When the undefeated and by-golly-nationally ranked Arizona Wildcats take the field this Saturday against not-undefeated but also nationally ranked USC, they will almost certainly do so in front of a sell-out crowd. It's been a looong time since that happened in a game that didn't include Arizona State, but that's what happens when you beat up the neighborhood bully not once, but twice, in an eight-game span bridging two seasons.
It's been 16 years since the Wildcat football team started a season with five straight wins. People in these parts aren't quite sure what to make of it. Tucsonans can go into Oh-Hell-Yeah mode at the drop of a hat over the UA men's basketball team. T-shirt sales skyrocket, sports bars have to double the wing order, and members of the Tucson Police Department have to make sure that their helmet cams are pointed skyward before they wade into the Fourth Avenue crowd. Locals can also muster an Uh-Huh when the softball team is kickin' some and even a mid-range Wow when the baseball team makes (and/or wins) the national tournament.
But when the football team is doing well, people walk around like they're wearing the wrong size underwear. Something is just not right. Maybe it's the October weather shift from hot, wet and nasty to just hot and nasty. Whatever the case, an undefeated Wildcat football team in the same month as Halloween is just plain discomfiting. (Oddly enough, even the word "discomfiting" is discomfiting.)
There isn't exactly a frenzy sweeping Tucson, but there is a lot of weird energy out there. Perhaps some of the lack of focused madness can be traced to the fact that three of the Cats' five wins include nail-biting victories over something called UTSA on the road and (ahem) Nevada at home, plus the miraculous 36-point fourth-quarter outburst against Cal that culminated in the Heave For Those Who Didn't Leave.
One person who is not likely to be fazed by this at all is Shirlee Bertolini, who holds the title of University of Arizona Twirling Coach. It may be amazing to some that the UA even has a Twirling Coach, but what makes Shirlee really stand apart is that she has held that title since Dwight Eisenhower was president. I never ask a lady her age, but seeing as how she first came to the UA 60 years ago, in 1954, I'm guessing that she's somewhere north of standard retirement age.
Whatever her age, she's an absolute ball of energy. She answers questions like she's holding hands with Richard Nixon (who, of course, is dead) and can let go as soon as she is done talking.
Q. So, is there a Mr. Bertolini?
Q. How long have you been married?
A. Long time.
She was recruited to the UA by the legendary band director, Jack Lee, who, after having interviewed for the vacant position of band director, was on an airplane heading back to Michigan when his departing flight flew over Bear Down Gym. Inspired, he wrote the school's now-famous fight song on an airsickness bag. Lee went to Detroit to seek out Bertolini, who was the reigning national baton twirling champion, and offered her a scholarship to attend Arizona.
She never left.
When she became coach, she increased the number of twirlers to seven, with each one wearing a breast plate that combined to spell out A-R-I-Z-O-N-A. Over the decades, she has recruited and hand-picked state and national champions. (Part of the reason that she gets her pick is that she has been judging national competitions since back in the days when Elvis was cool. She still travels thousands of miles each year in search of twirlers who are skilled enough to represent Arizona. According to her bio, she has taught and judged twirling in all 50 states and in 17 foreign countries. (Over the years, she has brought in several twirlers from Japan.) She even coached a squad of equestrian twirlers, who rode and performed in the Fiesta De Los Vaqueros rodeo parade for several years. Her squad leads the UA Marching band onto the field before games and performs at halftime and during the games. For those of you who have watched too many episodes of The Kardashians (in this case, too many is defined as even a part of one) and are uncertain of what is actually cool, let me say that baton twirling is way cool. Also, being in the Marching Band is cool, but, as always, cheerleading remains stupid.
I actually learned about Shirlee Bertolini a few years back when my son, Alexander, worked for her as a videographer, filming the twirlers' practices and game routines. Shirlee is quite the perfectionist and it eventually got to the point where Alexander's computer engineering studies forced him to cut back on outside activities. He handed the job off to his best friend, Alan, who, while working, met the love of his life, Jennie, who was one of the twirlers.
I mentioned this to Shirlee and she immediately said, "Oh yes, Alan. His phone number is (she says the correct phone number from memory). I'll have to call him. His birthday is coming up." (It is.) That's just freaky.
Shirlee has just about seen it all with UA football ... except maybe a Rose Bowl berth. Uh-Huh!