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Rich Rodriguez Has Opportunity to Define Arizona Man

Rich Rodriguez was not a Michigan Man. But is he an Arizona man?

That’s a difficult question to answer because the answer is vague. Larry Smith was UA’s best coach, but after building a previously struggling program to the brink of powerhouse spurned Tucson for USC. His tenure was far too short to say he’s an Arizona Man.

Dick Tomey is the program’s longest tenured coach, and guided some of the most memorable Wildcat seasons, but his career .595 winning percentage is hardly the benchmark names like Lloyd Carr, Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler established in Ann Arbor.

That there is no definition of an Arizona Man is why knowledgeable pontificators like George Schroeder call Greg Byrne’s hire of Rodriguez a "home run." But there are certainly detractors.

Compounding the struggles Rodriguez experienced at Michigan is the immediate success Brady Hoke is enjoying there. Along with offensive guru Al Borges – a face I would not have been opposed to seeing twit-pic’d in Byrne’s timeline – Hoke has gone 9-2 molding his strategy to this team’s abilities and not vice versa.

Michigan is also competing for a Bowl Championship Series at-large berth under Hoke largely due to Greg Mattison’s work as defensive coordinator. Rodriguez’s Wolverines scored points in buckets, but coordinator Greg Robinson became a popular blogosphere punchline for Michigan’s ability to surrender as many points as it scored.

Arizona fans held their breath the moment Stoops was released, the wounds of the disastrous John Mackovic hire still fresh. Don’t be surprised if somebody, somewhere draws the Mackovic parallel. Mackovic was plucked from inactivity like Rodriguez, the result of a failed run at a historically rich program.

Indeed, those three years of mediocrity at UM resonate more in the collective civ-like attention span of fans and pundits than does Rodriguez’s time at West Virginia.

Rodriguez was a play away from the BCS Championship game in 2007, his last in Morgantown. And those Mountaineers were no one-hit wonder like Mackovic’s 10-win team at Illinois in 1989. WVU won the Sugar Bowl two years prior and claimed at least a share of the Big East title every season from 2005 to 2007.

That Rodriguez has WVU on his resume should let Wildcat backers breathe a little easier. Rich Rodriguez is not John Mackovic.

He also needs to be more than Mike Stoops or Tomey, though. This hire sets an undeniable tone for Byrne’s legacy. Stoops’ dismissal sent the clear message that simply being decent was no longer the bar UA has for football.

The man sending that message is Byrne, thus it’s his responsibility to see it to fruition. The Old Pueblo isn’t the pressure-free vacation destination for Rodriguez some are portraying it, even if it’s a long way from Ann Arbor.

There are apparent challenges before the new head coach. The first is his schematic departure from the high tempo, vertical-predicated air raid Sonny Dykes brought. Rodriguez’s spread option is much closer to the current formation than say, the Wing-T that made "Cactus Comet" Art Luppino the nation’s most prolific running back in the mid-1950s, but UA will run much more.

And much of that running will come from the quarterback. The starting controversy between Matt Scott and Tom Savage that seemed like it would be the highlight of spring ball is likely answered. Scott’s style fits what Rodriguez runs like a glove.

With Scott, Ka’Deem Carey, what will be a very experienced offensive line and deep receiving corps, the offense should click. But Savage’s future is an immediate worry.

Savage is a quarterback well suited to the air raid but with little mobility. A big reason he’s in Arizona is that Greg Schiano gave up on him in 2010 despite a stellar freshman campaign the season before. Savage’s struggles in the early part of last season were the result of a porous offensive line, and replacement Chas Dodd experienced the same problems.

There’s no guarantee that Savage is relegated to clipboard duties with Rodriguez coming to town. Rodriguez did use both true option quarterback Denard Robinson and traditional drop-back passer Tate Forcier equally in 2009. Two-quarterback offenses rarely work though, which Rodriguez experienced firsthand that campaign.

While the Savage question is not one requiring an immediate answer, defense is. UA bottomed out the past season-plus because of its inability to slow opponents. The Wildcats saw firsthand how important coordinators are – without Mark Stoops, UA went in immediate decline (and Florida State has ascended defensively). And Rodriguez experienced it, too.

The 2007 WVU defense ranked No. 8 nationally in points allowed. UM was No. 108. Talk about a dramatic difference.

Mastermind behind those stout Mountaineer defenses Jeff Casteel (credit is a holdover from the Bill Stewart era and thus in a volatile situation in Morgantown -- but that’s a hornet’s nest presumably no one wants to poke.

The litany of decisions that will shape the program for at least the next half-decade promise that Rodriguez’s hire was only the beginning of much more uncertainty to come.

 All that uncertainty does provide Rodriguez a unique opportunity to establish the program though, and not the program establishing him.