For some programs, getting over the hump might as well be climbing the Berlin Wall. Every year the football gods take a meeting and decide they're moving in another direction. It's nothing be ashamed of, it just is. Not everybody can win.
Take a quick look around. You could create a new league of The Average Elite. Not bad programs, just not particularly good ones: Arkansas, Missouri, Cal, Kentucky, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina.
Subtract some, add others, if you wish, but definitely go for a walk in the desert this week. You'll find another league member. First, you'll find an introduction by Bob Stoops.
"Let's face it," Oklahoma's coach said, "when that program was taken over, there wasn't a lot of life in it."
You're also likely to run into wonderful 71-year-old soon-to-be retiree who once coached the new entry.
"We were close," Dick Tomey said. "We didn't get there."
Finally, you'll find the present-day head coach of the program, a 47-year-old standing at the edge of history while his players heave over the edge of a trash can.
"Our guys don't throw up nearly as much," said Mike Stoops.
That's a big sign of progress at Arizona. They don't yak as much because they know to come prepared now for Stoops' offseason conditioning. That's how Bob's younger brother weeded out the malcontents when he arrived in 2004. Run 'em 'til they puke. There is still some of that steely, tough Youngstown, Ohio, attitude, but the two sides are more used to each other by now.
For one, they're winning -- within one victory of back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1998.
Arizona is better than when Mike Stoops arrived. Heck, Mike Stoops is better than when Mike Stoops arrived. The one-time hothead is more corporate. There's a picture in the media guide somewhere of him wearing a tie.
Last season's Las Vegas Bowl was the program's first postseason appearance in 10 years. Yes, that qualifies as progress too.
Now for the next try up that Berlin Wall. No one can ignore the 800-pound granddaddy in the room when Arizona (6-3) hosts No. 11 Oregon this week.
The Wildcats' first Rose Bowl is within reach. Other Pac-10 teams -- Oregon State and Cal -- have been away from Pasadena longer. Arizona only joined the league in 1978. Since then, it has slowly, inexorably become the Pac-10's version of Sergio Garcia.
The difference is that Garcia is one of the best golfers in the world never to win a major. Arizona is the only one of the 21 Pac-10 and Big Ten teams never to get to the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats know if they beat Oregon, Arizona State and USC, they will be in Pasadena for the first time.
The reality is three weeks away. It might as well be three light years away. As a member of The Average Elite, Arizona can't count on anything.
"Our margin for error," Mike Stoops said, "is very minimal."
Not just because of the talent or the schedule. Take a walk in the desert like the rest of them. They've been close as you've heard from Tomey, the Wildcats coach from 1987-2000. They've also been terrible. They've seldom been great.
The program seems to wear rose-repellant underwear, contracts an annual case of San Gabriel Mountain Flu, forgets its green card to enter Pasadena.
|QB Nick Foles, a Michigan State transfer, has 1,736 yards and 13 TDs on the year. (US Presswire)|
Then receiver Terry Vaughn caught a pass and casually flipped the ball to an official. A flag came out for unsportsmanlike conduct from the official, who thought he was being shown up. Forced to throw for a first down, Dan White forced a pass that was intercepted by Cal and returned for the winning touchdown.
• It's the program that was the preseason No. 1 pick of Sports Illustrated in 1994.
"We were in the national consciousness," said Tomey, the current San Jose State coach who announced his retirement this week.
Arizona finished 8-4.
• It's the program that was flying high after a one-point win over Georgia Tech in the second game of the 1995 season. At halftime, Tomey was informed that Wildcat Damon Terrell had died while in the hospital. In preseason drills, Terrell had collapsed from sickle cell trait.
Tomey had to keep the news bottled up inside until he broke it during a wild locker room celebration.
"I've never seen a mood go from the ceiling to the basement so fast," the coach said.
Those Wildcats finished 6-5.
• It's the program that had its Rose Bowl path blocked essentially by Hurricane Georges in 1998. A September UCLA-Miami game was postponed until December that year because of the threat of bad weather.
There has been speculation ever since that UCLA would have been a much better team in September than it was that humid day in Miami. Bruins coach Bob Toledo decided to fly cross-country the day before the game. Bad move. His team looked sluggish in the South Florida heat as Miami pounded Edgerrin James into the Bruins for a 49-45 victory.
If UCLA won, it would have clinched a spot in the BCS Championship Game and Arizona would have gone to the Rose Bowl.
"I never asked Bob about that," Tomey said. "That was a crazy time."
Larry Smith (1980-86) brought some pride. When he arrived, the program was about to go on probation. Arizona had been in the Pac-10 only two years. Arizona State had dominated the rivalry. In six years, Smith got the Wildcats to two bowls, then fled under the cover of night without telling his players.
Tomey brought an attitude. The former Michigan grad assistant always admired Bo Schembechler's style and created the Desert Swarm defense that had its glory years in the mid-1990s.
John Mackovic (2001-2003) never posted a winning season. His Arizona stay ended with an ugly player revolt.
That's what Mike Stoops stepped into with his attitude and trash cans full of vomit. As a member of college football's first family of coaches, Stoops left Oklahoma as his brother's defensive coordinator in 2004. Not without some advice, though.
"My only concern was, there was a long history of not having success," Bob said of Arizona. "That usually tells me it just isn't coaching. Whatever the reason could be, you need to really look into it."
Mike was, in many ways, as raw as the program was unaccomplished. As Kansas State's defensive coordinator, his rants, barely muffled by thin press box walls, became legend. In his first three years in Tucson, Arizona won a total of three home games against I-A opponents.
Mike admitted to "internal problems" early on. The coach mellowed as the bad seeds were weeded out. Last season, the Wildcats got to that Las Vegas Bowl. A modest 31-21 win over BYU felt like a Super Bowl. In his fifth season, Stoops is 31-37, having won eight out of his past 11.
"We feel like we've gotten to a better place emotionally," Mike said. "That part is very critical."
"When you take over a program that has habitually lost and doesn't have the fight or emotion to win, who is going to bring it?" Bob said. "Sometimes it's hard not to show it ... Now he's calmer and he wins. There's a lot less to get upset about too."
It's not exactly Oklahoma, but it's a start. Tailback Nic Grigsby, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2008, should be back 100 percent for the Ducks. Sophomore Nick Foles transferred from Michigan State and grabbed the quarterback job. If this ends up as another Rose Bow whiff, last week's Cal game might become a piece of the frustration file. Driving for a potential game-winning field goal, Foles had a pass batted back in his face. Instinctively, he caught it and threw again before being flagged for a double pass.
A win would have put the program in prime position. A loss just seems so Arizona now that the program has to stand at the base of the wall and look up at a back-loaded schedule.
If you're a Wildcat, it almost makes you want to puke.