Zen Buddhists pose the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The semi-enlightened will contend that it is the sound of one hand closing very rapidly while others know that it is the sound of Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling the truth.
But this is a minor question, one left to the tragically introspective. I have a much larger question, one with (potentially) tens of thousands of different answers, each unique but all combining to paint a disturbing picture. To wit: What is the sound of a major college football program being totally ignored by its once-vibrant fan base? For the University of Arizona football team, that sound isn't crickets chirping. It's the deathly silence of whatever creature ate those crickets and then committed suicide out of sheer boredom.
The UA football team held its annual spring game a few weeks ago in a nearly empty stadium. Wildcat Athletic Director Dave Heeke—apparently acting on the advice of Sean Spicer—announced that a crowd of 5,000 was there for the game, but there probably wasn't even half that number in attendance. It was a bleak and almost solemn exercise, one that raised more questions off the field than on.
It's been less than five years since the UA Wildcats hit the peak of the program's history. Playing before a wild sellout crowd, the Cats used a dazzling combination of grit and daring to outscore an excellent Arizona State team, in the process knocking the Sun Devils, the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins out of contention for the Pac-12 South title and claiming it for themselves. It was a rare moment, one of high drama and deep emotion. Who knew to what astronomic heights the Cats could ascend?
A week later, Arizona got hammered by Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and then, a few weeks after that, Arizona lost to a so-so Boise State team in a bowl game. I remember thinking at the time that it was just a crappy ending to an otherwise great season. We now know that it was the crappy beginning of a precipitous slide into near-total obscurity.
It is truly shocking how bad it has become. It's not just a discerning public, picking and choosing which games to go watch and which ones to skip. It's not just an aging fan base getting tired of home games wrapping up around midnight. It's not just a flighty ZonaZoo that at least used to stay until halftime of games before wandering off for a night of college-age fun but now starts drinking around sundown and skips the game altogether. And it's not the Pac-12 itself, which has sold the soul of college football for a few pieces of silver by putting games on Friday and Thursday nights.
It's not even the huge swath of fans who were pissed off at the monumental collapse/coaching choke job that allowed ASU to erase a 20-point deficit and knock Arizona out of a bowl game last year. The UA administration would be thrilled if it was pissed-off fans. But, it's way worse than that. People aren't pissed off; they just don't care anymore.
You know how they say that hate isn't the opposite of love; apathy is? Arizona football is the living and barely breathing example of that. When's the last time you heard a co-worker, family member or friend start up a conversation about Wildcat football? And you're not going to be hearing one anytime soon, either. They were mega-crappy in Rich Rodriguez's penultimate year, then just sorta crappy the year that he got fired.
Last year, with a new coach and a Heisman Trophy candidate at QB, there was a brief whiff of not-crappy in the air heading into the season. Then they started the season by losing at home to a mediocre BYU team and finished the season by losing at home to a mediocre ASU team. This coming season there is absolutely no buzz, but rather a subsonic hum of more of the same, with even the most-optimistic projections having the Cats maybe winning six games and getting a spot in the 2019 Crap Bowl.
But even that's not the story. Living with so-so records has been part of being a Wildcat football fan for generations. Hope that they can hang around .500 for a few years, then have a bust-out season. Once or (if they're really lucky) even twice in a decade have a Desert Swarm or an offensive juggernaut that goes 12-1 and beats Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
A significant part of the problem is the trend that has swept the entire country and that is totally embraced by the UA. Media Relations (used to be Sports Information) Departments have become Ministries of Propaganda, doling out access to athletes and coaches with an eye-dropper. Media outlets that used to battle each other for scoops and stories now all have the exact same access, the same interviews, the same quotes. Million-dollar coaches love it because they don't have to answer tough questions and Media Relations people love it because they don't have to do damage control.
In the old days, the prevailing thought would be that it's going to get worse before it gets better. These days, it's a matter of it's going to get worse and nobody's going to care.