It was the 1993-94 school year and Arizona Wildcat sports fans were flying high. Three giants of the Arizona coaching ranks each had one of his greatest seasons ever, with conference and national championships abounding. Two of those legends have since passed away; one was actually fired from his position at the UA while the other left under extremely messy circumstances. The third managed to hang on for another quarter-century, winning many more titles and cementing his legacy as truly the Greatest Of All Time in his chosen endeavor before gracefully retiring just last week.
That football season started off rather shakily, had a couple stumbles along the way, but ended with a bang. The Cats started off the season by beating horrible UTEP, then squeaking by equally-horrible Pacific, 16-13, and so-so Illinois, 16-14. They then reeled off four straight wins to start the conference season, although the final two of those four wins were three-point wins at home (27-24 over Stanford and—ugh!—9-6 over Washington State).
The Wildcats, by then ranked No. 7 in the country, then stumbled at 15th-ranked UCLA. But all Arizona had to do was win out against a trio of Pac-10 foes that would finish the conference season with a combined record of 10-14 and they would be Rose Bowl-bound. They easily handled Oregon and Arizona State, but they suffered one of the most-infuriating losses in Wildcat history, falling to the Cal Bears, 24-20, after having led 20-0 at the half!
Arizona had to settle for a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, but the Cats at least came out smelling like Roses as they throttled national powerhouse Miami, 29-0.
The Wildcat men’s basketball team was coming off back-to-back years of flaming out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, once to a Santa Clara team led by a skinny Canadian named Steve Nash. But this team started on a roll and just stayed there all season.
They won their first eight games, lost by one point to fifth-ranked Kentucky, then started another winning streak. The Cats won the Pac-10 title and went into the NCAA Tournament with a No. 2 seed. They played (and won) their first four games all in the state of California, hammering top-seeded Missouri by 20 to reach the Final Four. The Cats finally met their match, losing to the Arkansas Razorbacks and their legendary “40 Minutes of Hell” defense.
Finally, the UA women’s softball team went 64-3. Yes, three. They also went 23-1 in Pac-10 play. (That one loss must haunt them.) They won a second consecutive national championship and third of what would become eight national titles.
It was an incredible year and all three coaches—Dick Tomey, Lute Olson and Mike Candrea—were at the top of their respective professions. Each would surpass that which he had accomplished in 1994. Dick Tomey’s 1998 team would go 12-1 (STILL not making it to the Rose Bowl), beating Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl and finishing the season ranked fourth in the nation.
After his teams went a combined 11-12 the next two seasons, Tomey was unceremoniously fired. It was a dumb decision.
Lute Olson made it back to the Final Four a couple more times, winning a surprising title in 1997 and losing to Duke in 2001. His departure from Arizona came as a shock and the details of the situation remain shrouded in mystery to this day.
And then there’s Mike Candrea, probably the greatest Arizona coach of all time. In the seven years following that 64-3 team, the Wildcats won more than 64 games in a season three times, culminating each of those seasons with another national title. That’s crazy.
There’s this (mis)quote that’s attributed to Plutarch: “When Alexander (the Great) saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Mike Candrea can look out over the 2021 world of college softball and realize that there are lots of worlds to conquer and he is pretty much responsible for all of them being there.
When Candrea started winning at Arizona (which was immediately), the Cats played on this raggedy old field and “fans” could watch playoff games for free. As his teams steamrolled all comers, a funny thing happened. Other schools in the West and South upped their games considerably. Veritable softball palaces, with seating for thousands, have sprung up all over the country. At many schools, softball has supplanted baseball as the Spring sport of choice.
Candrea is retiring with a staggering 1,674 victories, averaging more than 50 wins a season, an absolutely ridiculous accomplishment.
And so now, the University of Arizona goes into the 2021-22 school year with new coaches in football, men’s basketball and softball. Wouldn’t it be great if someday, we can party like it’s 1994?