For many Arizona fans, the program began its ascent towards the top when Lute Olsen was hired in 1983. That’s obviously not the case – coaches like Pop McKale and Fred Enke helped develop Arizona very early on. But the first modern basketball coach at Arizona – and the first to lead them to success in the modern era – was Fred Snowden.
Fred Snowden, nicknamed the "Desert Fox", was inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor earlier this year and will be recognized this week at the Pac-12 Conference Tournament.
Prior to Snowden’s arrival, Arizona had some success competing in the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The BIAA included Arizona, Arizona State, and the University of New Mexico, among others, and between 1931 and 1953, Arizona won the BIAA twelve times. Arizona even made the NCAA tournament in 1951, a rare feat at the time considering that only sixteen teams made the tournament.
After 1953 though, the program flat-lined, failing to win the BIAA for the next nine seasons. After the 1961-62 season, the BIAA disbanded, leaving Arizona (along with Arizona State) to join the Western Athletic Conference. Again Arizona struggled and was largely uncompetitive.
In 1972, the program hired Fred Snowden, an assistant at Michigan, to be Arizona's next head coach. In doing so, Arizona became the first major Division I school to hire an African-American as a head coach.
Snowden quickly turned Arizona around. Snowden’s teams were significantly more competitive, generating local interest in the team that fueled the construction of McKale Center, which opened in 1973. At the same time, Snowden brought in more talented players, including Bob Elliott, who was a Third-Team All-American in 1977 and is currently a member of Arizona’s Ring of Honor. With Snowden at the helm, Arizona won the WAC in 1976 and made it all the way to the Elite Eight, the deepest run Arizona had ever made in the tournament.
1976 would be the best year for Fred Snowden in Tucson, and Snowden left the team (and coaching) in 1982. But in the ten years Snowden coached at Arizona, he was a pioneer. He was a pioneer by becoming the first African-American head basketball coach at a major university. And at Arizona specifically, Snowden showed that a school in Tucson could have success on the basketball court, building the foundation for the Arizona program. Without that foundation, Arizona might not have a Lute Olsen and might not have a Sean Miller.
Snowden passed away in 1994 and unfortunately won’t see his name enter the Pac-12 Hall of Honor. But for breaking barriers in the coaching profession and building a foundation for the University of Arizona's basketball program, the Desert Fox has been deservedly inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor.