With his wireless microphone in one hand and the audience in the palm of the other, Arizona football coach Dick Tomey is doing his best Jerry Springer imitation, inviting participation. "Anybody else have any questions...anybody?" Tomey asks. He is standing beneath the very low ceiling and between the very near walls of Dell's Pizza in Casa Grande, Ariz., a desert town halfway between Tucson and Phoenix. The table behind him is lined with roses, the room filled with cardinal-and-navy-shirted Arizona fans who 10 years ago would have been clothed in the maroon and gold of Arizona State.
"Anybody at all...," says Tomey.
A woman raises her hand. "Coach Tomey, I know you don't like to count your chickens, but don't you just love those roses?"
The building quivers with knowing laughter. The temperature outside is roughly a buck-fifteen, and pizzas could be baked on the summer sidewalk as easily as in the oven. "Well, as soon as you start looking too far ahead...," Tomey begins.
The woman nods patronizingly. "But the roses," she persists. "Aren't they pretty?"
Tomey, who swallows defeat like chicken bones, surrenders. "They're beautiful," he says, looking very much like a man whose cover has been blown.
First, a word about Arizona's place in the history of college football: Absent. The Arizona label should bear the warning: "Tradition-free." The Wildcats are the only Pac-10 team never to have played in the Rose Bowl. They have not played for the national title. They have never been ranked higher than No. 7 after Halloween. Says Tomey, "We don't have that old team from '35 that people remember, or '45 or '55 or '65, for that matter." Alabama has Bear Bryant; Arizona has "Bear down," which passes for a rallying cry.
In the small society of Top 10's and major bowls, this is anonymity of the purest form. But there's no shame in that, because Arizona is fiercely rooted in the present. The Wildcats are SI's No. 1 team because they are built for today, not for yesterday.
Like so: They are led by a 56-year-old coach who draws on equal helpings from self-help guru Tony Robbins (empowering himself to play serious summer baseball with 20-year-olds) and male-bonding icon Robert Bly (taking his coaching staff on a three-day mountain retreat to discuss anything except football, just before the start of fall camp). They have a catchy, marketable nickname (Desert Swarm), one foot in your living room (via New Year's Day's stunning 29-0 trashing of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl) and even a nod in the hit movie Speed (Keanu Reeves to Sandra Bullock, after noticing the school's helmet logo on her shirt: "Arizona Wildcats? University of Arizona? Good football team").
There's more. The '90s belong to the schools that can evaluate talent, not stockpile it. While college football titans of the past have bemoaned the downsizing of their monolithic programs through scholarship reductions over the last half decade, Arizona has been building with the castoffs and the undiscovered. "Nobody wanted a lot of guys on this team," says senior guard Warner Smith. "That's made everybody a little hungrier." Hell hath no fury like a player unrecruited given the chance to lay leather on the teams that passed him over.