(Eds: Updates with more details and quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOHN MARSHALLAP College Football Writer
Rich Rodriguez reaches the edge of the country club ballroom, smiles and shakes hands with an elderly man in a University of Arizona jacket.
After a few minutes of chatting, Rodriguez tries to make his way toward the podium, where he will address a group of Wildcats supporters.
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It’s a slow process. Every few feet, Rodriguez is stopped by someone else who wants to share a story, a pat on the back, snap a photo with Arizona’s new football coach.
By the time he reaches the front, more than a half hour later, Rodriguez has engaged with seemingly everyone in the room, making each one feel as if they were the most important person in the room.
This is Rodriguez’s gift, one of the big reasons there’ excitement for football in Tucson again.
”He’s very genuine, very personable,” Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. ”You spend some time with him, you can tell he’s from a small town with roots where you treat each other well within your community.”
Originally from Grant Town, a tiny coal town on the northern border of West Virginia, Rodriguez has made his way to Tucson, where he hopes to resurrect a down-on-hard-times program and his own career after an acrimonious split with Michigan.
By all accounts, it’s gone well so far.
Rodriguez’s charisma has won over Wildcats fans and boosters, his ready smile and easygoing manner winning everyone over.
His always-on-the-go schemes have added a level of excitement, turning a national eye to the desert while ratcheting up interest for the program locally.
He’s also added a level of discipline to a program that seemed to be lacking it, particularly after former coach Mike Stoops was fired during last season.
But, like his first-year counterpart Todd Graham at rival Arizona State, Rodriguez has yet to do anything on the field, where true success is measured.
The first step in that aspect of the Rich Rodriguez Era comes Saturday night, when the Wildcats face Toledo at Arizona Stadium.
”Always the honeymoon stage is good because you haven’t lost a game and all that, but the people have been really receptive and excited, generally accepting, not just to me, but to all the new coaches and all the new guys down there,” Rodriguez said. ”We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s made it very easy to get comfortable here and to get settled in.”
A former walk-on defensive back at West Virginia, Rodriguez made a name for himself with his creative offenses at Glenville State in West Virginia. He wanted to run a spread formation but had a quarterback who was too short to wing the ball down field, so he developed a run-based offense out of the shotgun.
Rodriguez then took his innovative offense to West Virginia, turning a team that won three games his first season into a national contender.
His charmed run ended at Michigan, where he went 15-22 and was fired after three seasons.
Rodriguez spent the past season as a televisions analyst, the time away from coaching leaving him a little bored but also giving him time to reflect.
Though he was bitter about not getting to finish the job at Michigan, he kept it close to the vest, answering questions about his stint there when asked, but not dwelling on it.
Rodriguez used his extra downtime to study the game, both on television while working as an analyst and by visiting the practices of programs around the country for four or five days at a time.
The time off gave Rodriguez a better perspective on the game and life as a coach, made him appreciate what he’s got and sparked his desire to succeed even more.
”I think it fueled some hunger,” Rodriguez said. ”I was going to be hungry anyway, but I’m kind of starving right now. I hope my players are hungry, too.”
Hungry or not, the Wildcats could have a tough road in the early going of the Rodriguez Era.
Arizona has some good skill players, but not a lot of depth, particularly on the defensive side, where Rodriguez says he has half as many players under scholarship as he needs.
Conditioning also may be a problem.
Looking back at last season, Rodriguez noticed that the players worked hard in the games, but didn’t seem to be putting in the effort away from the field, even before Stoops was fired. He believes elite athletes like Division I football players shouldn’t take two months off, much less two weeks, and was astounded at the shape his new players were in at the start of workouts early this year, calling them the worst-conditioned team in America.
The Wildcats are in far better shape heading into the season, but the stamina needed to run Rodriguez’s go-go-go schemes takes time to build up.
Rodriguez also has to change the mindset at Arizona, where two lackluster seasons pushed the football deeper into the shadows of the school’s well-known basketball team.
Needless to say, it will be an uphill battle.
”This year, I don’t want to concede anything, but we need a lot of things to go our way and we can’t play poorly and expect to win games, any of them, and we know that going in,” Rodriguez said. ”My expectations of the players is for them to play hard and then see what happens. We can control that. We can control how hard we play, how physical we play and that mindset, that culture is the first thing we need to establish within this program.”
Unlike at Michigan, where Rodriguez felt he wasn’t given the opportunity to see his plans through, the window at Arizona appears to be much wider.
Byrne went after Rodriguez because of his reputation as a program-builder and understands that he’s probably not going to turn the Wildcats into national champions in one season.
”Obviously, you want to win. That’s bottom line, that’s why we keep score,” Byrne said. ”However, there’s a reason we decided to make a change. I really think there’s some parts of our team to where we can have some success this year if we play well this year, and at the same time, long-term I feel very confident that our program is in good hands and is going in the right direction for the future.”