TUCSON, Ariz. -- They seemed like an odd couple. It wasn't surprising to see Arizona's new football coach chowing down at some of the city's best steakhouses shortly after his arrival last December. Or to see Arizona's former football coach in some of his favorite restaurants, either. But together?
"It was just two old friends eating dinner," Rich Rodriguez said. But Mike Stoops admitted: "Some people probably didn't really know how to put that together."
Consider that by then, back in December, Rodriguez was already renting Stoops' house in the Catalina Foothills on Tucson's north side. It came fully furnished, move-in ready. "I want him to buy it," Stoops said. "I'll give him a good deal." He already may have. The coaches had a dozen conversations, give or take, about the situation Rodriguez was taking over (he also spoke several times with former coach Dick Tomey). Stoops ran down the roster. He explained the politics, positives and problems. He introduced Rodriguez to his friends. And then he left town, joining his brother at Oklahoma, and left the keys with Rodriguez.
The entire process so far seems to have been seamless. That's one of the first things everyone wants to know, of course. After an uncomfortable-turned-untenable three years at Michigan, fit is a very big deal. Rest easy. Arizona feels, Rodriguez says, a lot like West Virginia -- except he doesn't need a lawnmower and he's looking out for rattlesnakes. There aren't long-established, overbearing traditions. No one ever talks about being an Arizona Man. It would be nice if you could drop in a "Bear Down" every so often, and talk about winning the Territorial Cup, and mention how it's long past time the Wildcats reached the Rose Bowl. Otherwise, you want to change things up? Have at it.
"They're hungry for success," Rodriguez said. "We've never been to the Rose Bowl, but we've been close."
After Michigan, after a year away from coaching, he's hungry, too. Fifteen spring practices went well, "but I'd rather have 30." Yes, he knows it makes for an easy reference to the NCAA trouble he got into at Michigan over excessive offseason workouts. He says it anyway. And laughs. Rodriguez also says the fit in Ann Arbor might have gotten a lot better if he'd been allowed to stick around -- we all saw the Wolverines' success in 2011 -- but he laughs again.
"Just kidding," he said. "But I do feel great about this fit."
The dual challenge during the spring was installing the system while evaluating players. The good news: Rodriguez believes there's talent on the roster. In Matt Scott, he has an athletic senior quarterback who -- here's the word again -- fits the spread option. Rodriguez was concerned, though, by the Wildcats' overall conditioning and dedication. The former he attributed to the long layoff after the end of the regular season last November ("Elite athletes can't take a month and a half off," he said), but also to a general lack of commitment.
"We want our players to wake up thinking about football and go to bed thinking about football," he said. "If they're in class, think about class. If they're in church, think about church. But in their free time I want them thinking about football.
"They like football. I don't know if we have enough guys who love it."
The question goes beyond the players. At Arizona, Rodriguez finds a foundation laid by Stoops, who was 41-50 in eight seasons and had the Wildcats edging toward respectable at times. Perhaps more important, Rodriguez watches the foundation being laid in the north end zone of Arizona Stadium. Visit Rodriguez's office -- on the ground floor of the McKale Center, Arizona's basketball arena -- and he starts by showing off artist's renderings of the new complex: football offices, locker rooms, weight rooms, a cafeteria. Ultra-modern, with all the bells and whistles, it's scheduled to be completed in time for the 2013 season.
"Everybody's doing it," said Rodriguez of the upgrades, but that's not quite right. Almost everybody has already done it, which is one reason Stoops, since his departure, has publicly questioned the school's commitment to football. He said he never showed a recruit the Wildcats' locker room. The new facility? "It's something we desperately needed," Stoops said. "We didn't have it. It's bizarre we'd gone this long. It makes no sense."
The importance, according to Rodriguez, is in "the message it sends: We are committed to football." They'd better be, because it seems to be the case these days all around the Pac-12, especially with the promise of an infusion of cash from commissioner Larry Scott's TV deals. And it's certainly true of Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, a rising star who zeroed in on Rodriguez shortly after firing Stoops in midseason. As detailed by Andy Staples for Sports Illustrated last December, Urban Meyer told Byrne that Rodriguez was one of the five best offensive coaches in college football. Byrne liked the idea of the no-huddle spread, both from a competitive standpoint and for entertainment purposes. He liked what he learned while carefully vetting Rodriguez. He loved what he heard when they talked.
There's no questioning Rodriguez's commitment. He spent last season working as a studio analyst for CBS Sports Network. During his free time, he visited coaching friends -- including Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and, in a visit that was retroactively awkward, Jeff Tedford at Cal -- and studied their programs. When Arizona AD Byrne called, Rodriguez was more than ready to return.
"I always had the hunger, anyway, as a coach to try to prove myself," Rodriguez said. "I think the year off gave me more."
Arizona will present a challenge. Rodriguez is working to change the program's culture, and if history is a guide, his no-huddle spread option (and also his favored 3-3-5 defense) should immediately cause trouble for opponents, even if they're familiar with the similar version run by Oregon. But it doesn't appear to be a quick fix. Though the Wildcats went to three straight bowls under Stoops, they slid to 4-8 last season. There's a clear gap between Arizona and the Pac-12's upper echelon.
"Sometimes I have to remind myself that it's the first year," said Rodriguez, who has a five-year contract worth $9.55 million. "One of my worst traits is I have no patience for anything. Nobody wants it to happen more than me. You've got to build it the right way. There's no shortcuts."
But there are head starts, which is what Stoops says he wanted to give Rodriguez in those medium-rare conversations. Before Stoops moved back to Norman, Okla., he and Rodriguez went out for dinner several times. "It was, 'Oooh, what are they doing?'" recalled Seth Stevenson, the manager at Sullivan's, of the night they ate in his restaurant. "There were a couple of double takes -- but it was really cool."
Once, at McMahon's Prime Steakhouse, the coaches ended up on the patio, at Stoops' regular table with several friends, smoking cigars. "I just introduced him to my friends, good friends of the program," Stoops said. "I don't want people to be divided. No reason for that, hopefully."
Bob McMahon, the restaurant's owner, joined them for a while that evening. "It didn't feel odd," McMahon said. At this point, nothing does.
"I kind of know where all the bodies are buried and the traps are laid, you know?" Rodriguez said. "Now, I've just got to figure out what we've got to do to get over that hump."