Rodriguez working to instill winning belief
TUCSON – Lute Olson has seen it all before. In fact, he lived through it.
Survived it. He can almost laugh about it now.
He turned a program that didn't have the mentality — or the history — of winning consistently into a constant winner. Arizona basketball went from a laugher to a factor in a year.
Arizona Rich Rodriguez is hoping to do the same. Check back next year when we'll know more about what this season meant when it comes to Arizona football.
Still, now comes the dilemma: Rodriguez getting his players to believe they can win, under any circumstance and under any condition. Close calls aren't good enough when the name of the game is winning.
Arizona, 3-3 and playing host to Washington this weekend, hasn't done that the last couple of games, faltering in the end for a number of reasons. One could be they aren't used to winning, having lost 16 of 23 over the last couple of seasons.
Perception is the reality. After all, if you don't believe in yourself, well, who will?
"In Rich's case, the biggest thing is going to be for the players in the program to feel like they are going to win those ones,'' said Olson, who witnessed UA's last two last-minute losses to Stanford and Oregon State. "They were good enough to win the last two. They just didn't. But they played well.''
Flash back nearly 30 years ago to Olson's first season in Tucson. After the first day of practice, Olson put his faces in his hands and wondered to himself: what had he done?
He left a dynasty-in-waiting program at Iowa for a start from nearly scratch rebuilding effort at Arizona. It only got worse as Arizona started 1-6 before defeating Texas Tech and playing a pretty good Texas El Paso team close, losing in the final seconds on what was perceived to be a hometown job by the referees.
But that weekend in El Paso, Olson started to see the program change. Slowly, the mentality that had consumed it the previous season — the Wildcats went 1-17 in the Pac-10 Conference and 4-24 overall — was shifting. His players were getting it, and they won six of their last eight games. The "winning effect" had taken over. A year later, they started a 25-year run in the NCAA Tournament appearances.
So, his message to Rodriguez is patience — and persistence.
"It's to stay positive," Olson said of his advice to Rodriguez. "You're really close. But you have to get over the hump and expect to win rather than just to stay close."
Rodriguez is doing that. After a recent practice, Rodriguez said he was "on them pretty good" and "it's about believing you CAN win.
"And it's not that I don't believe they don't think that, but we just didn't make the plays (against Stanford or Oregon State),'' Rodriguez said.
He maintains he'll continue to be aggressive.
"The one thing I want us for us not to play scared,'' Rodriguez said. "I want us to be aggressive, playing for the win as opposed to hoping something doesn't happen."
Which, of course, leads to asking: then why not go for it with 41 seconds left at Stanford with the game tied at 48? The Wildcats ran two handoffs and sent the game into overtime, where they lost 54-48, instead of attacking the Cardinal with the pass.
"What people don't realize is that they were dropping eight players,'' Rodriguez explained. "I'm thinking a guy could bust a run for 15 to 20 yards and then we'd call a timeout and see.
"When the first run didn't get anything (1 yard by Ka'Deem Carey), we were backed up. I didn't want to punt and give them time and the ball."
Live and learn. It's usually what first seasons are about under new head coaches. Some coaches transition well and move forward even better. Good talent, and depth, helps. Arizona has a shortage on each this year, making for a tougher transition. Now – even after beating what we now know to be a mediocre Oklahoma State more than a month ago – Arizona must deal with finding that inner fortitude for the second half of the season.
"I think you can learn it,'' Rodriguez said of the will to win. "And success breeds success. We're trying to do is approach every play the same. We want them to compete on every play – from the first quarter to the fourth quarter.
"We want them to be aggressive all the time. … I clearly don't want them to be satisfied with what's going on.
"I believe in what we are doing, and our kids believe in what we are doing. So, it's going to happen sooner or later."