It was the winter of 1994. The Arizona Wildcats, several months removed from being on the cover of Sports Illustrated as college football’s preseason No. 1 team, were trying to refuel after a disappointing 8-4 season.
Autry Denson, one of the nation’s top high school running backs, was on campus for a recruiting visit.
He saw the athletic department’s weight room, which might have more closely resembled something from one of the nation’s biggest high schools than an elite college program.
He saw some of the bare assistant coaches’ offices, with slanted concrete ceilings, carved into unlikely skinny spaces in McKale Center.
He saw a pair of practice fields that fell short of 100 yards.
You know what an assistant coach once told me about Denson’s reaction?
Like superstar running back recruit Ahman Green a year before him, there was no way, no how, Denson was going to be a Wildcat after being on campus and seeing what Arizona couldn’t offer. Denson committed to Florida State before signing with Notre Dame.
Nearly two decades later — yes, it’s been a long time coming amid the national facilities arms race in athletics — the Wildcats’ football program is rejoicing in its new $74 million home in the north end zone of Arizona Stadium.
“Those days of hiding certain parts of our facilities, those days of having to say, ‘Hey, we’re sorry for what we have’ … those days are gone,” athletic director Greg Byrne said Thursday after leading the media on a tour of the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
“Having been around the country and seeing what we’re competing against on a regular basis, we knew we had to make some significant improvements to our infrastructure. This is the shining example of it.”
The new seating and club level in the north end zone, the new concourse, the new amenities … it will all benefit the fans’ experiences. The first-rate weight room, training room, cafeteria and all that other good stuff under one large and efficient roof should aid in player development.
But this is really about one thing: Recruiting.
This is all about the Wildcats never having to say they’re sorry.
For years, Arizona coaches had to sell family, not facilities. Community, not construction.
It’s a tricky pitch, and not everyone wanted to hear it. But, sometimes — quite often actually in the 1980s and 1990s — it worked. It worked as well as it could possibly work.
Having to thread the needle with the right combination of coaches, personality and keen recruiting eyes, Arizona overcame its facilities deficits to post great upsets, unforgettable moments and special seasons. But the Cats could never cross the tightrope all the way to Pasadena, and the high-wire act was too difficult to maintain, as success was often met with dead-ends on the recruiting trail with blue-chippers such as Green and Denson.
Now, for the first time, Arizona is playing with all the pieces of the puzzle.
With second-year coach Rich Rodriguez, the Cats can sell family and facilities. That’s a powerful, and, at Arizona, unprecedented combination.
“Everybody talks about their family environment,” Byrne said. “I like how our coaches back up the talk of that environment.”
When Arizona hears a “no” on the recruiting trail, it won’t be because the grass elsewhere is greener than the green of UA’s new FieldTurf CoolPlay surface.
The 189,000 square feet of new facilities — with flat-screens everywhere, more uses for the block “A” logo than you could imagine and plenty of nods to UA history — is plenty pretty.
“This is absolutely gorgeous,” said linebacker Jake Fischer. “We love it.”
OK, so Oregon’s new facility is prettier. Big deal.
If the Ducks are the supermodel of facilities, Arizona has to rate as the Homecoming queen. What, you’re not going to date the Homecoming queen?
The Cats are in the game now, having never been so attractive. Nobody’s laughing.
The program hosted a red-carpet recruiting event last week to more than 35 prospects, several of whom had already committed. Six players at that weekend visit have committed since then. Stay tuned for more.
“I think we’re already starting to see the difference,” Byrne said.
The message that Byrne really wanted to deliver, to fans and recruits, is that now is the time to get on board.
“This is the next step,” he said while standing on the FieldTurf, looking at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
“We want to be able to get to the Rose Bowl. We want to be able to compete for championships in football. This is that foundation to give us a chance.”
Facility notes, photos: Ex-coach Stoops says ‘kids deserve’ these new facilities