TUCSON, Ariz. — When Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne tweeted that he had his man – his new football coach, to be specific – in Rich Rodriguez, the topic trended in the social media world.
A little more than 12 months later, Rodriguez is still a hot topic. As he should be after leading Arizona to a 7-5 record and a bowl appearance against 7-5 Nevada in Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
Who, 12 months ago, would have thought that was possible? And I’m talking any bowl game. Arizona had just finished 4-8 overall and looked bad in doing so. Talent was scarce, depth even more so.
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Mike Stoop was out, Rodriguez was in. In the process, Byrne changed Arizona football’s destiny.
Of course, Rodriguez’s ability to persuade what little talent he had available to believe in him played a big part in the reversal of fortunes. Those who don’t believe in the power of suggestion – and direction – need to pay attention to what has happened in Wildcat country.
These days, there is cause for elation.
“I’m even more pleased now about our decision to hire Coach Rodriguez than I was a year ago,” said Byrne, the man who made the call in bringing Rodriguez to the Old Pueblo. “The job that he and his staff have done to get the team to buy in has been great. The job he’s doing from a recruiting standpoint, from the weight room, the classroom and the practices make me very pleased and excited about what the future holds for Arizona football.”
At least you know it’s in secure hands. When Arizona knocked off Oklahoma State in the second game of the season, it was clear something special was happening – not in terms of this season’s results but in terms of what could happen next season and beyond. There’s potential for this program, and the fans – even Arizona’s fickle fans – see it.
And Rodriguez plays to those fans and says all the right things. He was out and about like a social butterfly with the determination of an ant.
“He did a great job of getting around the state to let people know how important their support is to our program to be successful,” said Byrne. “He gets it and understands what it takes to be a head football coach. That’s something that our fans have embraced. Just as he and his staff have embraced the university.”
At his initial press conference, Rodriguez talked about his five-year contract, saying he hoped this would be the last stop of his coaching career (although all coaches say that). And he added, “I will not just coach the University of Arizona football, but I will live it.”
At the very least he’s embraced it and delivered on promises that Arizona “won’t be boring.”
Huddles “were a waste of time.” The offense was run at a get-it-done pace. The defense … well, it tried to be the best it could be and probably was at times.
But what do you do when you’re play a handful of walk-ons on a regular basis? You survive, and that’s what Arizona did, sometimes sputtering – especially at the end of games – and sometimes flourishing.
When all has been said and done – in victory or defeat – there’s been progress. And isn’t that what anyone wants in anything?
“It’s testimony to our team, our coaches and seniors,” Byrne said. “The seniors have shown leadership and have gotten the rest of the team to buy in. We’ve been able to win a couple of games we weren’t favored to do so. It’s allowed us to lay a solid foundation for future success.”
Byrne’s signature hires thus far in his career have been Rodriguez and football coach Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. He has had other significant hires at Arizona, but they are too early in their tenures to be measured in the long term.
Where does Rodriguez’s rank? Byrne is too savvy to bite, “but I’m as pleased with the hiring of Rich Rodriguez as any coach I’ve ever hired. And I’ve been fortunate to be part of some good hires.”
At least the honeymoon was good. The rest will be determined.