The rumors about the University of Arizona head football coach possibly leaving the program will be pushed to the background for tomorrow’s annual rivalry game with Arizona State. But you can bet it will be the proverbial elephant in the room that no Wildcat fan wants to address.
Will this be the last time Rich Rodriguez squares off in the Territorial Cup game with Todd Graham, who is also in his fourth season directing the Sun Devils? That probably depends on whether Virginia Tech makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
Rodriguez spent seven years at West Virginia, where he won 60 games and took the Mountaineers to four Big East championships. Now, for the first time since 1986, the Virginia Tech program is looking for a new head coach since Frank Beamer has announced his retirement at the end of the season.
The offer would have to be pretty generous since Rodriguez reportedly has an annuity in his contract at Arizona that would pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million if he stays another four seasons.
Fox Sports, CBS Sports, and USA Today Sports all put out a list of likely candidates for Beamer’s job. Rodriguez was the only name that appeared on all three lists – and he was put in either the top spot or in second mention on each.
It would be a return home for Rich Rod, who was raised in Grant Town and played football at West Virginia, and re-unite him with an old friend, Whit Babcock, who is the athletic director at Virginia Tech.
But Rodriguez and his wife, Rita, have settled into a new life in the southwest and one of their two children, Rhett, is still in high school and is the starting quarterback for Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson. Rhett has another year left at Catalina.
The 52-year-old coach would probably have an easier job recruiting to Tech since there is a strong recruiting base right in his back yard, and the facilities compare favorably with what he has in Tucson. And he knows the territory like the back of his hand. The head-coaching position at Tech is generally considered among the top jobs in the ACC.
The slippery slope here, though, would be the shoes he would be stepping into. Beamer took a relatively obscure program in a remote part of the state, figured out to recruit to it, and built it into a football power that made it all the way to a national championship game. Beamer became a legend in the process.
And that harkens back memories of when he stepped into another pressure-cooker situation when he was named the head coach at Michigan, one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country. He lost nine games his first year, a school record, and was let go after three years in which he produced a 15-22 record and was in charge of a program hit with NCAA violations for the first time in school history.
Expectations at Virginia Tech would be off the chart once again. Beamer posted 13 seasons of 10 or more wins, collected seven league titles, and took his teams to 22 consecutive bowl games. The last few years haven’t lived up to those lofty expectations, however, so Hokies’ fans are looking for a white knight to ride in and restore the lustre.
But right now, the fans in Tucson are focused on the big game that will be held this year in Tempe. And there is plenty for them to be thinking about.
Last week’s stunning upset of No. 10 Utah gave the Wildcats the six wins they needed to become bowl-eligible, marking the fourth time in Rodriguez’s four years in Tucson. But the Sun Devils need one more win to become eligible for an invite.
They are hungry for more than just the usual bragging rights that come with a win. And that makes them especially dangerous. For just the third time in 55 years, the Devils will have one more game left on the schedule after the Arizona match-up, so they aren’t desperate yet – but close.
Last year, both teams came into this game nationally-ranked. This year, neither is ranked, and both are struggling with injuries. But both teams always take their game to another level for this game.
It’s also a year in which defense has not been either’s strong suit. So it may come down to which team can pile up the most points. The Devils’ offense has been inconsistent this year, but can be explosive. It’s a balanced offense that is averaging 178 yards on the ground and 275 in the air.
But Arizona has three 500-yard rushers in Nick Wilson, Jared Baker, and Jerrard Randall, and are averaging 5.66 yards per carry as a team, which ranks ninth among FBS programs.
So fans expect another tightly-contested game. Eight of the last 11 meetings have been won by a touchdown or less, and five of the last six were decided by a total of 22 points.
However, for Wildcat Nation, the final score could be just the prelude to the bigger story of the season.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)