The football team began at the University of Arizona in 1899 under the nickname "Varsity". James "Pop" McKale became the first coach of Arizona football history. On Nov 7, 1914, the team traveled to the west coast to play Occidental, then one of the reigning gridiron powers in California. Occidental won 14–0. Arizona later received the name "Wildcats" after a Los Angeles Times correspondent, Bill Henry, wrote that "The Arizona men showed the fight of wildcats".
In 1921, Drop-kicker/receiver Harold "Nosey" McClellan led the nation in scoring with 124 points. Wildcats finished the regular season 7–1, and were invited to UA's first bowl game, the East-West Christmas Classic in San Diego, to play powerhouse Centre College of Kentucky; Arizona lost the game 38–0. On October 18, 1926 UA quarterback and student body president John "Button" Salmon died from injuries sustained in a car wreck. His final words, spoken to coach "Pop" McKale, were: "Tell them.....tell the team to Bear Down." Soon thereafter, the UA student body adopted "Bear Down" as the school's athletic motto. On October 18, 1929, Arizona opened up Arizona Stadium for college football play. They won their first game against Caltech with a shutout score of 25–0.
Coach Gerald "Tex" Oliver's "Blue Brigade" played an expanded, more nationwide schedule, Arizona produced their first All-Americans under coach Gerald Tex. The team's 1938 record of 8–2 was a school best to date.
In 1954, under coach Warren B. Woodson, Arizona was led by starting halfback Art Luppino. He went on to lead the nation in rushing, scoring, all-purpose running, and kickoff returns. Art Luppino became the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in rushing twice. He also tied for the national title in all-purpose running and was third in scoring.
During their time in the WAC conference the Wildcats compiled back-to-back 9–2 seasons under Coach Jim Young, UA's first nine-win campaigns. Receiver Theopolis "T" Bell was named All-American and fullback Jim Upchurch became the second Wildcat to rush for 1,000 yards for two consecutive seasons.
In 1992, Coach Dick Tomey's "Desert Swarm" defense was characterized by tough, hard-nosed tactics. UA lead the nation in scoring defense and nose guard Rob Waldrop is a consensus All-American. In 1993, the team had its first 10-win season and beat the Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl by a score of 29–0. It was the bowl game's only shutout in its then 23-year history. In 1994, Arizona was ranked #6. However, Arizona was stunned by Colorado State and the rest of the season went down along with it, continuing a streak of not being selected for the Rose Bowl. Arizona to this day, is the only team in the original Pac-10 that has never played in the Rose Bowl Game.
In 1998, the team posted a school-record 12–1 season and made the Holiday Bowl in which it defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Arizona ended that season ranked fourth nationally in the coaches and Associated Press poll. The 1998 Holiday Bowl was televised on ESPN and set the now-surpassed record of being the most watched of any bowl game in that network's history. In 2000, Tomey was fired just after a season-ending 30–17 loss to Arizona State, the Wildcats' primary arch-rival. After Dick Tomey was fired, Wildcat football declined in wins and went on a bowl game drought. Former Illinois and Texas head coach and ESPN football analyst John Mackovic served a disastrous tenure as head coach during this period; Mackovic alienated his players and never posted a winning record in two and one-half seasons in Tucson, with a 10–18 record (a .357 winning percentage).
In 2004, four years after Tomey's firing, Arizona hired Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to take over the Wildcat program. Under Stoops, Arizona started 6–18; his job was in critical danger and his margin for error was very thin. However in his third season in 2006, Stoops led the Wildcats to an improved 6–6 record, the first non-losing season for the school since 1998 when the Wildcats went 12–1 under Tomey. In 2008, the Wildcats earned their first bowl berth in a decade, defeating BYU by a score of 31–21.
In 2009, the Wildcats earned their second straight bowl berth and a second straight eight-win season. On November 21, 2009, the Oregon Ducks came to Arizona Stadium in a game that would decide which team went to the Rose Bowl. ESPN's College GameDay crew dubbed it as the game of the week and ventured down to Tucson to cover it. After a back and forth battle, the Oregon Ducks won in double overtime 44–41 to clinch the Rose Bowl bid. Arizona was defeated 33–0 by Nebraska in a rematch of the 1998 Holiday Bowl.
Midway through his eighth season, Stoops was fired as head coach on October 10, 2011, after starting the season 1–5 (the sole victory was against FCSNorthern Arizona). Including the prior season, the Wildcats under Stoops had lost 10 consecutive games against FBS opponents, with their last victory over a FBS team taking place nearly a year earlier on October 30, 2010, against UCLA. Tim Kish, the team's defensive coordinator, was named interim head coach for the remainder of the season. (Stoops returned to the Sooner program soon thereafter as defensive coordinator; Kish, who had known the Stoops brothers for many years, followed Stoops and joined the Sooner staff as the linebackers coach.)
