Rich Rodriguez: 5 Reasons He's the Perfect Fit in Arizona
On the late-November night Rich Rodriguez was announced as Arizona's next head football coach, this writer laid out all of the reasons why the hire was bound to fail miserably.
Now that the 49-year-old offensive mastermind's produced a Top 25 ranking and upsets of Oklahoma State and USC in less than a year, it's time to reverse course altogether and determine why RichRod is the perfect fit in Tucson.
After all, as a hair-triggered American, it's my constitutional duty to completely flip-flop positions in a heartbeat, especially during an election year. That's freedom.
The majority of the media members close to the situation—especially those with knowledge of the inner workings of the program and Rodriguez—slapped me sensible last November, laying out why the selection of the ex-Michigan coach, in spite of his public flaws, was a national coup.
From CBS Sports, which rated his hire the second-best among all newly inked college football coaches this year:
In seven years at West Virginia, Rodriguez won 61 games, reached two BCS bowls and lost only 26 games. In three years at Michigan he lost 22 games. So which Rodriguez does Arizona get? Either way, one thing is certain: He will bring an entertaining, high-scoring offense to Tucson—and even higher expectations.
From USA Today-affiliated blog The Big Lead:
For Arizona this is a shrewd hire. Rodriguez is one of the best offensive minds in the sport. His offense revolutionized college football. He took West Virginia to within a hair of a national title. He once rejected an offer from Alabama. He has his weak points, but that proven pedigree of head coach doesn’t come available for Arizona very often.
From Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen:
Rodriguez arrives in Tucson with 75 major-college coaching victories. That's more than Larry Smith and Dick Tomey had combined (74) when they became Arizona's football coach. He has a system, a style and a reputation.
Somehow, Arizona hired a $4 million coach for about half the price.
So far, those opinions are all right on the money.
Through eight games, including five wins—two over ranked teams—there are plenty of reasons to believe Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne made a program-altering hire for the positive.
Come inside to see the five reasons Rich Rodriguez will continue to flourish in deep Southern Arizona.
The Major Factors in His Downfall at Michigan Do Not Exist in the Desert
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Rich Rodriguez was under intense scrutiny from the beginning at Michigan.
He immediately drew the disdain of powerful figures in Ann Arbor—both inside the university and from the press covering the team—according to a review of John U. Bacon’s book on Rodriguez's time with the Wolverines, Three and Out (via AnnArbor.com):
Rodriguez, ultimately shown as a sympathetic character by Bacon, is confident in his vision and coaching abilities, open and charming to those who get to know him, but awkward with the media and naive about factions at Michigan.
The factions—and yes, Bacon writes, they truly existed—were evident from the start. Bacon writes of people in the Michigan family taking sides once Bo Schembechler died in 2006, well before Rodriguez's arrival.
There don't appear to be any divisive factions in Arizona's athletic department, and unfortunately for the long-time fans, no rich football history hanging over every move.
To this point, the local media in Tucson seems to have taken to the new guy.
The year out of coaching, as a TV analyst with CBS, also may have altered how he approaches the press, though he was open enough back in his Michigan days to allow Bacon unfettered access to his program.
Prior to leaving West Virginia, Rodriguez was massively popular in Morgantown, considered one of the premier coaches in the country. But that university, his alma mater, revolted against him when he bolted for the Big Ten.
And then it all went terribly wrong in Michigan, doomed from the outset by many forces out of his control, along with some self-induced missteps.
Now that he's distanced himself from that situation and escaped to deep Southern Arizona, Bacon—who watched the Arizona coach flameout dramatically in Ann Arbor—seems to think it's only a matter of time before Rodriguez thrives in a major way.
The desert air is drying out Rodriguez’s formerly soggy reputation.
A Drop in Pressure
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The pressure to emerge as a BCS-bowl level force from the outset does not exist in Tucson.
Arizona followers aren’t going to demand a trip to Pasadena this winter, nor the winter after that.
Considering the program’s recent history—a Mike Stoops-coached 2008 Las Vegas Bowl upset of BYU is the program's biggest bowl "W" in nearly 15 years—a routine seven-to-nine wins per season will be enough to keep Rich Rodriguez in Tucson for awhile.
That’s not to say the program's fans and athletic department are willing to field a weakling of a football team. Arizona totaled the second-most victories in the Pac-10 during the 1990s, but that wasn't enough to give the coach unconditional security.
Dick Tomey, the winningest coach in Arizona history, was pushed out back in 2000 after his program became muddled in a couple years of mediocrity. That was just two seasons removed from the best campaign in school history—a Trung Canidate-, Chris McAlister- and Dennis Northcutt-led trip to the Holiday Bowl and a win over then-powerhouse Nebraska.
Still, Tomey lasted 13 years in Tucson before restlessness about the lack of a conference title finally caught up to him.
Rodriguez talked big about the future of Arizona football upon his arrival on the scene, focusing on the Rose Bowl among his main objectives.
Even if he falls short of that goal, producing an annual bowl berth will spell long-term job security in Southern Arizona, a far cry from the expectations heaped upon him in his former stops. But Rodriguez is thinking much bigger than that.
