TUCSON, Ariz. — In Grant Town, W.Va., sits the biggest University of Arizona football fan that side of the Mississippi River.
He’s 73 and the father of the University of Arizona’s increasingly popular football coach — Rich Rodriguez. Of course, while Rodriguez’s personality is a contributing factor, ultimately his popularity will ebb and flow in relation to the wins of his football team.
In Rodriguez’s first season in the desert, a few thousand miles from tiny Grant Town, the wins were plentiful. Arizona went a surprising 8-5 and everyone was giddy.
All the while, Vince Rodriguez, the toughest man in Grant Town — population about 600 — watched and observed.
Come Sunday, Father’s Day, Vince’s son will make his call to say, “how are you doing and I love you.”
And thanks for being you.
On the other end of the phone will be the toughest man Rich Rodriguez has ever known. Tombstone tough.
“He didn’t say a whole lot, but when he did say something you’d think about what he said,” Rich Rodriguez said of his father. “For someone who has never coached and never been in this profession, he has a pretty good perspective on things. He observes a lot and understands people; he understands the toughness and what it takes.”
The elder Rodriguez would know, he worked in a nearby coal mine for most of his life in the upper northeast part of the state. According to the son, when he wasn’t in the mine, he was gardening or, when he wasn’t gardening, fishing or hunting.
The latter three – perhaps all four – Rich had no interest in. He didn’t have the patience for fishing and hunting and absolutely hated gardening.
“I’d play any sport just to get out of pulling weeds,” Rodriguez said with a smile.
So Rodriguez played football, basketball and baseball and whatever else kept him occupied in tiny Cape Town.
Still, the garden called often.
“I had brothers, and the older we got, the bigger the garden got,” Rodriguez said. “If we weren’t playing sports, there was always something for us to do in the garden.”
In essence, Vince taught them about the power of work. Miss school? You missed a moment and an opportunity.
“It was understood (that) you had to do well in school,” Rodriguez said.
And Rich did. He’d hear about it when he didn’t. Or, as many of those who grew up in that time, he would get THE LOOK and a promise of something more.
“We’d (the brothers) get in a fight every now and again, so we’d get the look from him … maybe got the belt,” Rodriguez said, adding the latter was a rarity. “That was it. (But) if there was a time we looked soft, we’d get the look, and we didn’t want to be considered that. We never got a lecture, he’d just tell us.”
The Rodriguez boys were tough. Rich was a star in three sports and eventually became a walk-on at West Virginia.
Of course, their parents – his mom is Arlene – were proud.
“A reporter once asked – or said – he must have been proud of his son,” Rich said, “and he said, ‘I’m proud of all my boys.’ It was a lesson from a dad’s perspective. Like when people ask about your kids or your players. You love them equally.”
As does Rich, who says his father was a pretty good athlete back in the day, but he had to give it up to help support the family following a divorce of his parents.
“From what I understand – and he didn’t talk about it much – he was a really good high school player,” Rich said of his father. “He probably had a chance to play in college, but before college his mom and dad divorced and so he didn’t finish because he had to support her.
“He didn’t finish his high school career. But people say he was a tough guy.”
A quiet guy; a guy who never complained. It took prodding to get him to see a doctor.
When he did – after years of not going – it wasn’t good.
“My mom convinced him to go get a check-up and see a doctor,” he said. “When they did, the doctor said, ‘I don’t know how you made it to the parking lot. You have to have heart surgery right away.”
The check-up turned into quadruple bypass surgery.
“By the time, I got there he was already tubed up and had the surgery,” Rich said. “When they took (the breathing tube) out, he said to me, ‘if they didn’t have me tied down, I would have taken that damn tube and ripped it out.”
That was typical Vince.
Rich recalled a story from 2002, in his second year at West Virginia, when he invited his parents to join him in his first bowl game: The Mountaineers vs. Virginia in the Continental Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.
“He’d never had been on a plane before, and he kept worrying about his ticket and where it was,” Rodriguez said. “I told him it was a charter (and didn’t need a ticket), but he still insisted he needed a ticket.”
At the team hotel, Mom and Dad were in the staying in the room next to Rich.
“He asked if I had any beer in my refrigerator,” Rich said, smiling, “and I said, ‘yea, but there is some in yours, too, isn’t there?’ He said, ‘yes, but those are like $6 a bottle, so I’ll just drink yours.’ “
Cheers to Vince Rodriguez, the man who will see his first Arizona game in person this fall, the man Rich calls dad.