TUCSON, Ariz. -- From the outside, the first few days on the job for a major college football coach seem like a party. Optimism dominates. The excitement of a fresh challenge invigorates. And of course there is the matter of the fat contract and the checks it will bring.
From the inside, the first few days feel an awful lot like work. Optimistic work, yes, but those initial hours are filled with high-pressure, critical moments that have nothing to do with how the coach plans to call a play on third-and-7. The coach who wins the first few days can set the stage for a successful tenure. The coach who loses the first few days usually can expect to keep right on losing. That old commercial for dandruff shampoo had it correct: You truly don't get a second chance to make a first impression.
Last week, SI shadowed Rich Rodriguez during his first two days on the job at Arizona for
But his quest to research his situation may have helped him land on Arizona's radar. As Rodriguez sat in the kitchen of Wildcats athletic director Greg Byrne on Nov. 21 -- hours after he was hired and Byrne fetched Rodriguez and his family from their home in suburban Detroit -- Rodriguez explained how he came to reconnect with Byrne, whom he had met for the first time while interviewing at Kentucky in December 2002. The men crossed paths again in December 2010 at a National Football Foundation function in New York. At the time, Rodriguez was 15-21 in three seasons at Michigan and heading toward a Gator Bowl beatdown from Mississippi State. Rodriguez said he later reached out to Byrne, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens for administrators' assessments of where he stood with Michigan. "Not lookin' good" was the consensus, Rodriguez said.
The line that always gets quoted from Rodriguez's introductory press conference at Michigan is his response to a question about whether only a "Michigan Man" could lead the Wolverines. "Gosh, I hope not," Rodriguez answered. "They hired me." Anyone who knows Rodriguez would have expected this response. His jokes usually come at his own expense. Even though he designed and developed many of the offensive concepts that have permeated the college game, he usually makes it sound as if everything was some happy accident.
(An example: At Glenville State, Rodriguez's quarterback bobbled a snap at practice and missed the handoff. Desperate to salvage the play, he took off running past a flailing defensive end. The quarterback told Rodriguez he had read the end and knew he should keep the ball. Rodriguez considered this and decided to explore further the idea of doing this on purpose. The zone read was born. What does Rodriguez now say that he told his quarterback? "Shoot," he said. "We were going to put that in next week.")
But aw-shucks humility didn't play well at Michigan. It would play much better at Arizona, but Rodriguez still tested material the night before his introduction. Two samples:
On the NCAA recruiting test he would have to pass the next morning: "It's open-book," Rodriguez said. "If you can read, you can pass it."
On the first in-game first down in his first season as Glenville State's head coach: "There were 500 people in the stands," Rodriguez said. "And I was related to 490 of them." When the Pioneers made a first down on their first play from scrimmage, those 500 people went wild. "This is great," Rodriguez said he yelled into his headset mic. "Let's stay here forever."
The first thing Rodriguez did when he finally reached Arizona's athletic department offices on the morning of Nov. 22 was take the NCAA's recruiting test. Coaches must pass this test before they can hit the road to find new players. Rodriguez knew he could use the manual to take the test, but he still wanted to try a practice test before he logged on to a secure NCAA website to take the real one. Arizona compliance director Bill Morgan printed off a 30-question practice test. Rodriguez, without using the manual, got 29 correct. Here is the question he missed.
Easy, right? Rodriguez chose true, because that used to be the correct answer. Recent rule changes have banned this practice.
Rodriguez knows he has to be squeaky clean in the area of NCAA compliance. During his tenure at Michigan, the NCAA conducted its first major investigation into the Wolverines' program. This embarrassed the school and branded Rodriguez. He was accused of forcing players to practice for many more hours than the NCAA allowed and permitting support staffers to overstep the boundaries set for them by the NCAA. His explanation sounds less sinister, and the NCAA's findings seem to back him up. The core issue came down to one failing. Rodriguez and his staff didn't know that if those quality control staffers -- who worked as part-time strength coaches -- were present during stretching and warm-ups for offseason workouts, the time spent warming up also counted against the amount the NCAA allowed. Rodriguez is intimately familiar with that rule now. That's why he was disappointed when he took the practice test. "There's not one question in here," he said, "about stretches and warm-ups."
While Rodriguez took that practice test, Byrne walked into the room with a copy of a Memorandum of Understanding. That's the document most coaches sign so they can begin work while their agent and the school's lawyers haggle over the finer points of the real contract. Byrne and Rodriguez negotiated the document themselves, and judging by their conversation as they signed, the negotiations weren't exactly contentious.
"And you gave yourself, like, a two-and-a-half million dollar raise," Byrne joked. "That's in the fine print," Rodriguez fired back.
When Rodriguez met with the trainers, equipment managers, strength staff, video staff and academic support staff, the tension in the room was palpable. It had to be. Though the people who choose to make their careers in big-time college football do so with the understanding that they'll probably be fired multiple times, it doesn't make it any easier to be sitting at the table with the guy who might fire you.
