There may not be all-out panic in Tucson right now. But it’s safe to say there is a good deal of consternation. And head-scratching. And second-guessing.
In other words, the University of Arizona football program has raised some serious questions that weren’t even on the horizon when the 2010 season started.
The Cats were coming off consecutive 8-3 seasons and started this season 7-1 before the wheels came off. The 36-10 loss to Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl just capped off a miserable second half of the season – and has led boosters and fans to begin questioning whether Mike Stoops can get their program to the promised land.
They want a program that can compete on a national level on a regular basis. Those were the marching orders given to Stoops when he arrived on campus seven years ago from his job as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
The Cats did climb to a No. 14 national ranking, but that lasted just a few weeks before they fell from the polls.
The Wildcat faithful look at what Jim Harbaugh has accomplished at Pac-10 foe, Stanford, and they wonder what’s taking Stoops so long?
Harbaugh took over a 1-11 team in 2007 and turned it into a school-record 11-1 team, a No. 4 national ranking, and a berth in the Orange Bowl. He was voted the top national football coach for 2010.
Stoops, too, was taking over a program in shambles. But he didn’t have to deal with Stanford’s strict academic standards when he talked to potential recruits. Harbaugh did, but still snagged some top-tier talent.
His biggest prize was quarterback Andrew Luck, whom he picked up shortly after signing on to coach the Cardinal.
Luck will finish up just his second year as a starter in Monday’s bowl game against Virginia Tech, but has already eclipsed a school record for touchdowns in a single season, which John Elway set. He was a top finisher for the Heisman Trophy and will be one of the first selected in the NFL draft, should he decide to take that step next year.
Stoops’ recruiting classes have been just average most years, and too often in the bottom half of the Pac-10. That lack of recruiting success will continue to hold him back from the mission.
Up to now, the new athletic director at Arizona, Greg Byrne, has been supportive of Stoops. But he has a track record of being able to make a tough call when necessary – including removing a head coach when he feels it’s needed.
While at his last stop, Mississippi State, Byrne fired the school’s football coach, Sylvester Croom. It was a controversial move because Croom was the first African-American football coach at MSU.
Byrne hired Dan Mullen to replace Croom, a move that has paid off big time. Mullen is building a solid program, posting winning seasons, and just beat Michigan, 52-14, in the Gator Bowl.
And Byrne has put his reputation on the line again at Arizona, where he feels the momentum is swinging toward Tucson and away from Tempe.
The basketball program has a new coach in Sean Miller, who is rebuilding a program left in tatters after Lute Olson left, and Byrne felt that the Wildcats’ football fortunes were also on the rise, just as ASU appeared to be going in the opposite direction.
But that momentum on the football field has stalled. The Cats lost their last four games of the regular season, finished with a losing conference record (4-5, same as ASU), and was humiliated for the second year in a row at a bowl game. They lost to Nebraska, 33-0, last year in the Holiday Bowl.
And, let’s not forget, they had to turn the Territorial Cup over to Arizona State after losing that season-ending rivalry game.
It’s not likely that Byrne will do anything drastic at this point.
Stoops will get the chance to fill the secondary-coach vacancy and perhaps even make some wholesale changes in his staff, come up with an offensive system that can score by running the ball, and recruit in a legitimate kicker and punter.
But after that’s done, the clock will probably begin ticking.