Twenty-five years ago this fall, Arizona Football turned in the best season in program history: The Wildcats finished 12-1 and ranked 4th in the nation.
KGUN 9’s Pat Parris recently sat down with the three captains from the memorable team, part of our 2023 season preview, Made in Tucson: Desert Fury.
Pat: “25 years, hard to believe right?”
Kelvin Eafon, 1998 Offensive Team Captain: “Man, hard to believe. I was just telling these guys I had my son that year so that’s kind of the way I keep up with it. No, 25 years man. Every time I look back on it and I remember 21-1 I knew that that would be something that would be hard to surpass.”
Scooter Sprotte, 1998 Defensive Captain: “It’s crazy, I’ve got two kids at U of A now, two daughters at U of A. It’s gone by way too fast.”
Barrett Baker, 1998 Special Teams Captain: “Now we’re husbands and dads, and working full time. Now you just look back at the memories and think my goodness what a time in our lives. To know that that was the best team, to be a part of the best team with the best leaders and the best players, it always kind of carries you forward for the rest of your life. You can take pride in that. Coach Tomey did a great job of preparing 100 boys to be men.”
Pat: “Coach Tomey, and your thoughts Scooter, when you think about this team and where it was because of Coach Tomey?”
Scooter: “Coach Tomey, as everybody knows, he was just a great human being, period. So, he treated you like a son. I mean Kelvin, he was like a Dad right? So, that’s the kind of person he was. Obviously you want to play hard for a guy like that.”
Kelvin: “A great leader. Coach Tomey brought together, he used to always say that it was about the guys, it was about the Jim’s and the Joe’s, and that’s the way he treated us. The hugs he used to give it was genuine.”
The 1998 team had a genuine bond that actually began with a late-season run in 1997, and an Insight.com Bowl victory over New Mexico.
Kelvin: “To me the 12-1 season was set that previous second half of that previous season and that summer. That summer I felt like we came together like real brothers.”
That 1998 season began with Dick Tomey taking the Wildcats to face his old school, the University of Hawaii.
Arizona star Chris McAlister returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
Barrett: “Is that an omen? Was that a sign of things to come? Maybe it was, because now all of a sudden you had a hundred kids believing that we were the best and that’s how we took the field every week.”
One of the greatest plays in Arizona Football history happened during that ’98 seasonthe improbable early October win at Washingtonwith Wildcat Quarterback Ortege Jenkins coming through in the closing seconds with the “Leap By The Lake.”
Kelvin: “I’m on the sideline cramped out, can’t move.”
Pat: “End of the game.”
Kelvin: “I’m looking over my shoulder and OJ is making a play and I’m like ‘No!'”
Scooter: “That’s what we all said, we all said ‘no, don’t run’ because we all thought he ain’t going to make it.”
Barrett: “No time outs, no time outs.”
Kelvin: “And he runs right into Lester Towns.”
Barrett: “Big linebacker.”
Kelvin: “6 foot 3, 260. One of the toughest.”
Scooter: “We were all saying ‘whoa’.”
Kelvin: “Man that athleticism and destiny took over, right.”
A week later, the 5-0 Wildcats were back home for a top 10 showdown with UCLA.
Trailing by just three points at the start of the 4th quarter, the Wildcats collapse. The Bruins score three times in 2:08 span to beat the Cats 52-28.
Barrett: “In the locker room after the game he said make no mistake about it men you just got whipped in the 4th quarter. You got beat in the 4th quarter. that resonated with us that we could have beaten UCLA nine out of 10 times if things would have gone our way, but in that particular case, we had about four bad plays in a row on both sides of the ball and it snowballed on us.”
Kelvin: “But that one loss showed the true character of our team. It showed the true character because we lost that game like the fifth game of the season, and we won the next seven.”
That included a season ending Territorial Cup victory over Arizona State. The Wildcats beating the Sun Devils in a memorable game at Arizona Stadium 50-42.
Running back Trung Canidate with a pair of long touchdown runs and a record-breaking 288-yards rushing.
Barrett: “From the first kickoff we had so much on the line in that particular game, because we really were planning on going to the Rose Bowl at that point in time. Scooter had a scoop and score for a touchdown. but that game wasn’t decided literally until the end”
Scooter: “We all had roses in our mouth after that game. They gave em to us. We figured we’re in the Rose Bowl. They’re ripping out the goal posts and we have roses.”
But a week later, UCLA lost a non-conference game to Miami, knocking the Bruins out of the National Championship game, and into Arizona’s spot in the Rose Bowl.
Arizona was instead heading for the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska.
Barrett: “That was our ultimate team goal. To give credit to Coach Tomey, don’t cry over spilled milk, what did he immediately do? When we then found out that it was Nebraska he said that’s the defending national champions. That’s where we want to get our program to be and all that “N” stands for our their helmets is not today, not today.”
December 30, 1998 was not Nebraska’s day — it was Arizona’s day.
The Wildcat defense slowing down the Huskers option offense, winning 23-20. It capped off a 12-1 season. Arizona finished with a No. 4 national ranking.
Scooter: “Obviously that was a great era for Wildcat sports, and football. We had it all moving in the right direction at that time.”
Pat: “What do you think the legacy will be of this ’98 team?”
Kelvin: “Oh man, that again we went out on top. That we showed that it can be done at Arizona. I know it can be done in Tucson. We’ve done it before. We were right there on the verge of a national championship birth. I just feel like that belief is something that our team could take pride in.”
Barrett: “For anyone that was part of that, and the fans that supported us that year, I hope that you have pride in that team. Because we’ll take that to the grave with us honestly.”
Pat: “Guys, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure, it’s bee a lot of fun and the ’98 team is something that us Wildcat fans will always cherish and remember. thanks for your time, alright.”
Barrett: “Thanks Pat.”