Since head coach Rich Rodriguez arrived at Arizona in the winter of 2011, the Wildcats football program has become known for a few things.
There was last November’s signature win over quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks. The back-to-back bowl victories in Rodriguez’s first two seasons — a feat that hadn’t been achieved in Tucson since the late ‘90s.
Oh, and then there’s the YouTube videos.
You know the ones: those quirky shorts that pop up from time to time during the offseason, the ones that don’t totally make sense, but you still can’t stop watching.
Before the newest episode launched on Tuesday, FOXSports.com was able to pull back the curtain on how and why the Wildcats’ viral shorts are made. But first, here’s the premiere of "Arizona Fast #TheNewNormal":
Ultimately, the videos start and end with one man — because if the boss isn’t willing to have some fun, nobody gets to.
“We’re not afraid to make fun of ourselves a little bit,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like I tell recruits, ‘We’re going to work hard and do our best to ensure we have the best program in America. But we’re also going to have a little fun, too.’”
The videos fill a lighthearted niche for Arizona football, but they also serve a purpose well beyond entertainment because they provide unique opportunities for Arizona to grab the attention of recruits.
In the eyes of Arizona’s director of on-campus recruiting and player personnel Matt Dudek, video has replaced mailings as arguably the most important recruiting tool the school has at its disposal.
“A kid can be on our YouTube page at two in the morning,” Dudek said. “And for those four minutes, he’s thinking about Arizona football. Recruiting mailings are nice, but a kid looks at a mailing, says ‘Oh that’s cool’ then puts it down and moves onto the next thing. They spend 10 seconds on it total.”
That realization made Dudek propose the idea of producing more video content to Rodriguez. The coach eventually gave the green light and just about the whole Arizona football family became involved in the process of pitching and sharing ideas.
That family included Rita Rodriguez, Rich’s wife.
“She had the idea to do a mailing with the coaches dressed as cowboys, under the caption ‘The Posse is Coming for You,’” Dudek said. “So I said, ‘If we’re going to dress up as cowboys, why not make it a video?’”
That idea came to fruition in a flick titled “Hard Edge." The tagline: It’s High Noon at Old Tucson with the Arizona Football Staff. A Man on a quest for the Rose will choose the right men for the job.
It’s a prime example of how ideas for video and mailing recruiting content come about at Arizona.
“We have 25 interns,” Dudek said. “It’s Coach Rodriguez, his wife, his kids. I’ll be watching TV and something will pop into my head. We have this creative pot amongst all of us.”
The ideas get funneled through Dudek to Rodriguez, and when one is approved, the production process begins. First up is location scouting. For the “Hard Edge” videos – rated “A” for Arizona — a nearby amusement park provided a “Wild, Wild West” theme.
Props are also important. Who would have thought a broken-down bus (one described by Dudek as “pretty gross”) located behind the school’s baseball field would come in handy, but it’s indispensable to Arizona’s “Speed” parody.
As part of the on-site preparations, director of video production John Daley and his crew go out and make sure everything is squared away so that the actors — Arizona’s football coaches and players – can let their natural instincts take over when they arrive.
“The creative juices get flowing,” Dudek said. “I say ‘Hey, what about this?’ Another coach will share his thoughts. I can honestly tell you, we’ve never had a script.”
Daley and his team then turn the raw footage into the final product that hits the Internet. They aren’t given a ton of time to work with the on-camera talent — shoots can last as little as 20 minutes – and sometimes need to put together a final product in a day or two. But when the video does arrive, no one is disappointed.
“I call them the video gurus,” Dudek said. “They take our ideas and make them 5,000 times better.”
When the cut comes back, Rodriguez remains involved, and he may make a tweak or two before it hits the Web.
In a world where most college football coaches consider “fun” a four-letter word, and showing even a hint of personality to be a sign of weakness, Rodriguez is an outlier. That’s invaluable for a guy like Dudek, whose job is to be a conduit between potential recruits and the coaching staff.
“It all starts with a coach willing to do something different,” Dudek said. “The biggest thing for me in my role is having a head coach who’s open to these kinds of things. There’s nothing that’s off the table with Coach Rodriguez.”
And Dudek is fine pushing boundaries.
“I want to come up with the most outlandish idea I can, knowing there’s a chance he’ll say ‘Let’s do this,’” Dudek said. “Even if he says ‘No,’ it’s not ‘No, get the hell out of my office.’ It’s ‘How do we scale this back to make it work?’”
Still, the buzz the videos have created amongst college football fans would matter little if Arizona’s target audience of 16- to 18-year-old football players didn’t care. But it sounds like potential recruits do, which gives the Wildcats’ staff a leg up on the recruiting trail.
“I’ve had so many guys just from seeing our videos say, ‘I already feel like I know you’ (once they get to campus for a tour),” Dudek said. “That’s the biggest compliment we can get as a coaching staff. It just encourages us to keep doing more fun stuff.”