“Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase Nearly Became An Arizona Wildcat

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I recently interviewed Ted DiBiase for another story (considering this the official teaser), and the former professional wrestling star shared interesting details of his football recruitment in the early 1970s.

Predating his time as the villainous Million Dollar Man or selling out the Superdome with wrestling rival (and the best man in his wedding) Junkyard Dog, Ted DiBiase was a standout football player. He shined on Friday nights in the tiny, southeast Arizona town of Willcox — not exactly a hotbed recruiting pipeline.

“We’re talking three traffic lights,” DiBiase said.

Sure, he was billed from The Antilles, Palm Beach, Bel Air and Hyannis port as the Million Dollar Man — four residences, one for each season — but DiBiase spent his high school years in Willcox. He relocated to be with his grandparents after DiBiase’s father, “Iron” Mike DiBiase, died of a heart attack during a wrestling match in Lubbock.

DiBiase did something that no other athlete from Willcox High had: earned a full, athletic scholarship.

Everyone has a price, and the offer of an elusive scholarship from the nearby University of Arizona was very nearly’s DiBiase’s.

“The coach there at the time was a guy named [Bob] Weber,” DiBiase said. “He wasn’t very good. Arizona was getting drummed all the time.”

The numbers bear that out. After Darrell Mudra left Arizona following a successful 1968 campaign, Weber endured four consecutive losing seasons and was summarily fired.

In his time as head coach, Weber pursued the local prospect DiBiase, offering him the first scholarship opportunity he’d see — but not the last.

DiBiase landed at the former West Texas State, now West Texas A&M. More on that at a later date. After accepting his scholarship to West Texas State, however, DiBiase heard an interesting comment

“When we had our athletic banquet, the guest speaker was [former Arizona State head coach] Frank Kush,” he said. “The first time I shook hands with Frank Kush — I got an award, an ‘Athlete of the Year’ thing — his personality,” DiBiase paused and laughed, then continued: “He said, ‘You bum! You didn’t even give us a chance to offer you a scholarship.’

“I said, ‘I knew you recruited speed, so I didn’t think you wanted me,” DiBiase recounted with a chuckle.

Kush had a burgeoning powerhouse at Arizona State in those days. The Sun Devils’ dominance of the Western Athletic Conference from the late 1960s into the 1970s helped launch the Fiesta Bowl, and ostensibly made it possible for both Arizona and Arizona State to move to the Pacific Eight Conference.

To think: Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase’s first merger nearly came through conference expansion.