Just last week, the Tommy Lloyd Era of University of Arizona men’s basketball began. I was going to go—just as I had gone to Lute Olson’s first home game and Sean Miller’s first game in McKale—but when I saw that the opponent was NAU, I got the equivalent of the journalistic yips. It can’t happen twice in the same year, can it?!
Then I was going to go to the next game. It was against somebody named UTRGV. That means University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. You know how some college name acronyms are cool? Cal State University Northridge is CSUN (pronounced See-Sun). Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is See-Pee-Slo. (Well, maybe not so cool, but certainly memorable.) But, how would you like to say that you go to Utt-Gruv?
There is a weird coincidence at play here. In Lute Olson’s first season on the Wildcat bench, his team played (and lost to) the school now known as UTGRV. (Back then, it was Pan American University.) Olson’s team would go 11-17 that year, his only losing season in Tucson. Still, it was a marked improvement over the previous year, when Ben Lindsey, in his only year as Wildcat coach, went 4-24 (1-17 in Pac-10 play).
I actually saw Lindsey’s first game, too. Those Wildcats were dreadful, and they were dreadfully coached, as well. Once, after a timeout, Lindsey broke the huddle and then put four players out on the floor. Fortunately, there were only a couple thousand people there to see it. I remember writing at the time that the only people who would show up to Cat games were students who went there to study because McKale was quieter than the Library.
New Coach Tommy Lloyd isn’t facing a cupboard as empty as the one that greeted Olson, but he does face the challenge of winning back Wildcat fans. It was no big secret that the guaranteed sellout crowds that were a feature of the Olson years were not a part of the later years under Sean Miller. Oh, Arizona still led the Pac-12 in attendance under Miller, but it was 12,000 a night instead of 14,000.
It’s really odd. Sean Miller had a record of 302-109 in 12 seasons at Arizona, an average season record of 25-9. His teams won five Pac-12 regular-season championships and three Pac-12 Tournament titles. Three times his teams came oh-so-close to reaching the Final Four, but they never made it.
Unfortunately, correctly or otherwise, Miller will not be remembered fondly by most Wildcat fans. The hard-core fans will hold him up to Olson and he will pale by comparison. Olson’s teams won at least 20 games per season for 20 straight seasons! His teams reached the NCAA Tournament 23 straight years. However, his teams only reached the Final Four a rather weak four times, advancing to the championship game twice and winning but one national championship.
(I’ve always thought that the Cats should have won national titles in 1988, 1989 and 2001, but didn’t. Of course, the one championship that they did win, in 1997, they probably shouldn’t have.)
But there are two big differences. Olson radiated charm and grace. He spoke well and smiled easily. When Miller tried to smile, he looked like he was constipated. His hard-charging manner and gruff exterior probably helped him achieve what he did as a coach, but it was off-putting. It was as though he was a sore winner.
The other, more-important, thing is that Olson, in his quarter-century in Tucson, never allowed his high-profile program to veer off into NCAA Trouble Land. Even the most casual UA fan is going to hold that against Miller for a long, long time.
Speaking of time, it feels as though Miller has been gone for quite a while, but he was still the head coach at Arizona in April of this year. And while he left behind some decent players, he also left behind the NCAA Sword of Damocles hanging over the program’s head. The UA self-imposed a postseason ban last year because of the assistant coach money scandal, but the NCAA might not think it was enough of a punishment.
So, that’s what Tommy Lloyd is facing. He’s taking over one of the premier programs of the last 40 years in college basketball. He’s got a few good players, a whole new coaching staff, a declining (and understandably wary) fan base, and, just to make things really interesting, a resurgent Pac-12 with several really good teams and at least one great one (UCLA).
A columnist at a different publication said that Lloyd’s first job is to “bring back the McKale magic.”
I disagree. His first job is to somehow try to make his team more popular than the UA women’s team. Yeah, good luck with that.
Isn’t the 21st century grand!
EXTRA POINTS: The previously high-flying season for the Marana High football team came to a crushing conclusion when the Tigers suffered back-to-back home losses that knocked them out of the 5A State playoffs. After losing to Cienega on Nov. 5, the Tigers, who finished 7-3, were hammered by Ironwood Ridge last Friday. The losses knocked Marana down to Number 18 in the AIA’s ridiculous Power Point rankings (the top 16 advance to state), while Cienega and Ironwood Ridge both made the playoffs. (To show just how ridiculous the rankings are, Campo Verde High of Gilbert finished at No. 12 with a record of 4-6.)… Canyon Del Oro, which started the season with three straight losses, won six of their final seven games, and will be playing in the Class 4A state playoffs. The Dorados will be traveling all the way across the state to take on Lake Havasu… Meanwhile, CDO’s girls volleyball team reached the state championship game before falling to Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep… In the state cross country championships, Ironwood Ridge’s Nathan Richardson and Noah Brunet both finished in the top 15, while CDO’s Sean Jacobsen and Ethan Fritzinger both had Top 20 finishes… On the girls’ side, Marana’s Libby Shields and Ironwood Ridge’s Beatrice Honebrink both finished among the top 20…