With only four wins and eight losses this past 2011 season, the University of Arizona football team looks to have several obstacles to overcome in the upcoming year. Maybe Rich Rodriguez, with only one year of experience coaching the Wildcats, could benefit from a flashback to the UA’s best season in 1998.
Though head coach Dick Tomey invented the “Desert Swarm” defense in the 1990s, earned the “Coach of the Year” award in 1992, and led his team to a Fiesta Bowl title in 1993, this 1998 season proved to be his finest. With a Holiday Bowl title and a school record for wins in a season, this team blitzed and tackled its way to a #4 national ranking.
The Wildcats kick-started their campaign with a victory against Hawaii in the opener. Led by quarterback Ortege Jenkins, UA was triumphant in its first five games, and was only one quarter away from a perfect season. In its sixth game of the season, Arizona saw a close game slip away, as they allowed UCLA to score three consecutive touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Despite that 52-28 loss, Arizona rebounded with six consecutive wins to finish second in the Pac-10.
But these Wildcats don’t earn the “Best Season” title for just a clean record and a victory in a bowl game. What made this season memorable was the notorious Leap by the Lake play. It was fourth down against the University of Washington, and the Huskies were leading by four points. With 12 seconds left in the game, Jenkins saw his receiver double covered and his running back swinging to the right. According to Anthony Gimino for the Tuscon Citizen, Coach Tomey had just told Jenkins during the timeout “if you run, you better make it”. With these words echoing in his helmet, Jenkins ran to the inside only to find three opponents in his way. In complete defiance of gravity, Jenkins did a front-flip over the Huskies and the goal line. The memorable play was the sole touchdown for the Wildcats in the second half, and it allowed the team to take the lead in the final seconds. Kyle Kensing for the Arizona Desert Swarm explains that had Jenkins taken the hit after scrambling from the shotgun, the clock likely would have expired with time only for a desperation toss at the end zone. Check out the footage of the famous play to see just how airborne Jenkins got.
UA’s football team finished the season at 12-1, a school record. Its roster included some memorable names, such as unanimous All-American Chris McAlister who, according to Mike Preston for The Baltimore Sun, was only the seventh player in college football history to return a kickoff, punt and interception for a score in the same season. McAlister went on to be a first-round pick for the Baltimore Ravens, and Arizona guard Edwin Mulitalo was selected by the same team in the fourth round.
So it seems that Rich Rodriguez has much to aspire to in regards to Dick Tomey’s 1998 Wildcat team. However, the Wildcats’ 11th place finish in the Pac-12 this past year shows that they might need more than a cool front-flip to return to national prominence.