Drawing inspiration from the moniker that adorns their uniforms, the Arizona Wildcats have scratched and clawed their way to the upper echelon of collegiate sports. Whether it has been on the diamond, the gridiron or the court, the university has a history of excellence that few teams in the Pac-12 Conference can match.
With eight national championships in softball, four in baseball, and the unforgettable ‘97 men’s basketball season, the ‘Cats have established themselves as an institution that never settles for second place. When the odds are stacked against them, that’s when the school does its best work. In 1926, following a horrific car accident, quarterback John Salmon uttered a phrase that would become the university’s rallying cry to this day. “Tell them... tell the team to bear down,” Salmon told coach J.F. McKale. The sentiment, meant for the football team, soon took on a life of its own. Students painted the words on the school’s gymnasium, and shortly after, “Bear Down” was incorporated into the university’s fight song. To forever preserve his legacy, the athletic department created the John Button Salmon Awards to recognize “exemplary leadership and service to the University” in 2000.
While other teams at the school may have more title hardware, the men’s basketball team is arguably the most celebrated in Wildcats lore. That distinction may come from the fact that the program has sent more than 30 players to the NBA, or it may be because the squad has been a virtually permanent fixture in the national rankings since 1988. Under the guidance of coach Lute Olson, Arizona appeared in the NCAA tournament 23 years in a row and reached the Final Four on four separate occasions. In 1997, behind the outstanding play of guards Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, the Wildcats captured their first national championship. Other All-Americans who played for Olson include the 1989 National Player of the Year, Sean Elliott, as well as standouts such as Khalid Reeves, Damon Stoudamire, and Jason Terry.
The months of November through March may be reserved for ‘Cats basketball, but fans in Tucson show pride all year long. In the fall, supporters band together as the Wildcats football team battles rival Arizona State for the Territorial Cup, a tradition that dates all the way back to 1899. According to the NCAA, it is the oldest rivalry trophy in the country. In 2010, a new gridiron ritual known as the “Wildcat Walk” was born. Supporters line the streets at the corner of University and Cherry Avenue to create a tunnel for the players to pass through as they make their way toward Arizona Stadium.
With so many years of success, you have to wonder how the Wildcats handle the pressure and expectations. Maybe it’s resolve, or maybe they just want it more than the other team. There’s really no clear-cut answer, but somehow they always manage to rise to the occasion. One thing is for sure, though. With the game on the line, Arizona will bear down and fight for every inch.