Arizona basketball does a great job honoring its former players. The intro videos before games always feature alumni, and former players are regularly welcomed back to McKale with open arms. Arizona also uses two accolades to honor their former players: the Ring of Honor and jersey retirement. Unfortunately, both are governed by rigid rules that don't make sense and lead to weird results. Let's look at each of them.
Ring of Honor
The Ring of Honor is the lower of the the two primary honors bestowed upon former players. Ring of Honor members have a banner with their name on it hanging in McKale Center. In order to make the Ring of Honor, a player needs to satisfy one of the following criteria:
- First Team All-America recognition by one or more of the major national organizations or media
- Major national "player of distinction", e.g. Heisman, Wooden, etc.; and/or national championship Most Valuable or Outstanding Player distinction
- Pac-10/12 Player of the Year or Pac-10/12 Freshman of the Year; and Pac-10/12 Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year
- Arizona Career leader in 3 or more major positive "career" categories at the conclusion of their collegiate career, must hold the career record for a minimum of 5 years (e.g., does not include single game record(s), minutes played, etc.)
- 10+ years in the United States Major Professional Leagues of the NFL, NBA, WNBA and MLB and/or been selected as an All-Star/All Pro by the official league
- Olympic Medalist
Honestly, I'm not totally sure what all these criteria mean and how they apply to basketball. For example, what constitutes a major positive "career" category? If Kaleb Tarczewski sticks around and doesn't get hurt, he will probably become Arizona's all time leader in starts. Is that a major positive career category? I'm guessing not (for the same reason that "minutes played" doesn't count), but there isn't an explanation. And it appears the "Pac-12 Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year" category is probably designed for football, but if Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year for basketball, would he be in the Ring of Honor? I have no idea.
Regardless, applying these criteria, Stanley Johnson will be eligible for the Ring of Honor thanks to his Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Award. T.J. McConnell will not. That seems weird, no? It gets stranger.
Jersey retirement is a step above the Ring of Honor. In order for your jersey to be retired at Arizona, you have to be recognized as a national athlete of the year, receive a major national athlete of the year award, or be inducted into The National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame. I don't think any Arizona basketball players are going into the College Football Hall of Fame anytime soon, so the shorthand is this: if you win a national athlete of the year award, you get in.
The problem is that, up until now, Arizona has been very, very flexible in deciding what constitutes a national athlete of the year award. Strictly speaking, prior to this year, only one Arizona basketball player has won a major athlete of the year award -- Sean Elliott. Elliott won the Wooden Award (among other national player of the year honors) in 1989.
But Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Jason Gardner, and Steve Kerr all have their jerseys retired, too. For Bibby and Gardner, the justification is that they won national freshman of the year awards. Gardner unquestionably won that honor -- he won what is now called the Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the best freshman in the country. Bibby, on the other hand, apparently won a national freshman of the year award (or so claims this Arizona press release), but I couldn't find a record of it anywhere (the now-Wayman Tisdale Award was not awarded in 1997). Even if Bibby won the award, though, it's still strange that he and Gardner have their jerseys retired for winning an award as a freshman when both went on to play even better after their freshman year.
Jason Terry's jersey was retired because he won national player of the year awards from Sports Illustrated, CBS, and Basketball Times (again, so says the Arizona press release). And it was hard to find, but, at least as far as the Sports Illustrated award goes, Jason Terry was, in fact, named player of the year. However, Terry didn't win any of the "major" national player of the year awards, which all went to Elton Brand. Ironically, Jason Terry's SI Player of the Year Award probably wouldn't be enough for him to make it into the Ring of Honor (which requires a "major" player of the year award), but it's enough for jersey retirement.
Finally, Steve Kerr. Steve Kerr is eligible for jersey retirement because he won the "most courageous athlete" award. There are a ton of reasons Steve Kerr's jersey should be retired, including the adversity he had to overcome while in college. But he would be just as deserving even if he weren't given that award. Indeed, that's the problem with these criteria -- a player has to win some award to have his jersey retired, but the reasons that we want to retire his jersey aren't always related to that award.
It's also about to get a lot easier to win that national player of the year award necessary for jersey retirement with the addition of the Hoophall Awards, a series of awards designed to honor the best player at each position in college basketball. These awards are long overdue -- college football has had major positional awards for years -- but it now makes it much easier for players to win the "national athlete of the year award" necessary for jersey retirement. For example: Stanley Johnson won the inaugural Julius Erving Award, given to the nation's best small forward. That is a national athlete of the year award in the same way Antoine Cason's Jim Thorpe Award (given to the nation's top defensive back) qualified as a national athlete of the year award for his jersey retirement. So by winning that award, Stanley Johnson's jersey is eligible for retirement. Unfortunately, former Arizona players who were the best at their position nationally -- Nick Johnson in 2014 and Miles Simon in 1998, for example -- won't have their jerseys retired because the Hoophall Awards didn't exist yet.
To recap the situation that these rules put us in: T.J. McConnell is not even eligible to be inducted into the Ring of Honor despite the fact that most Arizona fans believed T.J. McConnell was better and more important to this team than Stanley Johnson, whose jersey can be retired even if he leaves after only one year.
That is silly. The system, as currently set up, does not make any sense. While there is some appeal in making it difficult to have your jersey retired and difficult to get into the Ring of Honor, these barriers are arbitrary and lead to inconsistent results. Worse, if the goal is to make it exclusive for a player to have his jersey retired, why do minor national player of the year awards (like those awarded to Terry) and national freshman of the year awards (like those awarded to Bibby and Gardner) even count? How can Jason Terry have his jersey retired while Miles Simon (first team All-American in 1998, won Most Outstanding Player when Arizona won the national championship in 1997) doesn't? How can Stanley Johnson's jersey be eligible for retirement when T.J. McConnell can't even get into the Ring of Honor? And why do players who unfortunately played before the Hoophall Awards, but were the best at their position in the country (Nick Johnson in 2014, Miles Simon in 1998) get shafted? This does not make sense.
So what's the answer?
My solution is simple: why doesn't the school just decide what players should have their jerseys retired and what players should be in the Ring of Honor? Why does the school need to rely on inflexible criteria? Why can't a committee, or Greg Byrne, or someone just make the call themselves? You'd think a group of people at Arizona could just say, "You know, it's ridiculous that T.J. McConnell cannot make the Ring of Honor just because Joseph Young won Pac-12 Player of the Year. We should put him in." In fact, if the idea behind these criteria is to maintain exclusivity in the Ring of Honor and jersey retirement, a committee or some other group deciding on these honors makes more sense because it's possible that a player might win a national player of the year award and not necessarily deserve to have his jersey retired (no doubt some may feel this way about Stanley Johnson, assuming he's one-and-done).
It's not a perfect solution, but the current system doesn't work. I watched Arizona basketball the past two years -- I know that T.J. McConnell belongs in the Ring of Honor. If the current system doesn't put him in the Ring of Honor, then we need to fix the system.