Rodriguez is considered a pioneer of a no huddle, run-oriented version of the spread offense, although a pass-first version was already being implemented by others. He first developed this offensive approach at Glenville State and refined it during his stops at Tulane with Shaun King, at Clemson with Woodrow Dantzler, and at West Virginia most notably with dual-threat quarterback Pat White. This strategy features frequent use of the shotgun formation. Rodriguez is also credited for inventing the zone read play run out of the shotgun formation.
At West Virginia, Rodriguez guided the Mountaineers to two consecutive bowl games, going to the Nokia Sugar Bowl in 2005 as the Big East champion and its Bowl Championship Series (BCS) representative, defeating Georgia and a gaining a final Associated Press ranking of fifth; the next season the Mountaineers won eleven games, defeated Georgia Tech, 38–35, in the Gator Bowl and finished 10th in the final polls. The 2007 Mountaineers eventually achieved No. 2 in the BCS standings and No. 1 in the Coaches' poll, both the highest position ever for a Mountaineer football team; Rodriguez was hired by Michigan at the end of the regular season in a highly controversial (and legally contested) move, but the Mountaineer team went on to defeat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl under interim head coach Bill Stewart.
Rodriguez' tenure at Michigan was far less successful, as it was plagued by player discontent, NCAA rule violations, lack of major bowl appearances, and a lack of success against Michigan's major traditional rivals such as Ohio State and Michigan State; Rodriguez was relieved of his duties in January 2011, and joined CBS Sports as an analyst soon thereafter, but stated that he might return to coaching if the right opportunity presented itself.
Rodriguez was hired as the 30th head coach of the Arizona football program on November 21, 2011. The hiring was first announced by Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne on Twitter while a press conference officially announcing him as the head coach was held a day later at McKale Center in Tucson. Rodriguez will earn $1.45 million in his first year, $1.5 million in his second, $1.6 million in his third, $1.7 million in his fourth and $1.8 million in his fifth season. He will receive an extra $300,000 per year from Nike, as well as bonuses for academic achievement, BCS rankings, season ticket totals and bowl appearances. He will get extra bonuses for milestones such as playing in the BCS title game, playing in any other bowl, and for winning the Pac-12. The contract is subject to UA Board of Regents approval. Rodriguez' hiring ended a 41-day search for a head coach which started after Mike Stoops was dismissed after eight seasons as Wildcat head coach. Former University of Florida head coach Urban Meyer (who later accepted the head coaching position at Ohio State) and former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach (who later accepted the head coaching position at Pac-12 school Washington State) were reportedly also considered for the position.
Following West Virginia's victory in the 2012 Orange Bowl, Mountaineers defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who coached under Rodriguez during his tenure there, departed WVU's staff to join Rodriguez and become the Wildcats' defensive coordinator. An official announcement, and Casteel's formal introduction to the Tucson media, was made on January 13, 2012. Casteel is considered one of the top defensive coaches in the nation, and considered master of the 3–3–5 "odd stack" defense.
Note: bold years indicate outright conference titles ***Co-Championship, shared with UCLA, who defeated Arizona by 20 points in their only head-to-head matchup. Arizona has yet to win an outright Pac-10/12 conference championship.
Starting in the 2010 season, Arizona wore new uniforms. They are simplified versions of the uniforms worn from 2005–2009, with the addition of a white helmet with a red-white-blue stripe. The team may use any combination of its two helmets, three jerseys and three pants. On September 29, 2012 the Wildcats will unveil a new copper helmet.
The Wildcat Walk, first done in 2010, is one of Arizona's newest traditions. Before every home game, the team's buses take them from their hotel and drop them off several blocks north of the stadium. The fans and the marching band line Cherry Avenue as the team walks to the stadium.
During pre-game warmups, the team performs a haka. Starting in 2012, the team will perform the haka in front of the student section, where students will also do the haka.
At the beginnings of the second and fourth quarters, the cheerleaders lead the crowd in a synchronized U of A chant. The east side of the stadium yells "U!", the north and south sides yell "of!" and the west side yells "A!"
At the beginning of the second half, for the duration of the kickoff, a large block A banner is unfurled and held up by the center of the Zona Zoo.
At the end of the third quarter, the team and many members of the crowd hold up four fingers, signifying the beginning of the fourth quarter.
In a similar tradition to other schools' mascots, after every Arizona score, Wilbur the Wildcat does as many pushups as the Wildcats have points while the crowd counts his pushups. However, unlike other mascots, Wilbur does his pushups one-handed.
At the end of every home game (and every Arizona athletics event the band is present at) the band plays Arizona's alma mater, "All Hail, Arizona!" Students and fans link arms, sway as they sing and jump up and down while singing the last part of the song.
After every home game, fans and the band march to the administration building where the band performs a concert for the gathered fans. At the conclusion of the concert, the bell in the student union clock tower (one of the bells recovered from the USS Arizona) is rung, and the band responds by yelling "Bear Down!"