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State of Arizona football: The impact of Rich Rodriguez

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Oh summer, how we love thee. School is out, the cloudless sky is shaming us into taking advantage of the outdoors, and the sports world has benevolently given us a break to get away from our various devices and enjoy some quality time with our families.

Yet here we are – it’s only mid-July and the nagging itch of the approaching football season is becoming too difficult to ignore.

Right around the All-Star break I typically find myself mired in various blogs, articles and such, working towards familiarizing myself with some of the new faces of the program and any off-season changes. This year is no exception as I’m unhealthily devouring any information I can find regarding the supposed QB competition facing the Arizona Wildcats and how the defense will be affected by the recent hires of Marcel Yates and Donte' Williams.

It’s also around this time of year that I take a few moments to reflect on the general state of the program and ponder the possibility of reaching the ever-elusive Rose Bowl. Could this be the year, or should I temper my expectations? Does Arizona have the pieces in place to jump into the upper-echelon of the conference, or is another respectable-yet-unremarkable eight-win season forthcoming? Or will we regress? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we can examine a few topics in an effort to better understand the direction of our beloved Wildcats.  One question in particular has been occupying my thoughts for quite some time now:

Is Rich Rodriguez "The Guy?"

It is now apparent that Rich Rod was rather close to leaving UA this offseason. That doesn’t exactly scream consistency. And as much as I want to believe that he’s the man to take the team to the Promised Land, he has to actually be present to do so. But putting that aside for the time being, I think it’s at least fair to recognize that he’s the best head coach Arizona has had in a while. Consider the winning percentages of the different head coaches over the last 36 seasons:

· Larry Smith (‘80-‘86): 48-28-3 = 60.76%

· Dick Tomey (‘87-‘00): 95-64-4 = 58.28%

· John "barf" Mackovic (’01-’03): 11-24 = 31.43% (Can we please just pretend the J-Mac era never took place?)

· Mike Stoops (‘04-‘11): 44-53 = 45.36%

· Rich Rodriguez (‘12-‘15): 33-20 = 62.26%

I’m obviously omitting a fair amount of presumably pertinent information (e.g. difficulty of non-conference schedule, health of key players, quality of the Pac-10/12 at the time, etc), but from an exclusively win-percentage standpoint, Rich Rod stacks up extremely well. You’d have to go back to Jim Young’s mid-70s program (when Arizona was still in the WAC) to find a coach who bests him in this category. So if you’re a results-oriented person, it’s hard to argue against how well Rodriguez  has done in his first four years in the desert.

2013 was the Wildcats' first double-digit win season since Dick Tomey’s 12-win 1998 squad (part of the swarming defense era for which this website is so aptly-named) and merely the third time in the program’s 117 year history. Crazy.

And while Arizona is unimaginably far from a program like, say, Alabama, who’s ten or more wins in each of the last eight seasons put Rich Rod’s recent accomplishments into perspective, the last few years I have found myself entering the season with a renewed sense of hope and optimism, which has not always been the case.

So is he "the guy?" Well, I suppose we need more clarity on his longevity with the program before throwing out such claims. But if he stays, he certainly could be, and that’s more than I ever said about his predecessor, who never seemed able to step out from his big brother’s (admittedly large) shadow.

So how does the rest of Rodriguez' career stack up to his tenure at UA?  Let’s take a glance:

1. WVU:

· 2001: 3-8

· 2002: 9-4 (Continental Tire Bowl loss)

· 2003: 8-5 (Gator Bowl loss)

· 2004: 8-4 (Gator Bowl loss)

· 2005: 11-1 (BCS Sugar Bowl win)

· 2006: 11-2 (Gator Bowl win)

· 2007: 11-2 (Fiesta Bowl win)

2. Michigan:

· 2008: 3-9

· 2009: 5-7

· 2010: 7-6 (Gator Bowl loss)

· 2011: 11-2 (BCS Sugar Bowl win)*

3. Arizona:

· 2012: 8-5 (New Mexico Bowl win)

· 2013: 8-5 (AdvoCare V100 Bowl win)

· 2014: 10-4 (Fiesta Bowl loss)

· 2015: 7-6 (New Mexico Bowl win)

*Yes, I’m aware of the fact that Michigan went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl whilst under the guidance of Brady Hoke, but I personally feel that it would be fair to attribute at least some of the glory to poor Rich Rod for a few reasons. First, he clearly had the program trending in the right direction from a win-loss perspective and it was reasonable to assume it would have continued – Michigan’s lack of patience was not his fault. Second, Hoke inherited three years of elite Rich Rod recruits. According to 247sports, from 2008-2010, Michigan’s classes were nationally-ranked 11th, 10th, and 17th, respectively. Third, Hoke was gifted some guy named Denard Robinson, a legitimate Heisman candidate manning the helm as a senior.

And while it wouldn’t be fair to take all credit away from Hoke, it’s worth mentioning that he didn’t exactly thrive at Michigan after his initial success in 2011. His win totals over the next three years precipitously dropped from 11, to 8, to 7, to 5, after which he was ignominiously terminated. My speculative vote goes to Hoke riding Rich Rod’s coattails to success, and I am therefore partially attributing Michigan’s triumphant 2011 to the latter.

That Rodriguez is a winner has been a relatively consistent theme throughout his career. But it’s not the only theme – it’s worth mentioning that Rich Rod is not without controversy. He has been criticized by former players, the circumstances surrounding his departure from WVU and the subsequent contractual dispute were suspect, and Michigan has acknowledged NCAA violations that took place during his tenure. Some do not appreciate his vulgarity or sideline demeanor. But for me, I find that I can look past such things with relative ease – winning games sure does cure a lot of ills, and three bowl wins (perhaps not the most noteworthy bowls) in four years inspires confidence that he was the right hire at the right time.

So is he the guy? Will Rich Rod take the program to new heights? Sigh. I don’t know. There are an awful lot of questions surrounding the program, not least of which is his highly-questionable continued presence. But he sure is a talented coach. His winning percentage at Arizona and the overall upward trajectory of his previous programs lead me to believe that it’s possible.

So we’ll just have to wait and see. Time will tell whether or not he’s the guy, but at the very least I can tell you that at this point he is in my mind.