The stats are impressive, but the nickname stands alone.
On the heels of Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf's swift victory in the '91 Gulf War, University of Arizona's head coach Dick Tomey assembled a college football defense for the ages down in Tuscon. All six leading tacklers on the team would end up in the NFL. The defensive line was anchored with two college football Hall of Famers in Tedy Bruschi and Rob Waldrop, and, to top it off, it allowed barely 30 yards rushing per game, which at the time was the best run defense the game had seen in 30 years.
"The defense was originally the brain child of a man named Don Matthews who was a coach in the Canadian Football League," coach Tomey says. "He started the original concept, and our staff ran with it. It was frighteningly simple. We almost never blitzed. We looked the same every time we lined up, which was a great disguise. And we played with the same personnel on the field almost all the time. Formation changes didn't matter. We just had terrific players that fit the system."
Specifically, Tomey needed players that would never quit and who loved to play, meaning the prototypical athlete in this system had to have tremendous pride and believe that he could stop people.
"If you believe you can stop people, then you can do it," Tomey says. "You don't have to have the greatest players. We weren't as tall as many defenses, but we played with such passion. In 1992, '93 and '94, our run defenses were unparalleled."
Heath Bray, a safety and middle linebacker on those defenses (and a team captain in '92), says that Bruschi and Waldrop were keys to the success of the Swarm.
"We planted some seeds for that kind of defense in 1991 when Tedy was a freshman and Waldrop was a sophomore," he says. "When we switched to the flex defense in 1992, it was a very well thought out and aggressive scheme, and it was perfect for the personnel that we had. You needed a stud at nose guard, which we had in Waldrop. Then we had Tedy coming off the edge and we had a tremendous secondary.
"A lot of it also had to do with Coach Rich Ellerson, now the head coach at Army. He's a savant when it comes to defensive schemes. He would game plan every team. Once, I remember I had seven or eight different coverages I could call because you had the personnel to run it. When you've got a nose guard taking up the center and the tackle, like Waldrop, you can do it."
But neither Bruschi or Waldrop were sure things out of high school.
"Neither of those guys was like a five-star recruit or even four," Tomey says. "But they were guys that we love. We love guys with a great motor. I'd rather say 'whoah' than 'giddyup'. We played very hard because we were not confused. We made offenses adjust to us."
Waldrop ended up being a two-time consensus All-American in the scheme and he helped create a confidence that Bray said had a snowball effect on the team.
"Once you started feeling like you could dominate people, you just went out and did it," he says. "It's immeasurable what confidence can do. Then we came in in 1992 and you could not move the ball on us."
The two games that stood out during this stretch for Coach Tomey both came in games where the Wildcats squared off against the then-No. 1 ranked team in the country.
"In '92, this was the team that started out the year struggling," he says. "Then we played two #1 teams in less than a month. We played Miami in Miami, with our 3rd team QB, and they beat us 8-7. Then we played Washington, and we beat them 16-3. That team had Mark Brunell, Lincoln Kennedy and Napoleon Kaufman and they didn't get in the end zone. We played two No. 1 teams and they only got one touchdown in eight quarters."
Even more impressive is the fact that the '92 Huskies team was undefeated at the time and had just steamrolled 15th ranked Stanford 41-7.
"The first time I paid attention to the nickname was when we got back from Miami," Bray says. "Whoever made it up was a genius. I coached football the next year at the University of Oklahoma. It was amazing the press that I would see about the Arizona defense in the middle of Big 8 (now Big 12) country. Every time you'd come in on Sunday, you'd hear about Arizona D this, and Arizona D that."
"I think it was a media person who coined the name," Tomey says. "The last thing you need is a nickname because you become very average quickly, but the guys embraced it and I think they still do and it stuck. It's something that people look to today and talk about fondly. The thing that's lost in that a little bit is that in the '93 Fiesta Bowl, we shut out Miami 29-0, but we had to play great offensively. Me moved the heck out of the ball on them."
Bray says that there was nobody more perfect to lead that team, and that defense, than Coach Tomey.
"The legacy of that team is the ferocious way that they played," Tomey says. "Sometimes coaches will say 'we really played hard', but our scheme was so simple. We knew what we were doing and you had to beat us. We rarely made mistakes, too. I was the head coach, but our defensive coaches did a fabulous job. They were the right guys and they put Arizona on a national stage."
Case in point, even Keanu Reeves' character in Speed had to recognize the skills of Desert Swarm.
"Arizona...Good football team," he says to Sandra Bullock in a pivotal scene.
From the words of Johnny Utah and Shane "Footsteps" Falco to the Football Gods' ears.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.