Rodriguez acknowledged what was on everyone's mind. He would keep some people, and he would let others go. He promised to meet with everyone within the first two weeks to evaluate who he might want to keep. That led to some hard stares from the others in the room. Still, Rodriguez tried to keep the mood light. "While I'm still on the honeymoon, if there's anything you need, money-wise, just ask," he said, pointing at Byrne. "I'm going to be undefeated for the next six months."
At Arizona, those people are deputy athletic director Rocky LaRose and associate athletic director James Francis. LaRose played softball at Arizona and was named Homecoming Queen in 1978. Francis was a walk-on football player who worked his way up the athletic department ranks after graduation.
LaRose loved the idea of printing shirts that said "Vamos Rodriguez!" (Go Rodriguez in Spanish.) It would be a nod to Tucson's large Latino community, which probably wouldn't mind a coach with similar roots. Rodriguez's grandfather came from Spain. Rodriguez does not speak Spanish. "I've got to learn Spanish," he said. "My daughter has to teach me."
In a meeting before Rodriguez's introductory press conference, LaRose and Francis ran down a list of what to mention and how to mention it.
Items to mention:
- Winning the Pac-12 South and the Pac-12.
- Going to the Rose Bowl.
- Arizona's weather. ("We have a dry heat here," LaRose said.)
- The Territorial cup rivalry with Arizona State. (The Wildcats had just beaten the Sun Devils.)
- Bear Down, the school motto taken from the dying words of former Arizona football and baseball player John "Button" Salmon.
LaRose also added one more piece of advice. "Don't say you don't like spicy food," she said.
How Rodriguez mentioned each in the press conference:
- "The Pac-12 is going to take off like it's never taken off before."
- "I want to win the Rose Bowl at the University of Arizona." (This got huge applause.)
- "We've always talked about being able to live somewhere warm. I haven't done that yet."
- "It will be emphasized every day how important that rivalry game is with ASU."
- He closed the press conference with "Bear Down."
Rodriguez brought his family when he first addressed his new team. He introduced wife Rita, 13-year-old son Rhett and 15-year-old daughter Raquel. When he got to Raquel, he issued a warning. "She's only 15," Rodriguez said. "I had to tell my guys at the other school not to Facebook her."
That wasn't his only message. Rodriguez also assured his new players that his own recruits wouldn't get preferential treatment. He also assured them he and his coaches would tweak their schemes to match existing personnel. "I don't want to ever hear anybody, whether it's outside this room or inside this room, say 'Well, when coach Rod gets his guys here...' You are my guys, starting today," he said. "When I took the job, you became my guys."
Later, Rodriguez said there is only one type of guy he doesn't want on his team. "One thing I assure you. There will not be anybody in this program that I think is a turd," Rodriguez said. "You know what a turd is? A turd is a bad guy. If you're a good guy and you work hard, I can put up with a lot of stuff. But if you're a turd..."
Shortly before Rodriguez left the complex to see the stadium on Nov. 22, an IT guy appeared bearing a gift: an iPhone with a 520 area code and an easily memorized number, pre-loaded with all the numbers Rodriguez will need. "You'll have to add your iTunes password in to get your apps," the IT guy said. "I'll get my daughter to do that," Rodriguez replied.
As Rodriguez watched Arizona practice on Nov. 22, Rita went house-hunting with Byrne's wife, Regina. One house featured an Infinity pool and stunning views of Tucson (below) and the Catalina Mountains (above), but it didn't have enough open space to host recruits and their families on big recruiting weekends. The next house Rita explored, while not much bigger, had a floor plan more suitable for entertaining large groups. It also didn't hurt that the owner wisely left a pot of chili simmering to appeal to potential buyers' olfactory impulses. The house, a Tuscan design featuring a multilevel patio, might make the final cut of homes that Rita will show to her husband.
Exactly how much input will Rich have in the process of selecting a house? Precisely the amount Rita wants him to have. "It's a lot my call," Rita said. "I do the eliminating. I show him what I want him to see." Rich takes part in the final decision -- in Michigan, he actually managed to snag a house Rita wanted that was already under contract -- but Rita runs the show. "Fortunately," Rita said, "we've always agreed."
Rodriguez, a coal-miner's son from Grant Town, W.Va., never thought he'd wind up cruising in a private jet to his rental house in Florida for Thanksgiving. Rodriguez grew up in a house on a dirt road that, he claims, got paved after he had won a few games as West Virginia's head coach. Rodriguez couldn't help but point out the absurdity of it all as the Citation 10 approached Fort Myers on Nov. 23.
That doesn't mean the money has changed him. He remains one of the few major college head coaches who can quote every punchline from
Rodriguez also appreciates how lucky he is to have another chance at a school where he can succeed. Rodriguez may not have been a Michigan Man. That doesn't mean he can't Bear Down and reclaim his reputation as one of the nation's best coaches.