Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history: No. 36 Tom Tunnicliffeby Anthony Gimino on Jul. 28, 2013, under Arizona football
Position, years at Arizona: Quarterback, 1980-83
Honors, accomplishments at UA: Earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors in 1983. … Third in school history in passing yards (7,618) and total offense (7,336 yards).
Why he made our list: Tunnicliffe was five games into his freshman season when he got the call from coach Larry Smith, with the Wildcats down 17 points to Washington State. Arizona didn’t win that game, nor did it win a week later (scoring only three points against No. 2 Notre Dame), but then Tunnicliffe threw two touchdowns and led a pair of 80-yard drives as the Wildcats shocked No. 2 UCLA 23-17.
That was the beginning of a series of big wins for Tunnicliffe and UA over the next 3 1/2 years, as the program moved away from NCAA scandal and into its best two decades of football.
Tunnicliffe started 39 consecutive games for UA, including wins over top-ranked USC in 1981, No. 9 Notre Dame in 1982, No. 6 Arizona State in 1982 (denying the Sun Devils the Rose Bowl) and, in his final home game, he threw a late touchdown pass vs. UCLA for a 27-24 victory that knocked the first-place Bruins off their Rose Bowl path.
The 1982 game vs. ASU was especially epic, remembered for two long scoring passes from Tunnicliffe — 92 yards to Brian Holland (see video below) and 65 yards to Brad Anderson — as UA won 28-18. That game started “The Streak” — UA’s nine-game undefeated run against its hated rival.
Tunnicliffe ended his UA career with 7,618 passing yards, a school record that stood until Willie Tuitama broke the mark in 2008. Nick Foles surpassed both of them three years after that.
Tunnicliffe was fourth in Pac-10 history in career passing yards when he was done at UA. With college football steadily moving to a greater reliance on the passing game, Tunnicliffe’s total has dropped to 29th in conference history.
But Tunnicliffe’s status in UA lore is more than a compilation of numbers; his longevity and big victories fuel his legacy.
Life after college: Tunnicliffe didn’t have an NFL profile, perhaps not quite 6-feet tall and possessing average overall athleticism. Undrafted, he went to camp with the Seattle Seahawks, running third string before the team decided to keep only two quarterbacks, Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg. Tunnicliffe decided to give up football.
“I didn’t want to bounce around,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “Football wasn’t my whole life. I’d been playing tackle football every year since I was 8 — 14 years straight — and I’d had enough.”
Tunnicliffe earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1985 and joined his father, Tom Sr., who owned Thomas Realty in Burbank, Calif. Tunnicliffe remains there as president and CEO of the company.
In partnership with the Arizona Republic, we are counting down the top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Leave your top 10 at AG’s Wildcat Report on Facebook, and check out azcentral.com for the countdown of ASU’s Top 50 football players.
No. 50 — LaMonte Hunley
No. 49 — Hubie Oliver
No. 48 — Rob Gronkowski
No. 47 — Jim Donarski
No. 46 — Ontiwaun Carter
No. 45 — Steve McLaughlin
No. 44 — John Fina
No. 43 — Glenn Parker
No. 42 — Bobby Lee Thompson
No. 41 — Marcus Bell
No. 40 — Fred W. Enke
No. 39 — Ka’Deem Carey
No. 38 — Juron Criner
No. 37 — Dana Wells
Here are some 1980′s Arizona highlights featuring Tunnicliffe. The pass to Holland starts at the 25-second mark.