Rejuvenated Rich Rodriguez thriving at Arizona; Week 10 Walkthrough
TUCSON, Ariz. -- It’s a little story about a little thing. It doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme, but it matters to Rich Rodriguez. As he tells the tale in his corner office in Arizona’s one-year-old, gleaming-but-refreshingly-waterfall-free football facility, it becomes obvious Rodriguez isn’t exaggerating when he says he loves coaching this particular group of Wildcats.
Earlier this season, Rodriguez held a light practice: shirts, shorts and helmets. When the Wildcats have these light practices, he expects his players to dress exactly alike. Video monitors in the complex announce the required garments well in advance, so there are no excuses for being out of uniform. On this day, the staff had ordered the players to wear their navy shorts. Not the navy shorts with the red stripe down the side. The plain navy shorts. As he approached his quarterbacks, Rodriguez noticed starter Anu Solomon wore the shorts with the red stripe. This wasn’t like Solomon. He usually obeyed his coaches. Rodriguez prepared to make an example of the redshirt freshman, who to that point had done a fine job of leading by example. “I’m getting ready to jump on him,” Rodriguez said. “I said, ‘Anu, why don’t you have the same kind of shorts everybody else has?’”
Solomon explained why. A senior defender had misplaced his plain navy shorts, so Solomon lent the senior his pair. “I’ll just take the blame,” the quarterback said of his plan. After providing the explanation, Solomon braced for verbal impact. “I was prepared for it,” he said.
Rodriguez only said “OK.” Then he turned and walked way. This stunned Solomon, who didn’t know until Wednesday why Rodriguez chose not to yell at him. But Rodriguez couldn’t yell. He had to walk away to hide his smile. Solomon saw a teammate about to get in trouble and jumped in to save him. He didn’t have to do it, but he did anyway. That, Rodriguez thought, is the kind of leader I want for my quarterback. “This guy has probably got more leadership than I have even seen,” Rodriguez remembered thinking.
Rodriguez brought Solomon to Arizona. His staff also unearthed Scooby Wright, a sophomore linebacker from Windsor, Calif., who had scholarship offers from exactly no one when the Wildcats came across video of him mauling ballcarriers. “That was the coolest thing with coach Rod and [defensive coordinator Jeff] Casteel,” said Wright, who is second in the Pac-12 this season in tackles (78) and tackles for loss (14). “I didn’t get any letters from them or anything. They saw my film and called me the next day and said, ‘We’re going to offer you.’”
This team, led on each side of the ball by players Rodriguez and his staff signed during their first full recruiting cycle in Tucson, is 6-1 heading into Saturday’s clash with UCLA at the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats have escaped Cal with a 49-45 win after a Hail Mary, the end of which Solomon didn’t see because he was on the ground when the ball rocketed into receiver Austin Hill’s grasp as if guided by an unseen hand. Arizona has won 31-24 at Oregon with the nation watching on a Thursday night and 247-pound redshirt freshman walk-on nose tackle Parker Zellers playing significant snaps against Hroniss Grasu, one of the nation’s best centers. “Playing,” Rodriguez said of Zellers, “and making plays.”
Rodriguez sounds nothing like the guy who blasted a Josh Groban song at Michigan’s 2010 football banquet while fighting to save his job. Recent history has changed the way we view Rodriguez’s ill-fated three-year tenure in Ann Arbor. As Michigan administrators decide whether to fire athletic director Dave Brandon and the Wolverines slog toward the end of a season that will almost certainly get coach Brady Hoke fired, it has become clear that what seemed in ’10 to be a Rodriguez problem was actually a Michigan problem. He didn’t forget how to coach when he left West Virginia. Rodriguez simply walked into a situation in which he -- like the guy who succeeded him -- was set up to fail.
The firing still stings Rodriguez. He had stocked the program in advance of a Sugar Bowl run in 2011. The Wolverines were trending up when he left. Since that first season under Hoke, they have tumbled down. Rodriguez takes no joy in Michigan’s failure. He only wishes he had been there to continue the upward trajectory. “We’d like to be able to see something through, and we didn’t get the opportunity at Michigan,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not like I dwell on it, but when people ask me about it, I say, yeah, it still bothers me. It still frustrates me because we’d like to have seen what we could do with another year or two.”
