the helm of UA basketball cast a giant shadow, one that perhaps obscures another principal contributor to all that is Arizona basketball today.
Former UA star and current Wildcat broadcaster Bob Elliott sums it up this way: “If there’s not a Fred Snowden, there’s probably not a Lute Olson.”
Elliott explains that Olson was already a Final Four coach who had his choice of schools to move on to – and that Snowden’s success here showed Lute the possibilities.
“It’s a lot easier to go to a program where the fire had already been lit. . . . Lute knew the fire had been lit by Freddy,” Elliott says.
Snowden is the man who took the Cats from the 3,000 seats or so of Bear Down Gym to brand new McKale Center and its nearly 15,000 seats in 1973.
It was a lot of pressure for a rookie head coach. Not only was he tasked with filling McKale and creating a national reputation for the program, he also had the added glare of publicity that came from being the first African-American head coach in men’s Division I basketball.
Snowden’s first recruiting class, known as the Kiddie Korps and featuring five freshman starters, took Tucson by storm. By the time McKale opened at midseason, Tucson’s love affair with basketball was in full bloom and sellouts were the norm.
“Fred was the catalyst,” says Jerry Holmes, an assistant coach under Snowden.
“The Fred Snowden regime in that time started the tradition of Arizona basketball, without question,” Holmes says.
Success built quickly, as Snowden’s breakneck offense captivated Tucson.
“The community really bought into this team. . . . It was the most exciting time in UA sports history,” Holmes says.
Two members of the Kiddie Korps, Eric Money and Coniel Norman, left early for the NBA, and another, John Irving, transferred. But two of them remained to take the Wildcats to then-unheard of heights: the final eight in the NCAA Tournament and within eight minutes of the Final Four.
That 1976 team, which featured Elliott at center, was led by Kiddie Korps holdovers Al Fleming and Jim Rappis. In what was certainly Snowden’s finest season, his Cats beat John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas in the first round. It was also the first meeting of two black head coaches in the NCAA Tournament.
Next up was Nevada-Las Vegas, ranked No. 3 in the country. The Cats won 114-109 in overtime, propelled by what may have been the finest backcourt performance ever by a Wildcat twosome. Rappis and junior Herm Harris combined for 55 points on 23 of 36 field-goal shooting and 21 assists. They did it without the benefit of the three-point shot.
Then came mighty UCLA in the West Region final, on its home court at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. The Bruins broke open a tie game with eight minutes to go and went on to earn the Final Four berth.
“It was the first team in Arizona history to go to the Elite Eight. That set a benchmark,” says Elliott.
Combined with Olson’s first UA Final Four squad in 1988 and the 1997 NCAA title team, they form a trio of milestones that new UA coach Sean Miller will try to surpass.
“The milestone is to win two national titles. Everything else has been done,” says Elliott.