It’s a bye week for the Arizona Wildcats football team. A good time for a little reflection on the state of the rebuilding program taking place down in Tucson.
And that’s just what the University of Arizona athletic director, Greg Byrne, said he was doing while writing his weekly newsletter to the faithful, penning his thoughts while returning from California after the team’s heart-breaking overtime loss to Stanford.
That defeat put the record for first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez squarely on the .500 mark, having won his first three games, only to lose the last three.
There were a couple of points in Byrne’s weekly newsletter that brought back unpleasant reminders of the past – and uncomfortable feelings of deja vu.
Byrne praised the progress he sees being made under Rich Rodriquez in his first year at the helm of a program that just couldn’t seem to get over the hump in eight years under Mike Stoops. “We have been exciting, to say the least, from an offensive standpoint,” he wrote, “and our defense has given great effort.”
On the surface, that sounds like success is just around the corner. Byrne is an optimistic guy. That’s one of his strong qualities and what helps endear him to the school’s fan base.
But that comment – especially about the defense – sounded all too familiar. And somewhat unsettling.
That’s the same kind of rhetoric that continued to come from the University of Michigan administration during the three years Rodriguez ran the Wolverine program…and ran it into the ground. He was let go after compiling a 15-22 record and Michigan decided it was worth the $2.5 million it would take to buy out the remainder of his contract.
He had been hired by one of the most storied programs in college football history because of his success at West Virginia, where he compiled a 60-26 record in seven years and raised the program’s national profile by winning four Big East championships. That’s what encouraged Byrne to take a chance on a fairly controversial hire.
But Rodriguez couldn’t produce those same results in the Big House. And, when he also tried to change the culture of an old-line, tradition-rich program, it ruffled a lot of feathers, particularly among the alumni.
(Full disclosure here: I live in a household with two UofM graduates, my wife and a daughter. Another daughter started at Michigan and finished at Arizona State. So we lived through the turmoil of those years. I’m also an ASU alum, but since I have a son who graduated from UofA, I think that cancels out any potential bias there.)
The bottom line here is that RichRod had one of the most athletic – and perhaps fastest – dual-threat quarterbacks in college football that kept Michigan in games. The pure speed and athletic ability of Heisman candidate, Denard Robinson, enabled him to win games almost on his individual effort alone.
But, while they were able to put up points, they couldn’t stop the other team from doing the same thing. It was Michigan’s anemic defense those three years that cost Rodriguez his job. When the Wolverines did finally get back to a bowl game, in his third year, they got blown out by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl in a 52-14 fiasco that turned out to be the final straw.
Once again, Rodriguez has installed a potent offense in his new program at Arizona that can definitely move the chains and put points on the board. Going into the Stanford game the Cats were gaining an average of 538 yards per game and were ranked third in the Pac-12 in total offense.
And once again he has a quarterback that fits his offensive system like a glove and is the driving force that has enabled the squad to put up those kinds of numbers. Matt Scott averages just over 11 yards a completion and has thrown for 2,099 yards and 13 touchdowns in six games. The senior has also rushed for another 222 yards.
Sound familiar? It does, it you were paying attention when Rodriguez was in Ann Arbor.
When Byrne added the statement that the UofA defense has “given great effort,” it’s what Michigan fans kept hearing, too. However, the great effort never turned into great defense.
To be fair, Rodriguez has already won more games than his first full season at UM when he set a school record with nine losses. But the only ‘quality’ win so far this season was against then-No. 18 Oklahoma State.
However, the jury is still out on what kind of team the Cowboys are this year. The ‘Pokes hung some big numbers on teams like Savannah State (84 pts.) and Louisiana (65 pts.) for their two wins this season – but lost to then-No. 22 Arizona and No. 15 Texas. The Cowboys are no longer ranked in the BCS Top 25.
And Byrne is correct in pointing out how competitive this team has been – except against then-No. 3 Oregon, which spanked the Cats, 49-0, and dropped them from the national rankings.
“We all know how close we are to being 5-1 right now,” Byrne wrote. Besides the overtime loss to Stanford, the other loss was by three points to Oregon State in a comeback effort that fell short. And we should keep in mind that all three losses were to ranked teams.
But the Michigan fans heard that “how close we are” line, too, about midway through each of the years of the RichRod era.
And still another familiar theme in Byrne’s effort to rally the troops: He pointed out how often Rodriguez has asked to be given time to “build a complete program” – a philosophy Byrne is in complete agreement with. And there is certainly some validity to that idea. And, yes, it’s not a one-year project.
However, you can still win while doing the building. A good example of that can be found across the state in Tempe where Arizona State’s new head coach, Todd Graham, is 5-1.
At some point, that becomes an excuse, if the team isn’t producing as expected. But this is way too early to dismiss the program’s potential. It isn’t fair to judge a new coach too strongly by what he accomplishes in his first year. He needs to be given some time.
But, just the same, the pattern of how this season is progressing is… all too familiar.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)