Larry Smith was the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Wildcats football team from 1973-75 – an era in which Frank Kush and the Arizona State Sun Devils routinely ran roughshod over their in-state rivals.
In the 1973 game, which ASU won by 36 points, Kush appeared to rub in the victory by going for two late in the contest.
“That instilled – I wouldn’t call it hatred, but pretty damn close, into Larry Smith. He never forgot that,” said UA guard Jay Bledsoe, who played for Smith in that game.
When he returned as UA’s head coach in 1980, Smith used that experience to stress to his players the importance of beating the Devils and being the top football program in the state.
On Thursday, we learned Bobby Hurley has taken on the same mission, albeit on the basketball court: turn the tide in a nasty in-state rivalry that has, for the most part, been as one-sided as the football rivalry was in the 1970s.
After his team's exciting last-second win over visiting Colorado, ASU's second-year men's basketball coach made this statement to his team in the locker room.
— Mat Smith (@RealMatSmith) January 6, 2017
“If anyone wants to win here (in Arizona), they better go to f****** Tucson,” Hurley said at the end of the video.
Wildcat fans instinctively laughed at this statement. After all, Arizona has won 62 of its last 63 games at McKale Center, while the Sun Devils lost their very next home game two days later. ASU is preparing to face those Wildcats (in Tucson) on Thursday.
Nonetheless, the message Hurley sent to his players is this: If any Pac-12 team wants to get a victory during their trip to the Grand Canyon State, it’s going to come at the expense of the Wildcats, not us. A two-time national champion as a point guard at Duke, Hurley is trying to instill the same winning mindset in his players that he learned under Mike Krzyzewski.
But here’s the other thing: Hurley knew the camera was rolling when he made that comment. He chose his words carefully and intentionally – and apparently, he’s made that statement before, as several of his players finished his sentence before he did.
Hurley may not have meant any disrespect toward UA, but he wanted to put the Wildcats on notice: In the very near future, you won’t have the Sun Devils to kick around anymore.
Like Smith, Hurley's first taste of this rivalry came before he was a head coach. As a star point guard at Duke, he lost a heartbreaking double-overtime contest at Arizona in 1991. It's a loss that I suspect sticks in Hurley's craw, especially now that he lives roughly 100 miles from the location of that defeat.
As a player, Hurley competed in the most prestigious college hoops rivalry in the nation: Duke vs. North Carolina. He went 5-5 against the Tar Heels, including a victory in the 1992 ACC Championship game.
Hurley isn’t used to being a doormat to any in-state rival, and he’s clearly not content to settle for second fiddle to Sean Miller and the Wildcats.
Hurley’s first taste of the ASU-UA rivalry in 2015-16 was a bitter one. He was ejected late in ASU’s loss to the Wildcats in Tempe, and he had to put up with two hours of abuse from the ZonaZoo student section during Arizona’s 38-point victory in Tucson six weeks later.
And let’s be clear: Hurley has a long way to go in order to get the Sun Devils on the same level as Arizona, which has been one of college basketball’s bluebloods for nearly 30 years.
But even with just seven healthy/active scholarship players at the moment, Hurley has his guys playing with the kind of hustle and enthusiasm that was rarely witnessed under his predecessor, Herb Sendek, and it’s already led to some unlikely wins. He also already has commitments from two of the nation’s top 130 players heading into next season.
In his first three years as Arizona's head football coach, Larry Smith went 17-15-1, including 0-3 vs. ASU. He went 31-13-1, including 4-0 vs. the Sun Devils, in his final four seasons at UA.
Given time to build a winning culture, Smith turned the Wildcats into winners, and with that came success against their hated rivals. Hurley, who already has a track record of success as a head coach, is capable of doing the same for ASU's basketball program.
The Wildcats have won nine games in a row and and are likely to make it 10 straight when Hurley and the Sun Devils come to town Thursday. But if history is any indication, they would be wise not to rub it in.