SUNDAY FEATURE: Gridiron Politics

Cover of the 1971 Fiesta Bowl program/ Photo courtesy Fiesta Bowl

The University of Arizona Wildcats’ unsporting demand before the 1968 Territorial Cup led to the inaugural Fiesta Bowl

By Douglas Townen | PHOENIX Magazine

When the Fiesta Bowl debuted in 1971, it changed the playbook for postseason college football. “What we couldn’t do in payouts to the teams we did in hospitality,” Bill Shover, one of the bowl’s nine founding fathers, says. “We flew the coaches’ wives to the Grand Canyon in private jets, arranged babysitters for their families and became unofficially known as the ‘Hospitality Bowl.’”

Such largesse belies the genesis of the event. The crusade to create a bowl game in the Valley began three years earlier during the lead-up to the fierce in-state matchup between Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. The UA Wildcats made a gambit that should have been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct but resulted in the Fiesta Bowl, thanks to help from some top dogs in Washington, D.C.

It was 1968, and a lot was riding on the Territorial Cup. UA and ASU, then members of the Western Athletic Conference, had 8-1 and 7-2 records, respectively. The victor would receive a berth to the Sun Bowl, the first postseason bid for either squad since 1951. But UA snatched the football away from ASU at the last second, as Lucy had so often done to Charlie Brown.

The inaugural Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium/ Photo courtesy Fiesta Bowl

A few days before the game, UA football coach Darrell Mudra – worried about losing to ASU, and for good reason – demanded the Sun Bowl extend an invitation to his team, win or lose, or they would refuse a subsequent offer. The power play worked, and the Wildcats were invited to the El Paso game. In response, ASU played the Territorial Cup game with a vengeance, routing UA 30-7 in Tucson, in what became known as the “Ultimatum Bowl.” ASU head coach Frank Kush called the victory “probably my most satisfying ever.” (The Sun Bowl was not obligated to take the WAC champion, which turned out to be Wyoming.)


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December 2020