The Basketball Program Will Overshadow the Early Days on the Gridiron
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The football coaches signed during Lute Olson’s reign inside McKale Center owe the Hall of Fame hoops legend for taking the sting away from those difficult transition days.
Sean Miller is continuing Olson's welcoming routine by pushing the Arizona basketball program back onto the national scene.
In Rodriguez's debut year on the football sidelines, Miller's also bringing the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class to the hardwood. That group adds to a solid core which includes a main contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year in Solomon Hill, forming the rest of the foundation for a team ranked in the AP's Preseason Top 12.
So, say Rodriguez's football program sees an injury rash or becomes fumble prone in the next few weeks, losing a couple of those games—even, god forbid, a dreaded home loss to arch-rival ASU—ending the season with a whimper.
Tucson won't feel that pain as bluntly as most college towns. It's numb to it, somewhat due to its regularity, but mainly because hoops trumps all in the desert.
Basketball is the city’s main squeeze. Football is side action until things fall short of a shot at the conference title (as is the case in program's entire history). But if Rodriguez's crew continues to win and does so in exciting fashion, Tucson just might fall in love.
RichRod is unlikely to completely overtake hoops, but the framework for a championship-caliber program in one of college athletics' revenue sports is already in place. That had to be attractive when he took the job.
The fanbase is national in hoops due to an extended period of success. Rodriguez's task is to create the same.
Until that happens, Miller's powerhouse will be there to distract from obstacles on the way.
Mass Turnover in Coaching Staffs Levels Playing Field
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Besides Rodriguez landing at Arizona, Mike Leach took over at Washington State, Jim Mora Jr. is now at UCLA and Todd Graham is up I-10 at Arizona State.
A third of the Pac-12 is under new leadership, uprooting the previously held recruiting ties, allowing the new guys to take over some of those inroads.
Now is a critical time for Rodriguez and staff to aggressively create those networks, something he proved capable of in a major way during his time at West Virginia and Michigan.
Wait until 2016 to judge what Rodriguez did with his initial class. He was still in the process of nailing down all of his coaching positions, and he had to make up for several defections from the group that had committed to Stoops.
But now that things are stable—and even ahead of schedule—Rodriguez is drawing national buzz on the recruiting front.
He went nuts over a two-month span in the summer, racking up over 20 verbal commitments as he pitched plans for a Pac-12 takeover in Tucson. That's right—he basically reached his scholarship limit before the season started.
Whatever he's selling—and I'm sure the renovation plans involving the football stadium are in the mix along with the spread-option and Sonoran hot dogs—is working at a rate rarely seen before at Arizona.
The early returns are promising.
Legitimate Offensive Weapons from Day 1
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Rich Rodriguez's initial roster didn't come devoid of talent on the offensive side. These five players are legitimate all-conference possibilities from RichRod's first Arizona offense:
Ka’Deem Carey: The premier sophomore running back in the Pac-12, Carey owns 12 TDs already and trails only UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Oregon's Kenjon Barner in conference rushing yardage.
If Carey continues at his current pace—and stays for the four-year duration—he could leave Tucson in the conversation as the top RB in school history. Besides that, he's a local kid and the nephew of Arizona-legend Vance Johnson.
Matt Scott: His style is tailor-made for Rodriguez’s scheme, and it's showing up in box scores. He was named the Walter Camp National Player of the Week after beating USC, amassing 469 yards of total offense. He did almost all of that before sustaining a big hit that resulted in a reflexive puke session on the sidelines.
Scott is a gift from Mike Stoops, who redshirted the fifth-year senior in 2011 rather than waste his final season playing a backup role to NFL-bound Nick Foles. While he's only with RichRod for a year, he's a posterboy for what the Arizona coach can do with a quarterback.
Dan Buckner: A 6’5” receiver with NFL potential, the senior transfer from Texas entered the season as one of the top-two options at the position, and he's maintained that role. Also only with Rodriguez for a year, he is taking advantage of his looks in the explosive spread-option attack, currently second on the team with 656 receiving yards and three scores.
Fabbians Ebbele: A freshman All-American left tackle last year, he is the cornerstone of an emerging offensive line. Ebbele is the critical cog in protecting Scott's back. And if Scott goes down, the Wildcats will struggle to win any of their final games (except maybe against Colorado; the Buffaloes are abysmal).
Austin Hill: Owner of among the best set of hands in the conference, Hill showcased his entire repertoire in the victory over USC, attempting to rival Marqise Lee's conference-record setting performance. Hill finished with 259 yards in that contest.
And he is proving himself one of the Pac-12's elite playmakers, totaling a team-high 937 receiving yards and seven scores through the air in just eight games. The really scary part? As with Carey, he's just a sophomore.
That’s a handful of players on the offensive side, each with huge potential, who will be key to the development of the program. Even though two of the guys—Buckner and Scott—are only around for a season, they can be used as examples to future recruits of the possibilities for thriving within RichRod's offense.