Rich Rodriguez, Arizona start over

Originally Published: March 8, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The daily morning meeting of the Arizona coaching staff Monday looked like the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers epic, "A Night at the Opera."

An office built to house a meeting of 10 people held twice that many. They wedged into chairs crowded around a conference table, a desk, a bookcase and, in one corner, a movie house popcorn machine. If you closed your eyes, you could hear Groucho: "Say, is it my imagination or is it getting crowded in here?"

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Courtesy of J&L PhotoRich Rodriguez is enjoying his return to the sideline in Tucson.

On the table is a bag of Bruegger's Bagels, a large bag of sunflower seeds, a tin of smokeless tobacco, coffee, Coke, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, water, used soda bottles housing various expectorants, three-ring binders, practice plans, play scripts, rosters and other assorted paperwork. In other words, the ordinary detritus of an FBS coaching staff.

But this is no ordinary meeting. It is the final prep for that afternoon's practice, the first session of spring practice, the first time this staff will coach the Wildcats on the field. It is the first time head coach Rich Rodriguez will be between the white lines since Michigan fired him 14 months ago.

During his "redshirt year," as Rodriguez referred to 2011, he worked for CBS Sports Network, which thought so well of his studio work that the network nominated him for an Emmy. Rodriguez hung out with his wife, Rita, and their children, Raquel, 15, and Rhett, 13. He processed the agony and the pride in seeing his Michigan team, the one that went 15-22 over three seasons during his tenure, go 11-2 and win the Sugar Bowl.

"I thought our time was coming and we didn't get to finish the job," Rodriguez said. "It's like you made a cake from scratch and put it in the oven. Someone else is putting the icing on and eating it."

Judging by the topics covered Monday, the Arizona cake will be assembled from scratch, one grain of flour at a time. The morning-long meeting illustrated just how much a new staff must sort through in order to get a program up and running.

The meeting began with a test the coaches have taken regularly since they arrived. A photo of every member of the Arizona football family flashed on the screen. The coaches took turns identifying them, from athletic director Greg Byrne through the administration, the support staff, the players, down to student trainer Lauren Wolfe.

For a guy who had never set foot in Tucson before taking the job, Rodriguez has done his homework on the Wildcats. He had dinner with Mike Stoops several times before his predecessor joined his brother Bob's staff at Oklahoma. He is also renting Stoops' house.

The biggest concerns regarded the Wildcats' ability to practice at the pace that Rodriguez and his staff demand. The key to the spread offense that Rodriguez created at Glenville (W.Va.) State two decades ago is the fast tempo. That's one of the main reasons Byrne targeted Rodriguez in his search.

"I like the fast pace. I thought that would be attractive to the fans," Byrne said. "I believe in it from an X-and-O standpoint in today's game. And it was nice to know that we had the guy, only 48 [years old], who's certainly one of the architects of the spread option now. He has the reputation of being a very good coach. … Urban Meyer told me, 'If I could sit down and talk football with five guys, he's one of the five.' "

As an architect, Rodriguez knows a rebuilding project when he sees one.

"I have to remind myself it's the first spring," Rodriguez said. "This is the sixth place I've put the system in. I've learned to be more patient in installation. Today is the simplest first day. My hope is we don't have to sacrifice tempo. People say teach them slowly. But it's always easier to slow down than it is to speed up."

[+] EnlargeRod Smith
J&L PhotoRod Smith is one of eight coaches on Arizona's staff who have coached with Rodriguez previously.

Rodriguez took over an Arizona team that he claims lost its work ethic when the school fired Stoops at midseason.

"Elite athletes don't go two weeks without working out," Rodriguez said. "They went two months. We got guys who weigh more than they bench."

Strength, quickness and stamina are qualities that Rodriguez believes are in short supply on his team. He will demand them at practice, anyway.

"Just make sure they are running," Rodriguez said to his coaches. "If they don't know where they are going, then they should be running in place."

The same goes for the support staff. Rodriguez asked that the manager who can run the fastest be assigned the task of getting the ball to the umpire during team drills.

"The faster they get the ball spotted, the faster we can go," Rodriguez said. "Don't wait for the official to call for the ball. By the time he calls for the ball, the ball is in his hand."

The staff discussed the penalties they would assess players for drops, fumbles, interceptions and loafs, and the penalties that the coaches would assess themselves for their language. Associate head coach Calvin Magee announced the fine, payable to the cussing jar, would be one dollar per offense, all on the honor system.

"One dollar!" wide receivers coach Tony Dews said. "What happened to 25 cents?"

The banter and the familiarity sounded nothing like a staff that had been together for two months. That's because it isn't. Rodriguez may have been tossed out of Ann Arbor after only three seasons that rivaled "The Good Wife" for drama. But the respect he maintained in the sport is such that six of his nine assistant coaches worked for him at West Virginia, where he coached from 2001-07. Four of the six went with him to Michigan.

Offensive line coach Robert Anae, the only assistant coach that Rodriguez kept from Stoops' staff, said that losing can challenge chemistry among coaches.

