There’s just something about the unknown that makes us all pessimistic about everything, unless it’s someone else’s unknown, then it’s basically a coin flip. When it comes to hiring new coaches to take you to the promised land, you tend to think you want your school to win the press conference, but in actuality, winning actual football games is paramount.
Now, a guy like Nick Saban, that’s a home run hire, unless you’re the Miami Dolphins, but a Head Coach from Youngstown State, Glenville State, or even the non-automatic-qualifying ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision offers anxious fan little on the day of their hire. There are two things the fans are looking for; someone that’s better than the last guy and someone who gets the program where the fans think it should be.
For a school like Arizona, they’re still trying to figure out the formula. About a decade ago, they tried to go with bloodlines, and they knew any of the Stoops brothers came from pretty good stock. Honestly, for that program, in the aftermath of the John Mackovic era, Mike Stoops was a good fit. Unless you really disliked what Bob was doing at Oklahoma with Mike on his staff, you had to feel things were looking up in Tucson.
Things got better before they got worse, but the bar was set pretty low. From 2001 to 2003, Mackovic, the guy before Stoops, went 3-14 in conference. In 2001, the inaugural season of HBO’s Hard Knocks demonstrated just how inept the guy before Mackovic (Dick Tomey) was, when the Ravens bluntly told quarterback Ortege Jenkins that he was a gifted athlete, but came out of the U of A so raw that they couldn’t develop him, a shameful reflection of the state of the dilapidated “Desert Swarm”. However, under Stoops the pinnacle was a 7-5 season and a Las Vegas Bowl appearance.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t about the Bowl appearance, though the program would like to someday play in a Rose Bowl, but competing with two teams in-state. You may look at what’s actually “in-state” for Arizona and see only one other FBS program, and Arizona State is certainly a source of angst, not only for the school itself, but for the proud people of the “Old Pueblo”.
Historically, Tucson has stomached the angst of the football program, while waiting for November and all the excitement there was to be had at the McKale Center. Whoever runs the show on the gridiron, coaches in the same shadow of Lute Olson that Sean Miller does on the hardwood, except said football coach also has Miller’s shadow to deal with. Nothing short of divine intervention will cause the seismic shift necessary to convert the University of Arizona into a football school per se, but they have to be competitive enough to keep the folks around town interested.
Enter one Coach Rich Rodriguez; you may recognize that name from other coaching ventures, such as West Virginia or Michigan, but in the present tense, he is tasked with righting the ship for the Wildcats. After an enormous amount of success at West Virginia, his alma mater, the road got bumpy in Ann Arbor when his style didn’t translate to the Big Ten.
He didn’t exactly have to take over for Bo Schembechler there, but Lloyd Carr had done well enough, if you’d excuse the loss to Appalachian State to open the 2007 season, his final one on the sidelines for the Corn and Blue. Some poll voted Carr’s team #1 in 1997, so he had that feather in his cap, which left Rodriguez with some decent sized shoes to fill. The rub was that Carr went 1-6 against Jim Tressel-led Ohio State teams, so that was where RichRod needed to answer the call.
Three seasons, three losses to the Buckeyes, and a brow-beating in a lower tier Bowl later, Rodriguez is off the sideline and in the studio for CBS Sports and they begin to miss him in Columbus quite quickly. Ohio State fans respected Schembechler and Carr, albeit after the fact, but they just missed their Buckeyes taking “That School Up North” behind the woodshed once a year. In 2010, there was a memorable moment in the stands when fans of the Scarlet & Grey revealed a long banner that read, “HEY COACH RODRIGUEZ, WE LOVE YOU”. An angry Michigan fan attacked the banner; apparently, that love did not go north of Toledo.
After a year in the studio, Rodriguez found himself in Tucson with an inexperienced Senior at quarterback, but a very capable back in Kadeem Carey. With apologies to Marion Grice and D’Anthony Thomas, Carey is the best ball carrier in the PAC-12. In Tempe, fans may not want to hear that. They pride themselves in one thing above all at Arizona State, being superior to that school in Tucson in every way, shape, and form.
No matter what transpires in the first 11 games of the season, all of ASU’s worries can be alleviated by winning the Territorial Cup, a game that goes back farther than the “Arizona State University” brand itself. The Wildcats have disliked the campus in Tempe since it was called the “Tempe Normal School”, it didn’t become ASU until 1948 after an 18-year run as the Arizona State Teacher’s College, but the game has been played since 1899.
Arizona has the edge in the series, 47-38-1, but that’s a bit of a misnomer in the same context that Rodriguez’s former employer has over their rival, dominating the contemporary era. Arizona won 20 of the first 22 contests, up until 1948. Since the teams began playing every season in 1946, the school in Tempe has a 36-30-1 advantage.
Arizona has won 3 of the last 5 match ups in a series that has been coined The Pillow Fight, even if only by Yours Truly. The last time anything real was at stake was 2007, when the Sun Devils needed the win to claim a share of USC’s PAC-10 Championship and they did 20-17. Conference titles are pretty few and far between in the Sonoran Desert, with ASU’s last one prior to six years ago coming with the help of Jake Plummer. Arizona has never been to the Rose Bowl.
There’s something about RichRod and rivalry games that make you think he’s asleep at the wheel when it matters the most. Obviously being 0-3 vs Ohio State didn’t make him a popular man in Michigan. In first crack at ASU, he looked like he had it in cruise control at home, with a 10-point 2nd half lead, but the tide turned on a weird fumble by his Matt Scott, the aforementioned inexperienced senior. A blocked punt and an interception later, Todd Graham’s visiting Sun Devils had it in the bag, and Rodriguez got his PAC-12 career in rivalry games off on the wrong foot. A win could have sent the Cats to Vegas, but this loss landed them on a cold field in Albuquerque.
Even before he got to Michigan, the cards fell the way of Rodriguez’s West Virginia team, and the only thing that stood between them and a date in the National Championship was rival Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. Of course, though they were 4-3 in the rivalry during RichRod’s time in Morgantown, they lost.
It leaves me to wonder how many pillow fights they need to lose before “Hey Coach Rodriguez, We Love You” becomes a thing in Tempe.