In our final assignment highlighting the superstar players of the pre-World War II era, we crack open the history books to recall the tale of a crushing rusher that largely factored into the development of the ruthless nature of the Arizona State-Arizona rivalry.
Gerell Robinson made headlines in the Grand Canyon State as a high school senior when he flipped from a verbal commitment to the University of Arizona to ultimately attend and star for Arizona State, but he was far from the first to do so as about 70 years earlier another Phoenix area recruit had a change of heart from Tucson to Tempe.
According to our unofficial class text, Maroon and Gold: A History of Sun Devil Athletics by Bob Eger, in the summer of 1937 Wayne “Ripper” Pitts of Glendale was on Arizona’s campus prepping for his freshman year when he was paid a “social call” by Arizona State Teachers College assistant Ted Lillico—the same assistant responsible for scouting Emerson Harvey for the Bulldogs. A surefire recruiting violation of massive proportions these days, in the late 1930s no such restrictions prevented Lillico’s tactics.
Lillico was able to convince Pitts and two of his high school teammates to call Tempe and not Tucson their collective collegiate home to play for head coach Rudy Lavik at ASTC. The decision created returns in short order as in 1937 Pitts and company helped guide ASTC’s freshmen to a victory over Arizona’s Wildkittens—not a derogatory slur for Arizona, but the actual name of the program’s freshman team.
According to Eger, Pitts would not have future opportunities to clash with the rivals from Tucson as Arizona State’s recruiting efforts to lure Pitts away from Arizona prompted UA athletics officials to sever ties with ASTC until after Pitts and his two teammates graduated.
Though he was unable to battle Arizona on the field, “Ripper” had no trouble putting together an outstanding career as a bruising fullback for the Bulldogs and a key contributor to ASTC’s back-to-back Border Conference championships in 1939 and ’40.
Following the 1939 season, Pitts became the second player in school history to receive All-America honors, being named a Second-Team Little All-America list. These days, the Little All-America Team consists of players from schools such as Missouri Southern, Oberlin, Shippensburg and Winona State. He was also one of four Bulldogs named to the All-Border Conference team that year.
Pitts was inducted to ASU’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1979 and in 2008 he was named to the Sun Bowl’s 75th Anniversary All-Sun Bowl Team along with fellow Arizona State alumni Hascall Henshaw and Pat Tillman. As a participant in the 1940 and ’41 Sun Bowls, Pitts totaled 121 rushing yards on 27 carries and caught a touchdown pass in the ’41 game while also excelling on defense and punting for ASTC.