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December 4, 2008

What The Territorial Cup and Rudy Carpenter mean to me

Recently, our fearless leader, Chris Karpman, urged each of us to listen to and reflect upon the comments of the Sun Devils' fifth-year senior quarterback, Rudy Carpenter, in what may very well prove to be his final weekly presser before an Arizona State Sun Devil football game.

I was in attendance at that presser - in spirit, not in person - and came away with some thoughts of my own which I'd like to share with you.

I'd like to comment on the meaning of the Cup game, for me, as one who grew up surrounded by it and who is presently surrounded by another seemingly ancient rivalry.

I'd also like to offer a brief appreciation of the comments Carpenter made in his presser and offer a few thoughts about his career as a Sun Devil. Criticize what you will about Rudy Carpenter. Regardless of the outcome of the game on Saturday, regardless of whether the Sun Devils move on to play a bowl game in San Francisco, Las Vegas or Honolulu, Rudy has earned our respect and has every right to be considered among the legion of Sun Devils past and present. That's all he asks of us and only a little of what he deserves in return.


The Rivalry


I started hearing about the ASU-UofA rivalry long before many of you were born. My mom was a student at Arizona State in the early 1960s, and for our first few years in Tempe, we lived not far from Sun Devil Stadium, to the west of "the tracks."

My dad took me to ASU home games and we sat in the student section (probably imprinting me in me my life-long attraction to blondes). My parents soon bought a house south of campus in the neighborhood between Tempe High School and College Avenue and it wasn't long before we became part of the stream of humanity which, on Saturday nights in the fall, walked north on College Avenue, past Goodwin Stadium through campus along Palm Walk and over the University Avenue bridge to Sun Devil Stadium. Riding my bike around the 'hood, I often passed, quite reverentially I might add, Coach Kaji's house.

When I was in high school somewhere in the Phoenix area, I spent all of my fall Friday nights in high school football stadiums and most of my Saturday nights at Sun Devil Stadium, most often selling sodas as a fund-raiser for my high school's program.

As a college student, I was nearly always in Sun Devil Stadium for home games (and the University Activities Center for home basketball games). I can take you pretty near to the spot on the stadium steps between sections 4 and 5 where I was standing (and dumping a Coke onto some unfortunate fan) when JJ made "The Catch" against Arizona in 1975. For some reason, I couldn't afford a ticket to the Fiesta Bowl that year. But I knew how to get in just the same.

I'm not saying I know more about Sun Devil football than any of you - hardly. I'm just saying I've seen a lot of it and as it turns out, Sun Devil football has become a progressively larger part of me as I've aged.

As a young boy, ASU-UofA was the difference between right and left, black and white, good and evil. In those days, I'll be the first to admit, I was wracked by prejudice. My parents, like so many of their generation, had their lives shaped and defined by the Great Depression and the Second World War. For my parents, there was McCarthy and Commies (and Fascists and everyone else against Democracy), Packers and Cowboys, and Phoenix and Tucson. I grew up being told that Tucson was the hive of drug activity in Arizona and that most students at the college there, if not brilliant physicists like my uncle, were being driven mad by marijuana and heroin. In the mid-70s, my uncle died of a heroin overdose.

It wasn't long after beginning to attend ASU games that I learned to entertain a healthy lack of respect for the Wildcats and since football was as much a part of my life as it was, it wasn't long before the Territorial Cup became the biggest game of the year. Time mellows much, but even now the UofA game is the one game, in addition to the USC game (which matters to me for entirely personal, selfish reasons), which I am compelled to either attend or watch, sequestered from the members of my family, in a darkened room fully stocked with food and alcohol and connected to a bathroom separate and apart from the rest of the house. ASU fans are always welcome, but warned that I permit the use of bad language and the over-use of food and alcohol in the house on game day.

I have a few friends who attended the UofA, much to my surprise. One of them is on my USTA tennis team. Unlike Rudy with Willie Tuitama, I'm always quick to remind him of the current won-loss streak in the games. When we are scheduled to play matches against each other, I'm always sure to wear the (now historic) ASU men's tennis team jersey I got for donating. It's all in good fun. I guess. Actually probably not.

No, truly, it's deeper than that.

It's black and white, Eisenhower and Stalin, left and right, Packers and Cowboys, North and South, good and evil. And I don't believe that I am alone in that.


