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Wildcats Are Feeling Somewhat Abandoned : Arizona Recalls Mr. Smith

November 11, 1987|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

College football players are motivated for many reasons--a traditional rival, a pay-back for an embarrassing loss, personal satisfaction.

But did you ever hear of abandonment?

That apparently is Arizona's motivation for Saturday's game with USC at the Coliseum. The Wildcats are playing the Trojans, but their attention is directed at Larry Smith.

Smith coached Arizona for seven years until he became USC's coach last January, replacing Ted Tollner.

He had brought Arizona to respectability with 8-3-1 and 9-3 records his last two seasons.

Then, suddenly, he was gone and apparently some resentment lingers among those he left behind.

Chuck Cecil, Arizona's star free safety, said he doesn't feel betrayed because Smith is no longer his coach. However, when asked to assess the feelings of the rest of the team, he said:

"I don't feel angry, or believe it's a vendetta sort of deal playing against him. Overall, though, the feeling on the team is like he abandoned us.

"We're definitely looking forward to playing the game and we have something to prove to Coach Smith, that he left a lot of quality players behind."

Smith would be the first to agree with Cecil on the value of Arizona's team. He extolled the Wildcats' talent Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

He also said he can understand how his former players feel.

"Chuck is exactly right," Smith said. "When you leave, guys say you left me for them.

"Looking on the positive side it was a compliment that people were upset that we (the coaching staff) left. Otherwise, it's the old story that you want to look like you're leading the parade but they're chasing you out of town."

There was also reportedly some resentment directed at Smith because he didn't say goodby to his players after accepting the USC job.

Asked to characterize his departure from Tucson, Smith said: "For the people I was closest to, it was an amiable separation. When we did leave, the only regret I have is that school was not in session and I wasn't able to call the players in as a team and say that we were leaving the next day.

"I sent a letter, but it apparently didn't get to some of them. I also tried to call a few of them. But I'd feel very comfortable anytime, going back to Tucson and visiting. We had great experiences there, and it holds a dear spot in my heart."

So a game that, perhaps, wouldn't be particularly significant for Arizona has now become a crusade. The Wildcats, inconsistent earlier, will be trying to improve on a 4-3-2 record while playing the role of spoilers.

The Trojans have more to lose. USC, 6-3 overall and 5-1 in the Pacific 10, has to win Saturday to set up a Rose Bowl showdown with UCLA (8-1, 6-0) Nov. 21 at the Coliseum.

"I expect Arizona to come in here super emotional and six feet off the ground," Smith said.

Smith could be up-tight this week, but he's guarding against an overt display of emotion.

"If I went around yelling and screaming at everyone, that's the worst thing I could do," he said. "I have tremendous respect for Arizona and I hope our kids feel the same way."

And Smith has a special regard for Cecil, who went to Arizona as a 5-foot 10-inch, 150-pound walk-on from Helix High in La Mesa, Calif., and has developed into a premier defensive back.

Cecil, a senior, who now stands 6 feet and weighs 185 pounds, leads the nation in interceptions with eight. He had four interceptions against Stanford Oct. 31, tying a conference record for a game. His 20 career interceptions equal the Pac-10 record held by USC's Artimus Parker (1971-73) and Stanford's Phil Moffatt (1929-31).

He is also a nominee for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the country's top defensive back.

Cecil, however, seems reluctant to talk about his accomplishments. Asked about the four interceptions against Stanford, he said:

"It's nice, but it's not one of the things I shoot for. I just happened to be in the right place a couple of times. There's not much I can say because it really isn't important to me." That from a player who was described by a North Carolina assistant coach as a heat-seeking missile? Cecil earned that appellation for forcing fumbles in leading the Wildcats to a 30-21 victory over the Tar Heels in the Aloha Bowl game last year.

Smith remembers the day that Cecil walked into his office, and had to be told that there was no scholarship available.

"Here was this skinny little kid, who was so soft-spoken. But one of my assistant coaches, Moe Ankney, said he was a heck of an athlete and would eventually start in the secondary."

Ankney was right. After a red-shirt season in 1983, he was a second-team strong safety in 1984 and a starter in 1985.

"When the whistle blows, he's super intensity plus," Smith said. "He'd win the superstars competition because he's the best competitor on the team. But as far as pure strength and speed, he's just an average, or above-average athlete. However, he's unique and you'd like to have a hundred just like him."

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