TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona is on fire and Michigan is burning to the ground, and it's impossible not to juxtapose the divergent results and circle back to the spark the programs have in common: Rich Rodriguez.
Yes, Rodriguez, grinning like a man who's been found not guilty while leaning casually against a wall in Arizona's sparkling new football building Monday, has noticed what's going on in Ann Arbor. His surging team hasn't played the past two Saturdays while Michigan very publicly spiraled down the toilet.
"You couldn't help but turn on the TV and see it," Rodriguez said. "I still have a lot of friends up there that texted, 'What's going on up here?'"
Down in Tucson, Rodriguez has led Arizona to a 5-0 start and a No. 10 national ranking after the Wildcats, though more than a three-touchdown underdog, posted a road upset at No. 2 Oregon last Thursday. The program hasn't been 5-0 since 1998. Meanwhile, Michigan, which unceremoniously fired Rodriguez in 2010 after just three seasons, is 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967. The Wolverines never before have posted three losses before Oct. 1 in their 135-year football history.
Rodriguez was dispatched in Ann Arbor despite posting improved results every year, from 3-9 in 2008 to 5-7 in 2009 to 7-6 in 2010. He was viewed as a poor fit, as not being a "Michigan Man." His replacement, Brady Hoke, was celebrated as just that and was a favorite of former coach Lloyd Carr. Hoke, however, has done a reverse-Rodriguez, leading an incrementally deteriorating program, from 11-2 with Rodriguez's recruits in 2011 to today's sorry state of affairs.
It would be fair to say Rodriguez, who spent a year as a TV analyst before Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne announced his hiring via Twitter, was anticipating a Michigan question when a reporter pulled him aside for a chat.
"That's a fair question," he said. "There was a lot of stuff [at Michigan] that people don't know went on that we didn't even know was going on -- some BS, some non-football related stuff. It became more about the drama than it did about football, which is the opposite of what you'd think you'd get at Michigan. Had Bo Schembechler been there, I probably wouldn't have had to deal with some of it.
"There was a lot of stuff [at Michigan] that people don't know went on that we didn't even know was going on -- some BS, some non-football related stuff. It became more about the drama than it did about football, which is the opposite of what you'd think you'd get at Michigan."Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez
"We still thought, with all the BS that was going on, all the things that were happening -- it looked like some people were trying to sabotage their own program that were working for the university -- all that stuff we went through, we still thought we'd be OK by the time we went to Year 4 or 5, that we were going to have a chance to compete for championships. But guess what? We didn't get to Year 4, we didn't get to Year 5. That was the most frustrating part about it."
Much of the, er, "BS," to which Rodriguez refers was detailed in John Bacon's book, "Three and Out," including behind-the-scenes maneuvers by Carr to hold sway over the program, more often than not to deleterious effect. But the present focus is less about smirking at Michigan's woes than considering why things are working so well in the desert.
While many would start with "fit," as in the folksy Rich Rod is a far better fit in less patrician Tucson than in Ann Arbor, the more substantial Point A addresses Rodriguez's most unambiguous failure at Michigan: defense. While Rodriguez was unable to hire his defensive coordinator at West Virginia, Jeff Casteel, at Michigan, he was able to lure him to Arizona. Casteel took over a unit with a severe talent deficit and made it respectable. No Pac-12 defense improved more from 2012 to 2013 than the Wildcats, and holding Oregon to 24 points at home -- the Ducks scored 46 versus defensive stalwart Michigan State -- is a major achievement.
As for offense, Rodriguez has left little doubt he continues to be one of the nation's finest and most creative coaches, particularly with his tutelage of quarterbacks. The Wildcats averaged 38 points per game his first season, and first-year starter Matt Scott ended up second-team All-Pac-12. In 2013, the offense faced a legitimate quarterback crisis, but Rodriguez and QBs coach Rod Smith transformed B.J. Denker from a below-average talent into an above-average producer. With redshirt freshman Anu Solomon this season, Rodriguez finally has a starter who won't be one-and-done. Solomon's poise has been remarkable, and he presently ranks second in the conference in total offense with 381.6 yards per game.
Yet it's about more than X's and O's. It's about Rodriguez doing his thing without interference or second-guessing. For example, while it seemed that his tendency to use off-color language at high volume during practices offended Michigan players, it's not an issue at Arizona. For Rodriguez, it's a part of making his players "comfortable being uncomfortable," part of the "hard edge" he wants his team to adopt, to take note of two oft-repeated phrases he and his coaches use.
It hasn't been always easy to take, players admit, but defensive end Reggie Gilbert observed that "we've taken on the identity of our coaches, and that plays a big part on Saturdays."
He then added, "I'm going to keep it real, when [defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich] first got here, I couldn't stand him. I'd never had a coach drill me that hard. Now I consider him the best coach I've ever played for."
Rodriguez is the first to admit that Arizona hasn't arrived. While the Wildcats are schematically challenging and certainly tougher, they still can't match the talent of most top Pac-12 and national contenders. Recruiting has improved under Rodriguez -- most of the Wildcats' best players are underclassmen -- but there's still a ways to go, most notably on the defensive line.
Still, Rodriguez seems to be working at Arizona, and, yes, there's just a bit of spit and vinegar from him when it's assumed he wasn't working at Michigan.
"People say, 'Why didn't it work?' Maybe it was going to," he said. "Maybe we didn't just get a chance to see it through. But I'm happy now. And we're not done, either. We've got a lot of work left. We're not nearly as good as we will be in the next few years. That's the most encouraging part."
Not surprisingly, Gilbert takes on an indifferent look when asked about Michigan. He doesn't care about the Wolverines' plight or Rodriguez's potential vindication or much outside of the visit from USC on Saturday.
"We're just worried about Arizona," he said. "All I can say about that is I'm glad he's here and not there."