Part III: This Point.
The Sun Devils have been trying to reach this point for soooo long. "Forget flying to Pasadena," said one fan last week. "You'll be able to walk all the way there on the roofs of the mobile homes."
Along the way, there will be time to forget the fiascoes. Remember '85? As time was running happily out, the man in the Rose Bowl jacket was standing behind the end zone, ready to hand a bouquet of red beauties to Cooper. Then, suddenly, Arizona recovered a Van Raaphorst fumble and kicked a field goal with 1:43 remaining to upset the Sun Devils. The man stashed the roses under some bleachers and slipped away.
But this was '86, and players such as Van Raaphorst looked like suddenly pardoned men. In 1961, Van Raaphorst's father was the placekicker for Ohio State. He had helped the Buckeyes win the Big Ten title, but they were denied a trip to the Rose Bowl because Ohio State's faculty council, fearful that the players were becoming too much like "pros," voted that year to keep them at home. "That's one reason I went to a Pac-10 school," says his son 25 years later. "I promised Dad I would go to the Rose Bowl for him someday."
Now here was Cooper on Saturday night, with roses in one arm and his mother, Mildred, 76, on the other. Mildred came to watch her boy coach for the first time in his career. He had been carried off the field, showered with roses, hugged by all his players and drenched with glee. "Hey, Mom," he finally said, "it ain't like this every day, you know."
It sure ain't. "I'm just tickled to death," Cooper said. "Not for me but for my seniors, my players and these dad-gum fans who have waited so long. The first thing Monday morning, I have to send Jack Elway [whose Stanford team had knocked UCLA out of contention for the Rose Bowl that day] a bouquet of roses. The only other goal I have right now is to win the national championship. Maybe not this year, but someday."
Imagine that. Since jumping from the Western Athletic Conference, Arizona State has gone through four coaches, four athletic directors and six NCAA probations in five sports (football, baseball, men's gymnastics, wrestling and men's basketball twice). The big time means big pressures to win. The young, impatient money in Phoenix had gotten a little out of hand. How you gonna beat USC? Same way you turn arid desert into a lush country club. Money. This isn't Penn State. Football on the frontier is different.
The Tempe Touchdown Club used to throw dead fish at visiting speakers. One sports information director from an opposing school wore a catcher's mask and chest protector while speaking before the group. Another got so frustrated at catcalls about his toupee, he took it off and heaved it into the crowd. Somebody filled it with Roquefort dressing and heaved it back. Now that the natives are more decorous, more Pac-10 establishment, they just throw sourdough rolls.
Arizona State is college football's China, huge and getting bigger. More than 25% of its living alumni have graduated since 1981. The university estimates that by the year 2000, 60,000 students will be enrolled. That's a sizable booster base to add to what is already one of the country's biggest and richest. And as long as the Sun Devils can keep Cooper, there's more winning ahead. That's not a California earthquake you're feeling; it's just the balance of power doing the two-step. BYU's gain in the WAC (would the Cougars have finished 13-0 and won the national championship in 1984 if Arizona and Arizona State had still been in the conference?) has turned out to be UCLA's and USC's loss in the Pac-10. By walking into Pasadena on Jan. 1, a good part of the Sun Devils' ID complex will be immediately cured. Even the networks can't beg out of this one.
Can't you just hear it? A packed house, fans going bonkers, goose bumps the size of hubcaps and Dick Enberg opening up the New Year's Day telecast with, "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Rose Bowl, where the Arizona State Sun Devils from the great city of Tempe, Arizona....