If you ever want to learn about the Territorial Cup, Shane Dale is the guy to talk to.
The University of Arizona grad authored “Territorial: The History of the Duel in the Desert” and is expected to publish a second book about the in-state rivalry—“Graham vs. RichRod”—before next year’s tilt between the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils.
Dale spent four years as a sports journalist at ABC15 Arizona and is now a digital journalist for the City of Goodyear. We caught up with him to discuss Saturday’s game, what makes the Territorial Cup so special, and lots more.
Here’s the Q&A.
Why are you so fascinated by this rivalry?
Shane Dale: “I’m sure some people scoff at the idea of being so passionate about a rivalry in which very little, other than state pride, is typically on the line. But that, ironically, is one of the reasons it’s so fascinating to me. It’s amazing the amount of people who have participated in this game who have said it’s the nastiest they’ve ever been a part of. That includes people who have played in the NFL and coached in more nationally prominent collegiate rivalries. It definitely piqued my curiosity.”
How have you managed to stay objective despite being a UA alum?
SD: “It’s really not that difficult, to be honest. I grew up in the Valley and was one of those odd people who grew up cheering for both schools, since I didn’t have a dog in the fight and I just wanted to see all of Arizona’s teams to succeed. Things changed, of course, when I decided to go to school in Tucson, and trust me that I definitely want the Wildcats to win that game every year. But I’ve never hated ASU.
“Wildcat fans don’t want to hear it, but there are a lot of things to like about that school, athletically and academically. I’ve also always had a terrific relationship with ASU’s media relations staff, and they were especially helpful in helping me gather interviews for my first book, as well as the one I’m currently working on.”
What is your favorite moment in Territorial Cup history?
SD: “It has to be the 2008 game. I’d been to three previous Territorial Cup games, and ASU had won all of them. And the Sun Devils had beaten UA in three straight games going into this one. But Arizona finally got past the Devils, and Mike Thomas’ punt return late in the third quarter sealed the win. It was an awesome game to watch in the stands, especially because it secured the Wildcats’ first bowl appearance in a decade.”
Since you have talked to lots of people on both sides of the rivalry (over 150, to be more specific), what makes it so unique?
SD: “Regardless of the era they played in, from the 1950s to today, nearly every player and coach who has participated in this rivalry has told me the same thing: It’s the nastiest and most intense they’ve ever been a part of, and they didn’t fully appreciate it until they actually played or coached in it. The Territorial Cup itself also makes this rivalry unique. It’s the oldest traveling rivalry trophy in the United States, and yet it wasn’t actually used in that capacity until 2001. Guys who played before then had never even heard of the Territorial Cup.”
A recent study found that Arizona-ASU is the most intense rivalry in college sports. How accurate do you think that is?
SD: “I’m sure it’s accurate, and I think there are a pair of simple reasons for it. The first is the one that the study cited. ASU and UA are sort of on an island, as they’re the only two schools in the state with an FBS program. The next closest FBS team is a five-hour drive. In terms of geography, you could argue that ASU and UA are the two most natural rivals in the country.
“The second reason is what truly makes this rivalry unique: the off-field history. Tucson and Tempe were both hoping to land the first university in the state -- or, back in 1885, the first university in the territory -- of Arizona. Over seven decades later, UA attempted to prevent then-Arizona State College from becoming a university, to the point of vandalizing the brand-new Sun Devil Stadium. There’s also the Ultimatum Bowl in 1968, in which UA head coach Darrell Mudra pressured the Sun Bowl committee into giving the Wildcats an invite to the game before the UA-ASU game -- which could have determined the WAC champion -- was even played. Throw in some nasty on-field incidents -- the Gable-Greer altercation in 1996, Clarence Farmer stomping on Sparky in 2001 -- and it’s easy to understand why these two schools and communities really, really don’t like each other.”
How badly does Arizona need to win Saturday’s game given the current state of the program?
SD: “In terms of fan investment, this game is always a big deal, and fans are certainly desperate for something to get excited about. A win in Tempe for the first time in eight years would definitely help. As far as Kevin Sumlin’s fate, I’m not sure it’ll make much of a difference. I suspect Dave Heeke has already made up his mind on whether Sumlin will be back next year, and I really have no idea which way he’s leaning (though Sumlin’s $10 million buyout definitely looms large). But the pressure to fire him will certainly be greater if the Wildcats lose, and especially if they get blown out.”
What are you keeping an eye on in this year’s matchup?
SD: “I’m interested to see how ASU opens this game. Will the Devils be locked in after last week’s upset (of Oregon), or will they simply expect to roll over Arizona since the Wildcats have lost six straight games? Jayden Daniels is mature beyond his years and I suspect he’ll be able to avoid that trap, but I’m not sure if that’ll be the case for some of his young teammates. The Sun Devils are a good team, but not as good as they think they are. Not yet, anyway.
“On the Arizona side, the Wildcats will either come out determined to salvage their season and play with a level of intensity we haven’t seen this season, or they’ve already been demoralized to the point where they won’t even get up for this game. I suspect the former is more likely, as I fully expect Chuck Cecil to light a fire under this team with a passionate pregame address just like he did in 1993, the day before the Wildcats beat ASU in Tempe. I’d also like to see Kevin Sumlin start Khalil Tate in this game. I like Grant Gunnell more than I do Tate, but I think the senior gives UA a better chance to beat ASU. It’s easy to argue that Tate should be 2-0, rather than 0-2, in this rivalry.”
What is your prediction for Saturday’s game?
SD: “I could see Arizona coming out swinging and taking an early 10-14-point lead. But even if that happens, ASU doesn’t get rattled when it falls behind early. (I think Jayden Daniels’ composure has a lot to do with that.)
“So, while it wouldn’t shock me to see an upset, I’m just not brave enough to pick Arizona to win this game. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wildcats play their best, most complete game of the season, and still come up short. I’ll pick ASU to win, but probably not cover the 12.5-point spread.”
Thank you to Shane for answering our questions. Again, be sure to check out his book on the rivalry, which has received glowing reviews on Amazon.