TUCSON, Ariz. — Greg Byrne was there in Albuquerque when Arizona hoisted the Gildan New Mexico Bowl trophy Saturday afternoon, signifying his Wildcats as champions after a 49-48 win over Nevada in thrilling comeback fashion.
And he was there when the men’s basketball team kept the Fiesta Bowl Classic trophy in house by beating Florida 65-64 late Saturday night — again in unbelievable, what-just-happened fashion.
A day later, Tucson was still abuzz with excitement.
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“The coaches and the kids made it all happen,” said Byrne, Arizona’s athletic director. “They all did a great job.”
Arizona’s spotlight moment – on a national television stage for each event – was eye candy for the Wildcat faithful all over the country. And Arizona’s faithful on social media reacted in near-consensus fashion: “It’s a great day to be a Wildcat.”
“I don’t know if there has been a better (day),” said former basketball coach Lute Olson, a Hall of Famer who was at the game Saturday night and knows a little about big games and moments. “It was hard to believe they could score two touchdowns in 42 seconds, but they did.”
It started a double dip of delight that ended with Arizona pulling out a late-game thriller in front of a sold-out crowd McKale Center crowd.
“This is why we sing ‘Bear Down,'” said former Arizona football player Kevin Singleton, who watched the games from home in Phoenix. “The true meaning came out yesterday as our Cats faced adversity and came out on top. I am very proud of our Cats football and basketball teams. It’s always great to be a Wildcat.”
On Saturday afternoon, Byrne said he estimated that of the 24,000 people at the New Mexico Bowl, about half were pulling for Arizona, according to what he called a “non-scientific poll.”
“Then to have 14,500 fans in McKale certainly is a tribute to our university and fans,” Byrne said.
It was the first time since Byrne arrived more than two years ago that fans stormed the court at McKale. Those are rare moments — they were even in Olson’s days, when big victories were the norm.
In 1989, the Arizona basketball team stunned No. 1 and defending national champion Michigan in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass., and on the same day, the UA football team beat rival ASU 28-10 in Tempe. In 1995, Arizona football defeated ASU 31-28 in Tempe and the basketball team beat an Allen Iverson-led Georgetown team in the preseason NIT in New York City.
The caveat: None of those games was in Tucson, so the impact wasn’t immediate. Not like Saturday.
Olson said it’s hard to feel the impact when you’re the one involved. And he was involved in a few.
“You don’t even recognize what’s happening with the crowd or anything else, because you’re so involved in the game from a coaching standpoint,” he said.
Olson said he was very proud of the way the UA hoopsters came back, saying before the game it would have to “take the team’s best effort.” Florida is that good.
“The basketball team just showed the ability to hang in there until something good happened,” Olson said. “That’s been the case all season. They have the ability reach down and get that something extra.”
Arizona baseball coach Andy Lopez knows all about that after leading the Wildcats to the NCAA title over the summer.
“Those are great victories and the kind you need in special years,” Lopez said. “You have to have those where you pull out at the end and say, ‘We got that one done.’
“And for Richard (Rodriguez), what a great first year he had. I’ve taken over four programs, and it ain’t easy. He did a marvelous job.”
Added UA softball coach Mike Candrea, an eight-time NCAA champion: “By far it was one of the biggest days for Wildcat sports in a long
time. It’s fun to see both teams win but, more importantly, how they won.
They fought like Wildcats. It was a special day for anyone who bleeds
red and blue. If this is a glimpse to our future, then I think we are in
It all helps in terms of visibility. On Saturday, Arizona got nearly six hours of coverage in the wins along with countless mentions in highlights.
“I would venture to say with all the media coverage, including social media, that I’d be hardpressed for somebody in this country not to turn to somebody and say, ‘They’ve got something going on at Arizona,'” Lopez said. “And that’s pretty good.”
So good that when Rodriguez arrived to Tucson and eventually made his way with his team to the basketball game for a quick halftime ceremony — and a standing ovation — he said, “Our coaches are proud to represent UA. We’ve got the best university in the country. We appreciate your support. Next year might be the Rose Bowl.”
Well, that alone might trump days like — and the daze that was — Saturday. Until then, the buzz continues.