How a chemical engineer from the College of Mines helped get UA, ASU into the Pac-10
At 100 years and six days old, Dick Edwards has more than the average person’s share of memories. He can still remember the day he moved to Tucson.
“I came here for a job,” he said. “It was Feb. 1, 1959. The gem show was in full bloom and I couldn’t even find a hotel room.”
Edwards was enrolled as the UA’s first Ph.D. student for chemical engineering, coming to Tucson from St. Louis to serve as an instructor in the department while working towards his degree.
Edwards and his wife, Kay, planned to one day return to the Midwest. That it never happened is good news for Arizona Wildcats sports fans, as Edwards played an important role in helping bring the UA and Arizona State into what is now the Pac-12 Conference.
Edwards, a World Ward II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, remembers the process behind the 1978 expansion of the Pac-8 to Pac-10. (The league has since added Colorado and Utah).
Still, it doesn’t rank among his favorite moments. Far from it.
“It was a year of agony,” Edwards said with a chuckle, sitting in the common area of his Oro Valley retirement community.
‘A wannabe athlete’
Edwards’ career at the UA spanned decades and departments, with him moving from chemical engineering to the College of Mines before he was eventually named the university’s first vice president for student relations.
When Edwards first arrived at the UA, he met with president Richard Harvill, who asked him about his interests. Edwards, who was then the associate dean of the College of Mines, promptly answered, “athletics.”
“I was a wannabe athlete,” Edwards said, adding that he was a pretty good tennis player until a back injury suffered during a faculty and grad student tournament led to an early retirement. He finished up his degree from a hospital bed. Edwards is also a fan of golf, and his injury wasn’t so severe that it kept him from hitting the links deep into retirement.
Harvill appointed Edwards to the faculty athletic committee, which was then responsible for signing off on the hiring and firing of coaches, scheduling opponents, and more.
Two meetings in, the chairman died of a heart attack. Edwards was appointed the new chairman, a position that he held until he left the UA in 1985.
“I really enjoyed talking to students,” Edwards said. “When I could help solve a problem, that was the payoff.”
Edwards remains in touch with some of his students, calling them “my kids,” even though he has two children of his own.
“Dad was always a people person,” said Edwards’ son, Don. “I used to tell people that he could teach anybody anything. He just had a sense of knowing when the students got it and when they didn’t.”
Dick Edwards was working one Christmas Day when a student came into his office crying, saying she had left her mother’s present in a classroom.
“I had a key to everything, so I went across campus, found the office and saved the day,” Edwards said. “I was late getting home, but seeing that young lady so happy made it worth it.”
‘I almost had bitten off more than I could chew’How did Arizona end up in the Pac-12?
UA president John Schaefer was eager to establish academic fellowships with the California schools. While on a trip to China with other university presidents, he began talking to UCLA chancellor Charles Young and USC’s Jack Hubbard about the possibility of Pac-8 expansion.
Schaefer asked Edwards to look into the idea when he returned stateside, saying he didn’t want the UA to “take a bath” if they joined.
“So, I went to work,” Edwards said. “I was busy as a cat on a tin roof. I almost had bitten off more than I could chew.”
Edwards appointed representatives from the UA to a research committee made up of all the schools, who after months worth of study and meetings decided to visit each of the 10 campuses to view the facilities and see how things worked at each university.
The trips took place once a month and lasted four to five days. Edwards said the frequent travel and weeks away from campus made getting his actual job done difficult.
Other committee members faced the same dilemma. One representative from each school attended the first few campus visits.
“Then,” Edwards said, “they started to drop off and lose interest.”
Edwards visited Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, UCLA, Stanford, Washington, Washington State and ASU, calling it a good experience. He then prepared a report and handed it over to Schaefer, who was pleased with the outcome.
“And then I watched with interest as to what was going to come next,” Edwards said.
No longer a member of the inner circle, he watched from a distance.
“At the final Regents meeting, I was on the outside looking into the room,” he said.
While Schaefer was sold on the idea, athletic director Dave Strack and some of his coaches were slower to jump on board. Strack asked Edwards to gather a group of boosters and explain the advantages of leaving the Western Athletic Conference and joining the Pac-8.
“When it was over, I got a standing ovation,” Edwards said, adding that the athletic department acquiesced after that meeting.
Similarly, Arizona State was not eager to leave the WAC. When it became clear that UA wanted to join the Pac-8, ASU fell into line.
“I think somebody brought up the idea that Arizona could join if they wanted and ASU could paddle their own canoe,” Edwards said. “Eventually, ASU changed its mind.”
On Dec. 17, 1976, the Pac-8 presidents unanimously voted to invite UA and ASU to join the conference. The next step was that Regents vote, which Richards watched with anticipation from outside.
In May 1977, the work of Edwards and countless others paid off. The Pac-8 would become the Pac-10.
‘He didn’t know how to say no’
Edwards’ time as chair of the faculty athletic committee continued for years into the expansion. Sports continued to dominate his life, both at home and work.
“My wife was a basketball nut,” Edwards said.
Kay Edwards graduated from the University of Indiana, and loved watching Hoosiers coach Bob Knight. Edwards graduated from rival Purdue, making for an intense in-home rivalry.
“There was no interrupting Mom during basketball,” Don Edwards said. Kay Edwards died in 2010.
In 2017, Dick Edwards was admitted to the inaugural class of University of Arizona College of Engineering Hall of Fame.
Edwards is proud of his contributions to athletics during his time at the UA, as stressful as it could be.
“He didn’t know how to say no,” Don Edwards said, when asked while his already busy father agreed to take on Schaefer’s challenge all those years ago. “He loved the students, he had a lot of great ideas and he came from a different background.”
The weekend before his birthday, Edwards was treated to a five-plane flyover by the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots, of which his granddaughter is a member. The flyover was part of a larger event in Green Valley to honor Edith Smith, a World War II pilot celebrating her 99th birthday, but Edwards’ granddaughter made sure they passed over his retirement community on their way back to Ryan Airfield.
During Edwards’ pandemic-age birthday celebration last weekend, 10 family members took turns visiting throughout the day. Relatives came from New Mexico, Phoenix and Seattle.
“We celebrated with balloons, cake and fun gifts including a life-time photo album, family picture jigsaw puzzle, a jar of more than 100 memories, many cards from friends and family, and commemorative face masks,” Don Edwards said in an email.
Between the flyover and the birthday celebration, Edwards now has a few more memories to add to the vault.
Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt
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