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Thursday, March 8, 2012
It's not going to be easy for Rich Rod

By Ted Miller

A fresh start for a college football coach can turn sour quickly, particularly when a couple of starters decide not only to get into a fight at a party but opt to return for a second go-around, thereby making it an iron-clad certainty they'd get arrested.

Last week, new Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez talked about his disappointment with the conditioning of his players. He called them "weak, really weak." Who knew he was also referring to their heads?

Rich Rodriguez
Rich Rodriguez already has had to deal with a lack of fitness as well as immaturity from his Arizona players.
Offensive tackle Fabbians Ebbele, at 6-foot-8, 310 pounds, has NFL potential after starting as a freshman, and sophomore DB Jourdon Grandon, a four-game starter in 2011, could be key pieces for making Rodriguez's life easier. Instead, they are making it harder by getting charged with first-degree criminal trespassing and assault.

Both are scheduled to appear in Tucson City Court on March 15 -- also involved, safety Jared Tevis and guard Eric Bender-Ramsay were charged with trespassing -- but in the court of public opinion getting into a fight where there are allegations of women being punched tends to inspire a high degree of consternation. While the details of the original report from the Arizona Daily Wildcat are decidedly one-sided -- it's all from accounts from the folks hosting the party where the fights broke out -- this is the sort of thing that shortens a new coach's honeymoon.

And from his experience at Michigan, Rodriguez knows as well as anyone about short coaching honeymoons.

This incident could be forgotten by September, buried under confetti celebrating an early season upset. Or if things start slowly, it could become a centerpiece of an initial round of "We told you so" jabs air-mailed from Ann Arbor.

Here's a not completely fair point: It appears Rodriguez thus far has been unable to persuade his players to buy in 100 percent. He told the Wildcats to keep up their conditioning just after he was hired and they didn't. And he's told them to stay out of trouble, which they didn't. With this incident, even with thinking time -- "Hmm, is driving back to this party a good idea?" -- players opted to seek out a fight, not walk away. Toss in a first recruiting class that didn't make much of an impression, and you can feel a down-tick in the momentum of athletic director Greg Byrne's universally praised hire.

Of course, winning solves problems and makes this sort of stuff go away. The problem is, the Wildcats have plenty of personnel issues on both sides of the ball. Further, the schedule does not set up well for a fast start: a nonconference game with Oklahoma State and visits to Oregon and Stanford before mid-October. And Rodriguez's systems -- a no-huddle, spread-option offense and a 3-3-5 defense -- will require an adjustment period.

If you are looking for a negative comparison -- hey, just call us the party pooper -- consider Tyrone Willingham's ill-fated Washington tenure. Willingham got hired at Notre Dame (a Midwestern power) based on a solid job at Stanford (2000 Rose Bowl) but then was quickly -- and many thought unfairly -- fired after three seasons.

Immediately upon his hiring at Washington, Notre Dame fans, who felt wronged by depictions of Willingham's termination, bombarded Seattle-area media and Huskies message boards with "Just wait! You'll see!" missives.

And guess what? They were right. Willingham was a failure at Washington.

Willingham and Rodriguez are nothing alike, and these notable similarities of career path are purely coincidental. The Pac-12 blog is firmly on board with a high grade for the Rodriguez hire.

But the takeaway here is big-time college football's persistent, sobering reality.

After all the high-fives Rodriguez's hiring inspired, he's not a sure thing. No one is. And be advised, Wildcats fans, that there are likely going to be more stumbles ahead as Rodriguez tries to build the program he wants, with his players and his systems. Recent events are reminders that you might want to stock up on some patience before planning for a long-awaited trip to Pasadena.