One day this spring Arizona tailback Mike Bell wandered into new
coach Mike Stoops's office and said he's always wanted to return
kicks. On another afternoon a teammate presented Stoops with a
case for changing his jersey number. And at various points this
off-season Wildcats have gone to Stoops to vent about playing
time, work conflicts and relationship troubles.
Ho-hum? For the Wildcats, interaction like that is downright
momentous. Under Stoops's predecessor, John Mackovic, who was
fired midway through last season, the lack of communication
between players and staff proved toxic. In November 2002, 41
players met with school president Peter Likins to complain about
Mackovic's coaching style, which some described as verbally
abusive. Despite tearfully vowing to change his ways, Mackovic
continued to struggle as a motivator, and the Wildcats (whom Dick
Tomey led to a 95-64-4 record from 1987 through 2000) went a
second straight season with only one Pac-10 win.
Enter Stoops, who in five years as defensive coordinator under
his brother Bob at Oklahoma had made the Sooners D a perennial
top 10 unit. If his proven abilities made him an attractive
candidate for Arizona, his passionate and personable coaching
style made him an ideal antidote to Mackovic. Since being hired
on Nov. 29, Stoops has won over recruits--including four of
Texas's top 100 players--as well as returnees. Concerned that
months of tumult may have sapped Arizona of what he calls
"want-to," Stoops made it a point to learn why veteran players
had felt so alienated under the previous regime. "It's important
for guys to see the human side of coaches," says Stoops. "From
Day One I made sure my door was open."
The result is a renewed energy. "During drills these coaches
grind you down, but when you're done for the day, they're like
friends or father figures," says junior safety Darrell Brooks.
"We'll be more willing to put our lives on the line in games." In
the meantime, attendance at voluntary summer workouts, which drew
a paltry 26 players (of a possible 85) last year, will provide a
measuring stick of the Wildcats' want-to. "They've been very
sincere about getting better," says Stoops, who is installing a
spread attack and more aggressive defensive schemes. "Now we have
to put our new systems together so we can win some games."