Former Arizona Wildcats coach Dick Tomey was telling me a story Wednesday night I had never heard.
We were chatting about Chris McAlister, the UA’s unanimous All-American cornerback from 1998 who went to play in 11 NFL seasons. McAlister was back in Tucson on Tuesday night, watching practice and getting a tour of the new Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
“One of the things I remember poignantly was that after I was let go at Arizona (in late November 2000), I was cleaning out my office and such the Tuesday of the next week, and somebody came in and said, ‘Chris is here.’”
Chris is here? Chris McAlister? Isn’t he busy in his second season with the Baltimore Ravens?
“I’ll never forget the hug we exchanged,” Tomey said. “Chris came all the way back to Tucson to say a lot of things in person. It meant a lot to me that he would take the time to come all the way back to Tucson for me.”
While Tomey will always remember that moment, and UA fans (at least those beyond college age) can never forget McAlister on the field, McAlister is working to make sure he just doesn’t fade away into post-NFL retirement after wrapping up his career with two games with the Saints in 2009.
“I was just getting bored,” he said.
So, McAlister is going back to school. He wants his degree as a prelude to a college coaching career.
While living in Southern California, he plans on taking some junior college courses and on-line classes that will count toward his degree, putting him on pace to put the finishing touches on his diploma by coming back to the UA campus in the fall of 2014.
“I really want to coach, and to coach in college,” he said.
“For two reasons. I get to go out and be actually be part of the recruiting process, which I think is very valuable. I think I have a good eye for talent. I think I can see something in a player and brings the best out of him at this stage before he makes it to the next level.
“I’ve thought of coaching in the NFL, but I played there for 10 years and it’s like you’re managing a player rather than coaching him. It’s like, ‘We’re paying you, so we know you’re good.’ You just have to manage their bad habits, because no player in that league is ever perfect.
“I would rather be more involved with the teaching process. I don’t want to just be a babysitter and say, ‘OK, I’ll run the tape for you.’”
McAlister, 36, could become another high-profile player from his era (1996-1998) to become a college assistant. Defensive tackle Joe Salave’a, after his long NFL career, started at San Jose State under Tomey, spent a year at Arizona and is now in his second season coaching the defensive line for Mike Leach at Washington State.
There seems to be a trend starting: Earlier this week, former Arizona basketball center Joseph Blair announced he was returning to school to finish his degree as a full-time student and serve as an undergraduate assistant to Sean Miller.
McAlister broke into a huge grin when asked about the football program’s new facilities, immediately remembering that he and his teammates had to trudge up a truck ramp from the lower level of McKale Center to get out to their old practice field.
“It was a workout before the workout,” he said.
“This is just a major upgrade. Kudos to the school and the boosters and everyone who helped get it done. I told the coach (Rich Rodriguez), I wish I was born 15 years later, then I could be here enjoying it right now.”
Arizona found a way to win big, especially in that 12-1 1998 season when McAlister was a senior, without top-of-the-line facilities. He went on to intercept 26 passes in the NFL, earn All-Pro honors and be one of the league’s top cover men through the decade of the 2000s.
And Arizona still has a place in his heart.
“My playing days here were awesome,” McAlister said.
“I had a great head coach in Dick Tomey and an even better position coach in Duane Akina. Duane made me into the corner that I am. I liked playing here for the fans, and I saw their support. Those are days I will never forget.”