Rodriguez embraces underdog role in life, football

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Rich

Rodriguez absolutely hates to lose.

Whether it’s a ping-pong, golf,

baseball, whatever. He hates it.

“Sometimes I’m over the top

(with it),” he said, smiling. “My mom would tell you that I was

unconscionable anytime we lost, and that’s from Little League on.”

His memory is detailed when

it comes to that. Any time little Rich would lose a baseball

game, “I wouldn’t talk to anybody. She said I’d put a towel over my head and not

talk to anybody for hours. I just hated the thought that somebody was better

than us.”

Over the top? Probably. But not much

has changed 40-something years later. Rodriguez still hates to lose. And even if he’s

winning, there’s no relief until the buzzer … or later.

“When we’re singing the

fight song,” he said of enjoying the victory.

So far, so good at Arizona, where

he’s 3-0 this season and 11-5 overall.

Rodriguez, now 50 and nearly two

seasons into his time at the helm of Arizona’s football program has been able to enjoy that feeling many times in stops at (in reverse order) Michigan, West Virginia, Glenville State and Salem

University. He’s 131-89-2 overall and 86-53 at the Division I level.

What drives him is the need to be good at

what he does, the refuse-to-lose attitude and the view of himself as the

underdog at all times. He embraces the latter.

“Absolutely,” he said

when asked if he still considers himself an underdog. “Probably

because I started at smaller schools like Salem, Glenville, Tulane (as an

assistant) and Clemson (assistant), although we weren’t considered

underdogs.

“And West Virginia always

had an underdog mentality. It was little ol’ West Virginia and this small

state.”

The underdog mentality apparently was spawned during his time as a player, when Rodriguez was a walk-on linebacker at West Virginia.

“That’s why he is the way he

is: Nothing was ever given to him,” said David Lockwood, a former teammate

at West Virginia and now Arizona’s cornerbacks coach. “He took what he had and

ran with it.”

As a walk-on, there was always plenty to prove.

“I thought, I played

against these guys in high school and beat them, and they got scholarships and I

didn’t,” Rodriguez said. “I found something to motivate me.”

Now, it’s coaching. It’s been his for more than 20 years. And what he learned back then is what he tries to instill in his team: Work every down as though it’s your last.

“He’s demanding and

tough,” said Arizona defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich.

And that goes for the coaches, too.

“It all trickles down,”

Lockwood said. “He wants the best, but that’s who he is. When he played, he

was a motor guy, a blue-collar guy. He came to play, and when he played, he

played hard.”

That was very apparent in Arizona’s 58-13

win over UNLV two weeks ago. TV cameras caught him on a few occasions

barking at quarterback B.J. Denker for missing on what should have been an easy completion. But at the time,

Arizona had the game well in hand.

Denker has said that taking criticism comes with the job description for a quarterback. And it’s part of the process of improving; coaches get on players. In fact, he said Rodriguez is “easier” during games

because “he likes to make it uncomfortable during practice.”

Added Denker: “He jumped me pretty hard … but that’s to be expected,” Denker said. “We wanted to put our foot

on their throat.”

Arizona was leading by five touchdowns when this exchange took place.

“Just look at his success;

he knows what he wants and has a vision for it,” said Arizona defensive

coordinator Jeff Casteel. “He makes people work at everything.”

Lockwood joked that Rodriguez

hates to lose so much that if you competed “in a sweep-the-floor

competition,” he’d do everything he could to win.

“He’s a work-hard, try-hard

guy,” Lockwood said. “He’ll give it everything he has.”

Apparently, the gene has been

passed on. When his son, Rhett, was a youngster (he’s now a freshman and the

starting quarterback at Tucson’s Catalina Foothills High School) he played T-ball in a league in which everybody batted and scored and there were no winners or losers.

“It drove me crazy,”

Rodriguez said. “I asked Rhett, ‘Are you having fun?’ He said, ‘No.’ So I

said, ‘The hell with this. When they start keeping score, that’s when you will go

back.’ So he never played T-ball. There should be a winner and loser every

time. If you’re losing, you need to learn how to win.”

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