Rudy


The fact that the rivalry runs so deep among the fans makes Rudy's comments in his weekly presser all the more interesting. I believe that Rudy essentially said, in his presser, that the players find motivation differently than we fans do. Players, he said, don't need to hate, they don't need the crowd, the noise, the colors. They're playing to play the game. They either find motivation within themselves to play the game or they shouldn't be playing it at all.

I for one am very grateful that Rudy Carpenter chose to play his college football at Arizona State.

If some simple numbers aren't enough, the blood and sweat he's spilled wearing Maroon and Gold for the past five years should be sufficient evidence that we all owe him the respect he deserves as a Sun Devil.

First, the numbers. In my view, the measure of a quarterback is his leadership and the measure of his leadership is the success of his team on the field and that is measured solely in terms of wins and losses. To be a successful season, a record above .500 is required. In the "modern" era of Sun Devil football, there are only three quarterbacks who hold the distinction of having led the Sun Devils to three consecutive winning seasons: Joe Spagnola from 1968 to 1970, Danny White from 1971 to 1973 and Rudy Carpenter, from 2005 to 2007. Likewise, there are only three quarterbacks in Sun Devil history who can say that they were the primary starter at the position in four seasons and had winning records in at least at least three of those seasons: Dennis Sproul from 1974 to 1977, Jake Plummer from 1993 to 1996 and Rudy Carpenter. Should Rudy complete the Wildcat sweep and the Sun Devils play in and win a post-season bowl game, Rudy will be the only Sun Devil quarterback in history to have been the primary starter in four winning seasons.

Think of the names NOT mentioned in the paragraph above. Mark Malone, Mike Pagel, Ryan Kealy and Jeff van Raaphorst to name just a few. Van Raaphorst is one of the few Sun Devil quarterbacks who never beat the Wildcats. Rudy is on the verge of possibly being the only one to beat them four times as the starter. There are plenty of quarterbacks in Sun Devil history with consecutive winning seasons, among them those mentioned above.

But four of them? And if unsuccessful, to finish one's career as one of only three quarterbacks in school history with three winning seasons out of four?

There are Rudy detractors. There are plenty of those who are saying publicly and privately that they can't wait for the Rudy era to end. Perhaps it started when then-head coach Dirk Koetter made a seeming last-minute switch and announced Rudy as his starter instead of the publicly popular Sam Keller. Few outside the program will ever know what exactly happened in that instance, but it's of little consequence now. The fact is, Rudy was not the player causing the problem and was the guy who took the starting role and ran with it, never giving it up despite injury. I remember writing a column at the time which urged Sun Devil fans to take Coach Dale's suggestion about his Hickory High basketball team (from the film "Hoosier") - that was Sun Devil fans' team and Rudy was the starting quarterback.

There are those who likely criticize Rudy because his leadership from that position never took the Sun Devils into the BCS; reverence, for those critical people, must therefore be reserved for Jeff van Raaphorst and Jake Plummer, and perhaps add Sproul for the 12-0 1975 season which ended in the Fiesta Bowl. They would forget that such selectivity leaves out Danny White (surely an icon of Sun Devil football), Andrew Walter, Mike Pagel, etc.

To his detractors, I say think again.

Go back and listen to Carpenter's final weekly presser one more time with the following in mind. The kid has been the public player face of Sun Devil football for the last four years. He was unwittingly enmeshed in the Carpenter-for-Keller controversy, he played through hand injuries which severely hampered his throwing ability, he's survived the challenge of a change of coaching regime and all of the change in philosophy that entails. Through all of that he has basically remained the same person, played football to the best of his ability, and successfully completed his graduation requirements.

In my memory, perhaps the biggest so-called stink outside of football involving Carpenter had something to do with a particular color. As far as I know, Rudy was always the player the SID office trotted out for the Monday presser and if you think about how tightly controlled that environment is, it should say something to you that the coaches, administration and the SID himself trusted Rudy enough to be the public voice of the players every week during the season.

He had success on the field, he had success off the field and in the time he's been a Sun Devil he's grown in confidence, articulateness and resilience. He's proven himself to me - many times over - and he deserves our respect and admiration as a true Sun Devil. As much a Sun Devil as any quarterback, or any other position player, for that matter, who ever stepped onto Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium.

Thank you and Godspeed, Rudy Carpenter. The best to you in all you do from now forward.


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