"What is amazing to me is that it didn't dissolve their bonds. It strengthened them," he said of his new colleagues. "Who else has done that? When you're forced out [as a staff, coaches] think, 'Are we going to go down that road again?' We've been two, three months here and there has not been one hesitation. That's remarkable to me. They don't see it. I do. I'm the outsider. There was no hesitation."

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Courtesy of J&L PhotoRodriguez and his staff are focused on improving the speed and conditioning of the Wildcats.

Magee followed his head coach from West Virginia to Michigan. He, Dews and assistant head coach Tony Gibson latched on at Pittsburgh last season. They came to Arizona as soon as the Panthers' season ended. Quarterbacks coach Rod Smith, who left Michigan to become offensive coordinator at Indiana, came back to Rodriguez as well.

"It's like we never left," Magee said. "We were keeping in touch because we developed such good friendships. It's nice to be in a room with no hidden agenda and everybody is pulling for the same thing. Trust me."

The Wolverine experience lurks in the minds even of the coaches who weren't there. Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich began coaching at West Virginia in 1979. He coached there when Rodriguez walked on in the early 1980s. He and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel decided not to go to Michigan.

Watching the Wolverines' defense struggle under Rodriguez tore at the coaches who stayed behind in Morgantown.

"I felt bad. I felt terrible. I almost felt like I cheated him because I didn't go up there," Kirelawich said. "But I got arthritis. I ain't going up there in Eskimo country."

The coaches don't talk about having something to prove after the Michigan debacle. They don't have to. The way they came together in Tucson, sight unseen, is proof enough.

"Chemistry is so important in a locker room," Rodriguez said. "Not just in the locker room -- if it's not on a staff, the team can see it. You want everybody in the program with no hidden agendas. That's a tough battle. I talk about it all the time, pulling the rope in the same direction."

The unwelcome mat laid out for Rodriguez at Michigan, as described in "Three and Out," the book by John U. Bacon published last year, left its scars on the coach. He is not so bitter as to inject it in every conversation.

"People say, 'Have you learned anything?'" Rodriguez said. "I learn something every year I coached. I'll learn something this year. I'm less trusting and I'm still too trusting. That's one of my major faults. You just don't expect people wearing the same colors and getting checks from the same people to be pulling the rope against you. Other places I have coached, you got people rooting for you. … I still don't understand it.

"Everybody's moved on, which is the right thing to do," he said.

And so, practice.

"We couldn't wait until the day," Magee said. "You can sit in the meetings. The kids can pass by the office, and try to get to know you. It doesn't start until practice one."

In the early periods, the coaches taught fundamental skills. Smith expounded upon ball security to his quarterbacks. Dews explained how to beat press coverage to his wide receivers. Three red tackling dummies with blue "arms" stood before the receivers. Dews instructed his players to swat an arm away and move past the dummy as close to it as possible.

[+] EnlargeTony Dews
Courtesy of J&L PhotoWide receivers coach Tony Dews followed Rodriguez from West Virginia to Michigan and now, to Arizona.

"The farther you get from the DB," Dews said, "the more you play into his world. You want to stay together and handcuff him. When you step out here" -- Dews moved away from the dummy -- "you give him room to stab you." Dews pantomimed a stiff-arm to a receiver's body.

Dews has the voice of a Parris Island drill instructor. After three rounds of a drill produced no improvement, he has the demeanor of one, too.

"This is the last time I'm going to tell your ass," he barked to one of them. "The next time, you're doing push-ups."

Rodriguez expected the 100-minute practice might take two hours to complete because the coaches would have to stop and explain, and because the players would have to repeat drills they screwed up. Not that the pace was fast, but when the scheduled five-minute break took place one hour into practice, the players dropped to one knee or laid down where they stood.

"I thought they would at least walk over to the popsicles," Rodriguez said. "We had nice popsicles, the Rockets. Everybody was too tired and too lazy to go to the popsicles. That was different."

And not a good sign for the drills to come. When the break ended, and the defense jogged onto the field, Rodriguez raced over to his players and lit into them with a cussing-jar-worthy tirade that concluded, "Take the field like you own it!"

The coaches spent the rest of the practice introducing the first pages of the playbook to their players. How well they learned the plays appeared less important than learning how to run back to the line of scrimmage after the whistle blew, or how to run off the field when the next unit came on.

"It was definitely the fastest practice I've ever been a part of," junior running back Daniel Jenkins said Tuesday. "It's going to do good things. They had been warning us about it. Everything they said, it was that and more. The biggest difference was the constant full speed everywhere, running to every station. It was like a circus out there. It was very different."

They discovered at least one hidden benefit.

"It went by so fast, I didn't know practice was over," sophomore wide receiver Tyler Slavin said Tuesday.

And the pace?

"My legs are killing me," he said.

After practice Wednesday, the team is off until March 21. Rodriguez didn't build that in as recovery time. Spring break is next week. When spring break interrupts spring football, a head coach expects two things. He wants his team to stay out of trouble, and after news broke Wednesday that Tucson police arrested four players on March 2 after a fight at the home of Arizona students hosting a party, Rodriguez had a cautionary tale for his players.

The other thing a coach expects is for his players to stay in shape. After the first two practices, Rodriguez didn't have to remind them to keep working out next week.

"They know now," Rodriguez said, "if they hang out on the beach and do nothing, that next practice will be hurtful."

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