For Arizona fans, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder for USC Coach Larry Smith. Nor does another cliche apply: Out of sight, out of mind.
There definitely will be an anti-Smith element at Arizona Stadium tonight when the Trojans play the Wildcats in a Pacific 10 Conference game.
There is still some resentment here over Smith’s leaving the Arizona coaching job in January, 1987, to become USC’s coach.
“Smithbuster” T-shirts are a hot item here. They became available as early as last week when Arizona warmed up for USC by routing Eastern Michigan, 55-0.
Arizona fans have seemingly forgotten that Smith brought respectability to the football program in his 7 years as coach with a consistent winning record, including bowl appearances and 5 consecutive victories over Arizona State.
What is remembered is that, among other alleged slights, Smith reportedly didn’t properly say goodby to his team when he left for Los Angeles.
Last year, when the teams met at the Coliseum, Arizona’s players were emotionally aroused, some of them contending that Smith had abandoned them. USC barely won, 12-10, on four field goals.
Now, Smith returns as a rival coach for the first time since he left and is resigned to his unpopular status.
“You can’t please all the people all the time,” he said, adding that he can’t get caught up in the emotion of the moment.
“I don’t have the same feelings now,” he said. “Last year (the game) weighed heavily on my mind, and it was a tough week emotionally.”
But Smith has been away from Arizona for nearly two years now, and many of the players he was close to are no longer there. “Time heals,” he said.
He is aware, though, that his appearance will be greeted with hostility in a 55,000-seat stadium where the noise is trapped inside.
“That’s part of the game,” Smith said.
He said his wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Alicia, may be uncomfortable sitting in the stands and encouraged them not to attend the game, but they’ll be here anyway.
Meanwhile, Arizona Coach Dick Tomey is trying to keep the focus on the game, an important one for both teams.
“I just hope the concentration can be on the two teams,” he said. “I hope our fans can concentrate on cheering for us and not on venting any frustration on Larry’s leaving.
“I know he did a great job at Arizona, and people were sorry to see him go. But that happened a year and a half ago. I know (Smith’s homecoming is) not a factor with our team, and that’s all we can control.”
There’s much at stake for both schools. USC (3-0) is the nation’s third-ranked team. Arizona (3-1) is regarded as a conference spoiler with a team that has a smorgasbord offense--wishbone, run-and-shoot and some I-formation.
When it was suggested to Smith that Arizona has a decent team, he said: “I’m not blowing smoke when I say that Arizona is a serious contender for the championship. Just look at their schedule. They play only one conference game (against Washington) on the road and get us and UCLA at home.”
Quarterback Bobby Watters, a senior transfer from Southern Methodist, operates Arizona’s wishbone. Smith said Watters is not as fast as Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma’s wishbone quarterback, but is a better passer.
“Arizona has a more elaborate passing attack than Oklahoma, and our secondary will have to play deeper than it did when we played Oklahoma last week,” Smith said.
Still, Watters’ statistics aren’t awesome. He has completed 50.9% of his passes for 364 yards and 2 touchdowns and has thrown 3 interceptions.
By comparison, USC quarterback Rodney Peete has completed 58.2% of his passes for 656 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, Peete has thrown 5 interceptions.
Arizona has quality running backs in halfback David Eldridge and fullback Art Greathouse. Eldridge is averaging 11 yards a carry, Greathouse 5.6. Each has scored 4 touchdowns.
Six sophomores start for Arizona in what Tomey says is an improving defensive unit. The main man is nose tackle Dana Wells, a first team Pac-10 selection in 1987. Arizona also has accomplished linebackers in the Singleton twins, Chris on the outside, Kevin on the inside.
Tonight’s game will be televised by Prime Ticket starting at 6:30, PDT. . . . Since tailback Aaron Emanuel is sidelined with an ankle injury and Scott Lockwood is doubtful with a sore ankle, Ricky Ervins and Steven Webster will be used extensively. Smith said that Webster, making a comeback from knee surgery, just needs to get his rhythm back with prolonged activity. “I feel confident in Steve,” USC Coach Larry Smith said. “He’s not holding back anything because of the injury.” . . . Jeff Brown will start at fullback. Leroy Holt, who has a sprained knee and toe, also is expected to play.
It will also be homecoming for USC quarterback Rodney Peete, who was a star at Sahuaro High School in Tucson through his junior year. In 1986, Peete completed 14 of 24 passes for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns in leading the Trojans to a 20-13 win here over the then Smith-coached Wildcats. . . . USC, which beat Oklahoma, 23-7, last Saturday at the Coliseum, goes into Arizona Stadium as the highest-ranked visiting team since No. 3 Southern Methodist in 1985 and No. 2 UCLA in 1980. Arizona won both those games.
Arizona quarterback Bobby Watters didn’t play against USC last season; he broke a thumb in the third game. He will be backed up tonight by Ronnie Veal, who went down with a shoulder injury against USC in 1987.