Greg Byrne is glad Michigan parted ways with Rodriguez. The Arizona AD took a chance on Rodriguez in November 2011 when the coach’s reputation was in tatters. Byrne did his due diligence on other proven coaches who had better Q Scores than Rodriguez, but Byrne -- who also hired Dan Mullen during his stint at Mississippi State -- couldn’t shake what he had seen from Rodriguez at West Virginia. That guy hadn’t ceased to exist. He had merely been smothered by his circumstances in Ann Arbor. “The Rich Rodriguez who was at West Virginia, I believed was going to be the Rich Rodriguez at Arizona,” Byrne said. “The previous three years were not an accurate reflection of the coach that he is.”
Now, Rodriguez has his team in a position to compete in a stacked Pac-12 South. He has also put himself in a position to get mentioned for other jobs. He obviously isn’t going to be considered by Michigan, but what about the other upper-echelon job that might open soon? Should Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley decide to part ways with Will Muschamp, the unwritten Law of Hiring a Coach Completely Different from the Guy You Just Fired suggests Foley, who last hired a defensive coordinator with no head-coaching experience, will hire a sitting head coach with an offensive mindset. (The last time Foley did this, Florida won two national titles.)
Would Foley consider Rodriguez? I don’t know, and neither do you. Foley still has a coach, and he has managed to keep a tight lid on previous coaching searches until he got his guy. Regardless, Rodriguez’s performance at Arizona suggests he should be considered by any bigger program, whether at Florida or elsewhere, looking for a new coach.
But should Rodriguez go if an offer comes? That’s a more intriguing question. At Arizona, he can compete for the national title if he can compete for his conference title. At the same time, he won’t get fired for the occasional eight-win season. Most of the pressure at Arizona sits on the shoulders of basketball coach Sean Miller. And while Byrne can’t pay what athletic directors further up the food chain can, he helped devise a novel plan earlier this year to give Miller and Rodriguez (and himself) more incentive to stay in Tucson. A donor offered 500,000 units in a Master Limited Partnership in oil and gas to split among Miller, Rodriguez and Byrne that they only would receive if they remain at Arizona until 2022. The share that Rodriguez, whose current five-year contract pays an average of $2.2 million a year, would receive was worth $6,188,000 when his contract was approved in June. Depending on the performance of the partnership, it could be worth far more. So, money may not be the deciding factor, either.
Rodriguez isn’t worried about any of that now. He only wants to beat UCLA this weekend and keep moving through a six-game closing kick that includes zero bye weeks and three opponents (UCLA, Utah and Arizona State) that were ranked this Tuesday when the College Football Playoff selection committee released its first Top 25. He also isn’t worried about how history will remember his Michigan tenure. He hopes his Arizona tenure -- full of little moments that still surprise and amuse him -- speaks for itself. “I’ve never felt since I’ve been at Arizona that this was going to be a job that you could [use to] vindicate yourself,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve always felt this was going to be a great job to build a program and enjoy doing it.”
• Florida State at Louisville: The Cardinals have more offensive pop thanks to the return of receiver DeVante Parker, who came back from a broken foot on Oct. 18 and caught nine passes for 132 yards in a 30-18 win over NC State. But if the Cards hope to upset the Seminoles and derail their College Football Playoff dreams, first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham must design a plan to slow quarterback Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense. Winston was last seen playing a near-perfect half against a very good Notre Dame team. If Winston gets in that zone, even a unit that ranks first nationally in total defense (245.8 yards a game) and second in yards per play allowed (3.91) will struggle to slow Florida State’s offense.
• East Carolina at Temple: The College Football Playoff selection committee affirmed on Tuesday that the Pirates are the favorites to claim the Group of Five’s guaranteed spot in one of the big-money bowls. How do we know this? East Carolina was the only Group of Five team ranked. The Pirates need to be careful, though. If they muck around the way they did in a 31-21 win over lowly Connecticut last week, they’ll fall out of the rankings and into a fight with undefeated Marshall for that bowl spot.
