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The Curse of Dick Tomey Part 1 : John Mackovic

Mike Luke Avatar
November 15, 2021

“One time, when we had all of our seniors going and working out on the field getting ready for the NFL scouts to come, John Mackovic came on and kicked everyone out and nobody had any clue why. At that point, I knew things were going to be different.” — Clay Hardt, Arizona safety, 2000-2003

Arizona football was known for a few things during the 1990s: great defenses, subpar offenses and the likelihood that every four to five years a nationally relevant product would grace the field.

It was also a decade dominated by a man who wanted nothing to do with the spotlight: coach Dick Tomey. The man who would shoulder the blame for losses and shower player praise during wins. Yet Tomey’s approach to success in the desert haunts and acts as a blueprint for future endeavors.

In many ways, there are two eras of Arizona football, and Tomey acts as a line of demarcation.

The UA has a winning tradition. From its inception in 1899 until 1999, Arizona was a mostly good football program; rarely great, rarely dreadful, generally consistent and competitive.

But Tomey gave the fan base something it hadn’t experienced, especially in the big money era of college football. He briefly flirted with greatness, ultimately corrupting a fan base into believing that it could achieve great things, only to be denied its most coveted prize: the Rose Bowl.

In the more than two decades since the Tomey/Arizona relationship dissolved, football and success have been largely anathema.

Tomey may not have invented the key components to program success, but he certainly embraced noteworthy tenets; tenets that seemed largely to dissipate with those who followed.

It started with coach-to-player connectivity. A modern-day Father Flanagan of sorts, it didn’t matter to Tomey who the player was or what his socioeconomic background was. Tomey was a player’s coach who had a gift for mining diamonds in the rough.

“I came to Arizona as a basketball player but the moment I transitioned to football, Dick Tomey was a father to me,” 1998 Arizona team captain Kelvin Eafon said. “His eye for finding overlooked talent was amazing. He was able to find all these players from different backgrounds who became stars for him. And he did it with local kids, Cali(fornia) kids, Texas and junior college types. You name it.”

Tomey did more than sell the program. He did more than sell himself. He sold the community. “I’m this kid from South Dallas who didn’t know a ton about Tucson, but, man, he loved this city, and even when I’m out of eligibility, coach is letting me stay with him and drive his car. There was nothing fake about him and after a while I realized that damn, this dude really does love me.”

Unfortunately for Tomey, the love he dispensed and received from his players wasn’t enough to overcome the fact he was never able to build consistency off of the few dynamic teams that he put out on the field. Revisionist history provides an easy crutch for most sports fans and there is no clearer case than the end of the Tomey era at Arizona.

In hindsight, everyone loves Tomey, but 6-6 and 5-6 seasons after a school-record 12-1 campaign in 1998 precipitated a forced resignation. A huge percentage of the fan base was on board with the program’s change of direction.

Tomey coached at Arizona for 14 seasons. That’s a long time in this profession. As such, it wasn’t so much that the athletic department wanted to move in a different direction. The mistake was in the selection of his successor. And that successor’s successors.

If Tomey was a polarizing figure, that meant he was liked by some and derided by others. Objectively, he was effective at some things, perhaps many things, and came up short in other areas, most notably offense.

Instead of taking a tact that focused on building upon the predecessor’s deficiencies, Arizona appeared intent on wiping the Tomey slate clean.

Enter John Mackovic, a country club coach with blue-collar players. Any similarities to Tomey seemed to stop at the job title.

Tomey wore windbreakers; Mackovic wore a suit. Tomey was a defensive-minded grinder; Mackovic was all about offense. But the philosophical differences went far beyond appearance and on-field styles. It was a cultural disconnect that all but doomed Mackovic, and by proxy, Arizona football, from the start.

“When Coach Mackovic came in everything changed,” said Clay Hardt, one of those aforementioned overlooked players who gravitated toward Tomey’s focus on fairness and player interaction. “The offense was given total priority. They would get to eat first. Get on the bus first. Just things like that and it never really got any better.

“One time when we had all of our seniors going and working out on the field getting ready for an NFL scouting event, John Mackovic came on and kicked everyone out and nobody had any clue why. At that point, I knew things were going to be different.”

Not surprisingly, the on-field results did not improve. In fact, things got worse as a 5-6 inaugural season was followed by a 4-8 record in year two. The records reflect a potentially acceptable one-game difference. Programs go through dips during rebuilds. It was the level of competitiveness that deteriorated notably as Arizona lost 6 of its 8 games by double digits.

As the losses piled up, Mackovic’s treatment of his roster only got worse.

“He just had a blatant disregard for his players,” Hardt said. “Pulling kids out of their planned redshirts just to burn their eligibility was another thing that drove a lot of guys crazy.”

While Tomey was polarizing, the program always seemed on solid ground. Near the end of Mackovic’s second season, the 3-7 Wildcats were mired in quicksand. The team was frustrated with the new direction, and frustrated with its interpretation of the new coach’s antics. By some accounts, upwards of 40 players demanded change. They made their way to UA president Peter Likins’ office to express their displeasure with the head coach.

“There was a group of us who went up to Likins and explained to him that we weren’t being treated right,” Hardt said. “We left that meeting thinking that a change was going to be made. We were a little naive in thinking they would fire him or just listen to us.”

What followed was a bizarre press conference where a tearful Mackovic pledged to do better. The emotional display did little to assuage the players, who felt the performance was a façade.

“When I watched that, I was just thinking to myself, ‘That isn’t him,’ and a lot of us didn’t feel it was real,” Hardt said.

Arizona upset Cal the following week. It was the highwater mark of an era that many Wildcats fans would like to forget. Less than a year later, Mackovic was fired.

“I’ve always felt Mackovic was kind of the breaking point,” Hardt said. “You had a community feel with Coach Tomey and a tight knit staff that were together forever and when Mackovic came in you brought in a guy who wanted control over everything but didn’t want any of the blame. I’m not sure the program has ever recovered. I call it the Curse of Dick Tomey.”

Long-time Arizona football fans have a term for the ineptitude of the following era: Mackovickian: It’s the belief that your football program can’t possibly get worse. Spoiler alert. It can. And it has.

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