Commentary

Rodriguez seeks fresh start at Arizona

Originally Published: November 23, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Rich Rodriguez took the head coaching job at Arizona without having set sight on the city of Tucson, the university campus or the Bear Down slogan painted on the grass at Arizona Stadium. That sounds like a gamble.

"I like to go for it on fourth down," Rodriguez said. "I hate punting."

[+] EnlargeRodriguez-Byrne
Chris Coduto/Icon SMIRich Rodriguez, with Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, is looking for a fresh start at Arizona.

Rodriguez has always been aggressive. That's how a young coach with virtually no experience turned Glenville (W.Va.) State into a winner; how a former West Virginia letterman took the Mountaineers to the brink of 2007 BCS Championship Game; and how he found out that he and Michigan went together like peanut butter and petroleum jelly.

He recognized that trait in Arizona's young athletic director, Greg Byrne, a big reason Rodriguez, 48, stood in McKale Center on Tuesday afternoon. Rodriguez takes over a program that is well behind its competitors in facilities. Byrne made it a point Tuesday to say that ground will be broken on a new football complex in the north end zone in January.

"He showed me the pictures," Rodriguez said, sounding convinced.

Arizona may be a better fit for a guy like Rodriguez than Michigan. He is a genuinely nice person whose default facial expression is a grin. But he is a small-town guy who has spent his whole life proving he belonged, demanding he be taken seriously, competing to knock the opponent across the line square in the mouth.

When Rodriguez said he will return to Tucson with a chip on his shoulder, he touched a chord with Wildcats fans, whose program is one game away from finishing its 34th season in the Pacific-12 Conference without playing in a Rose Bowl.

"I want you to help me have success here," Rodriguez said to the Arizona faithful. "I want to win the Rose Bowl. I want to be in the top 10 every year. I want every one of our players to graduate."

Arizona's most successful teams have won with defense. Rodriguez has built his coaching career on his teams' ability to move the ball. Byrne discussed the job with former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who told him, "If you hire Rich Rodriguez, you're getting one of the five greatest minds in college football. That would be an incredible hire for the University of Arizona."

That assessment may not go over so well in Michigan, and not because archrival Ohio State has been playing footsie with Meyer. Michigan fired Rodriguez last January after he went 15-22 (.405) in three seasons. The Wolverines, under new coach Brady Hoke, are 9-2 as they prepare to play the Buckeyes.

"The most frustration I had was we didn't get a chance to see it through," Rodriguez said. "… It's frustrating to watch them, I don't mind telling you, because those are all my guys. But I'm proud of them because they are all doing so well. Those guys are winning a lot of games. They'll win a lot of games next year, too."

Before Michigan, Rodriguez won four Big East championships and went 60-26 (.697) in seven seasons at his alma mater. His overall record in 18 seasons as a head coach is 120-84-2 (.587).

Rodriguez recognized kindred folk in Tucson, even if it's all the way across the country from where he has spent his entire coaching career. He relished the idea of living in the desert heat, he said, in no small part to help his wife, Rita, deal with her arthritis. They both want to raise their kids, Raquel, 15, and Rhett, 13, in a college town.

"It's kind of neat when the university is the focal point of the community," Rodriguez said. "They come to games, support teams, talk about it all the time. I just enjoy that kind of atmosphere."

In fact, before he announced the hiring of an assistant coach, much less met with his new team, Rodriguez promised that Arizona would be the final stop in his head coaching career. That makes this the fourth down of his professional life. Rodriguez is going for it. He hates punting.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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