• Duke at Pittsburgh: The Blue Devils are 6-1 and have beaten the only other team with a winning record in their division. The Panthers are 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the division, and they are favored by 3.5 points. Ladies and gentlemen, we have peak ACC Coastal.
• TCU at West Virginia: These next two weeks will determine whether the Horned Frogs will compete for the national championship. They face the Mountaineers in Morgantown before playing Kansas State in Fort Worth a week later. If they win both, the final trio of Kansas, Texas and Iowa State is quite manageable. If West Virginia wins, get ready for chaos -- from a couch standpoint and from a Big 12 standings standpoint.
• Florida vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville, Fla.): Bulldogs tailback Todd Gurley won’t play because his NCAA suspension will last two more games, which means the Gators have no excuses if they lose. Florida will start freshman Treon Harris at quarterback, and maybe he is the spark the Gators need to finally move the ball consistently. If he isn’t, the end of the Muschamp era could come quickly.
• Indiana at Michigan: It’s homecoming at Michigan, where a team desperate for any win will face a team desperate for a Big Ten victory. Despite having one of the nation’s best backs in Tevin Coleman, who has 12 runs of 30 yards or more, the Hoosiers are winless in Big Ten play. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson needs this one, or he could soon wind up in the same boat as Michigan’s Hoke.
• Auburn at Ole Miss: For the Rebels, the scariest part of last week’s 10-7 loss to LSU might have been the injury list. It contained four of their most important players. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (ankle) is out for the season, but offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (bicep), defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (undisclosed) and safety Cody Prewitt (undisclosed) were back at practice in full pads. The Rebels will need all of them to contribute if they hope to remain in the playoff hunt.
• Arkansas at Mississippi State: The Razorbacks still seek their first SEC win since 2012, and they’ll try this week against a team they should have beaten last season. The difference now is that team is ranked No. 1 in the country. While Mississippi State’s defense got torched by Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles last week, the Arkansas offense thrives on the ground. The Bulldogs are much better at stopping the run, allowing an average of 118 rushing yards a game with a 38-23 win over run-happy Auburn already on the books.
• Stanford at Oregon: This is the Ducks’ chance to finally reclaim the Pac-12 North after falling to Stanford for two consecutive seasons. But they have reason to worry. Stanford’s defense has remained rock solid, leading the nation in yards per play allowed (3.72). Meanwhile, the Cardinal offense finally showed some signs of life in last week’s 38-14 win over Oregon State.
• Texas at Texas Tech: The resistible force meets the movable object. This might be the Longhorns’ last chance to win a game this season.
• Oklahoma State at Kansas State: While the Cowboys have struggled the past two weeks, the Wildcats can’t afford to look ahead to TCU. Oklahoma State is just good enough to pull off a shocker.
• Utah at Arizona State: The Utes have the Pac-12 South’s top defense in terms of yards allowed per play (4.8). The Sun Devils have the division’s best offense in terms of yards per play (6.41). Stay up for this one. It’ll be worth it.
Vintage video of the week
The folks from Florida aren’t exactly looking forward to this year’s installment of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. So, here’s a better memory for them, though probably not for Muschamp. In 1994 the game was played in Gainesville as crews worked to rebuild the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville to prepare for the arrival of the NFL’s expansion franchise Jaguars.
Making his first start of the season after replacing Terry Dean in a loss to Auburn, Florida sophomore quarterback Danny Wuerffel threw for 209 yards with two touchdowns. The Gators’ defense scored three times, and Florida rolled to a 52-14 win. Why wouldn’t Muschamp like that result? He was Georgia’s starting strong safety that day.
On the menu
I’ll be in the Pacific Northwest to cover Stanford-Oregon, so I hope to visit OX for a taste of Argentina in Portland. I also hope to swing by the original Pok Pok for some of the world’s best wings. A few items from Voodoo Doughnut -- from the original location in Portland or the satellite in Eugene -- may also be consumed.