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Campus Guide '17: A brief history of Wildcat country

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Courtesy Dean Kelly

An aerial view of the USS Arizona Mall Memorial on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. The UA has its own unique culture and environment that impresses each student in different ways.

Whether you’re a student of the UA or just someone curious and strolling around campus, here is a short primer on the people, places and things that make the UA unique. 

Let’s get to the important stuff first. The most frequent question asked by freshmen, newcomers and sports commentators is almost always: “Why do the Wildcats ‘Bear Down?’”

It’s a question with a remarkable answer, one that evokes the genesis of sports mythology at the UA.

After the first football game of the 1926 season, starting quarterback and student body president John Byrd “Button” Salmon was in a car accident that shattered his spine.

The popular student athlete was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, where every evening until his death, legendary UA football coach James “Pops” McKale (after whom the McKale Center is named) would visit him. On the night before Salmon died, McKale asked if he had a message for his fellow players.

In pain, Salmon whispered something to McKale. Salmon died the next morning. He was so revered at the university that, after his death, his body lay for a day at the old UA assembly hall.

Later that week the football team traveled to New Mexico State University for a game. Before kickoff, McKale gathered the players around him. Former UA lineman Martin Gentry, who was a member of that 1926 team, recalled the scene.

“It was a very emotional moment,” he said. “Mac said that he had asked Button if he had a message for the team. And Button had told him ‘Tell them … tell the team to Bear Down.’”

While its evolution continues, the Student Union Memorial Center has always served as the center of campus life. Now one of the largest student unions in the country, its genesis is decidedly more humble.

University President Cloyd Heck Marvin proposed the idea of a student union in 1923, but it wasn’t until 1938 that a committee was formed to raise funds for the project. That effort stalled out due to the start of World War II, and the UA continued on without a student union for the first half of the 20th Century.

Then in 1951, 28 years after it was first proposed and $1.2 million later, the University of Arizona Student Union Memorial Center was completed and opened to the UA community.

Since its inception, the Union (as it’s known on campus) has served as more than a cafeteria and meeting space. At its opening, the original Union featured a bell-tower harboring a bell recovered from the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona. The nearly 2,000-pound bell, still found on the Unions’ fourth floor, is rung seven times the third Wednesday of the month at 12:07p.m.

In 2003, after two full years of renovation and nearly doubling its square footage, the Union reopened, sporting a new design inspired by the profile of the states’ namesake battleship. The Union, then, serves as a living memorial to the men and women who served and gave their life for their country.

Get used to seeing this feline couple around campus. Married mascots Wilbur T. and Wilma T. (the “T” stands for “The”) Wildcat are the official UA mascots and easily the coolest cats in town. Their story, like their romance, is eternal.

Wilbur began as a live bobcat named Rufus Arizona, named for the schools then-President, Rufus von KleinSmid (who we assume had the facial hair of an 1800s train conductor).

After Rufus died in 1916, the university went without an official mascot for a while. Then, in a football game against Texas Tech on November 7, 1959, eventual UA graduate Ed Stuckenoff donned the wildcat costume and became the first Wilbur in Arizona history.

Wilma came along much like Eve in the biblical story of Genesis: out of a male body. Costume designers were attempting to make another Wilbur outfit, only to stumble upon the genius of the female wildcat form.

Eventually, the two felines were set up on a blind date during a March 1, 1986 basketball game. Wilbur, sensing early on that Wilma was “the one,” proposed and eventually married Wilma on November 21, 1986 in front of elated Wildcats during the annual football game with ASU.

Today, you can catch the couple at most major UA athletic events and all over Tucson.

Let’s be honest: If you’re from out-of-state, hail from Phoenix or have alumni parents, your first exposure to  UA was through sports. Specifically — and this is a wild(cat) guess — Arizona basketball. It’s as good a place as any to dive into UA athletics.

While the UA had successful teams in the 1950s under Fred Enke, Tucson’s basketball obsession began with one man: Lute Olson.

From 1983 through 2006, the last full season he coached, Olson compiled a record of 589-187 at Arizona, a winning percentage of better than 75 percent. Future NBA stars such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Richard Jefferson and Andre Iguodala made their names here under Olson.

In 1997, during the greatest single season in UA athletics history, Olson and his team brought home the NCAA Division I Basketball Championship, beating Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats in overtime 83-79. He would reach the championship again in 2001, losing in somewhat controversial fashion to Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke Blue Devils.

Olson’s effect on the UA and Tucson is impossible to overstate. Before Olson, UA teams were lucky to draw a thousand fans to McKale Center. Since 1985, every game in the nearly 14,000-seat basketball arena has been sold out.

The only description of Olson that truly sums up his influence in the Old Pueblo comes from former NBA center and current ESPN commentator Bill Walton: “The man brought water to the desert.”

Now, Sean Miller has taken the mantle of “most important coach on campus.”

Coming off a disappointing loss to Xavier University in last year’s Sweet 16, Miller is poised to finally make his first trip to the Final Four with the best recruiting class of his career and the top class in the country.

While it doesn’t get quite the attention of its spherical-ball cousin, UA football has quite the long, interesting history. Starting play in 1889 under the moniker “the Varsity,” the team finished with a 1-1-1 record (yes, you could tie in college then).

In 1914, following a tough loss to Occidental College in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Times correspondent Bill Henry, wrote “the Arizona men showed the fight of wildcats.” From there, the name stuck.

During the modern era, the Wildcats have known both remarkable success and forgettable seasons.

In the 1998 Culligan Holiday Bowl under then-coach Dick Tomey, Arizona upset Nebraska of the Big-12 to finish the season 12-1. They would finish the season ranked fourth nationally.

More recently, under current coach Rich Rodriguez, the ‘Cats finished first in the Pac-12 South and represented the conference in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. After a tough 2016 season — made a little easier by thrashing ASU in a final game — the Wildcats enter this season hopeful and ready.

For all freshmen (and others who’ve elected to live on campus), you’ll be spending the bulk of your time in one of the UA’s 23 residence halls. Here is a look at some of the newest and oldest dorms.

The New: Arbol de la Vida and Likins Halls were both completed in 2011. The halls share some similarities: both are multiple-building halls built around a central courtyard, and both sport a custom website that allows for residents to track the halls overall water and energy usage. Very modern.

Arbol is larger, with room for upward of 700 residents, and it’s also one of two honors dorms. Likins is located right off Highland Avenue, so it’s closer to Highland Market and its all-day breakfast burritos. Hey: location, location, location.

The Old: Completed a full 90 years before the UA’s newest dorms, Maricopa and Cochise Halls were both commissioned in 1921. Both are red brick, three-story buildings with Victorian-style columns lining their front entrances.

Maricopa, the oldest dorm on campus, is the only all-women hall on campus. Refurbished in 1992, the hall’s entry way sports a grand piano and period-specific crystal chandeliers. Cochise is co-ed, although it was all-men when it appeared in “Revenge of the Nerds” as the nerds’ house.

Although the UA can seem the ideal vision of a college campus, tragedy has befallen the community on more than one occasion.

On Sept. 5, 2007, Galareka Harrison fatally stabbed her roommate, Mia Henderson, in their Graham-Greenlee dorm room. Henderson, who had suspected Harrison of stealing her UA ID, checks and nearly $500, filled a report with police on Aug. 31, saying she didn’t feel comfortable in the same room as Harrison.

However, Henderson returned the night of her death to confront Harrison and was stabbed 23 times. To evade police, Harrison also inflicted wounds on herself and lied repeatedly during questioning. She was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

One of the other notable tragedies on campus happened at the College of Nursing in 2002.

On Oct. 28, Robert Flores walked into the first floor of the nursing building, sought out professor Robin Rogers and shot her dead in her office. Flores then proceeded to the fourth floor, and entered a lecture hall filled with students taking a test.

He spoke immediately to professor Barbara Monroe, then shot her and fellow professor Cheryl McGaffic. Flores yelled for the students to leave before turning the gun on himself.

A subsequent investigation found that Flores had failed a recent nursing class and was struggling personally and academically. The Nursing Faculty Memorial Scholarship Endowment was established in 2003 to honor the legacy of the three professors.

The endowment provides financial assistance, in perpetuity, to “undergraduate nursing students who have demonstrated academic excellence.”


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