|Rodriguez seems to be a better fit in unpretentious Arizona than he was at Michigan. (Getty Images)|
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Rich Rodriguez has a soft spot for walk-ons. He is them and they are him. Their struggle is ingrained in the West Virginia/Michigan/turned-Arizona coach.
Back in Morgantown, he took pride in putting five or six walk-ons a year on scholarship. His desk at West Virginia was adorned with the broken facemask of fullback Owen Schmitt. That's how hard the former walk-on hit. Rodriguez turned the facemask into a candy bowl for visitors.
After a couple of Tootsie Rolls you got the message: This is how we play.
That's why on this day in the middle of spring practice, RichRod is watching film of a new crop of scholarship-less wannabes. Outside, there is a page taped to the entrance of the football offices listing the names of walk-on call backs.
If you don't think the coach is serious about this stuff, you don't know RichRod. As a scrawny walk-on out of Grant Town, W.V. 31 years ago, he eventually earned a scholarship under Don Nehlen. Current Michigan starting strong safety Jordan Kovacs has turned out to be a lovely parting gift from Rodriguez. Kovacs, now a senior, made it after an open walk-on tryout.
If you don't think the coach is serious, you really don't know Arizona at the moment.
"I don't know if you can sense it," Rodriguez said. "I'm on the kids today."
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Then the coach launches into the prime directive he has hammered into the Wildcats for the few months he has been here.
"It's OK for football to be really, really important. If you want to know why the SEC is so good, it's because football is really, really important to them.
"You don't have to sacrifice academics. You can still have a so-called social life, but gosh darn, football has to be important ...
"Selfishly, I want them to think about football all the time. When they're not in class, when they're not in church, I want them thinking about football."
RichRod is beginning to understand why Arizona is the only original Pac-10 school to never reach the Rose Bowl. When he took over he discovered lapsed warriors. Players were in the weight room, but not committed to working out. There were 300-pound linemen who weighed more than they could bench, defensive backs who couldn't put up 240 pounds.
"Not that the bench is the only barometer," Rodriguez said. "My point is, what have you been doing? You cheated the program but you also cheated yourself."
It is at this point that Rodriguez actually compliments the former strength coaches. He went out to dinner several times with the man he replaced, Mike Stoops. You get the feeling he has told them all what he has just got done telling you.
The program had gone stale, left out in the Arizona sun too long.
It happens. The message gets old. That coach leaves in midseason and the players' purpose wanes. But there has been a lot of waning at Arizona for a lot of years. Stoops finished nine games under .500 in 7½ seasons. The program has won more than six games only three times since 1998.
In that span, every school but Arizona out of the old Pac-10 has won at least a share of the conference title. USC won two national championships and Oregon played for one during that time.
The Pac-12's future is littered with zeroes. A new TV contract and new network have assured a financial windfall. Arizona is one of six Pac-12 schools to change coaches since the beginning of the 2010 season. With a higher profile and more cash, football is becoming more important in the Pac-12.
The question is: How much more important at Arizona?
"It's a cultural change," Rodriguez said. "It's not like you haven't had good football here in the past, but you haven't gone to the Rose Bowl. What needs to change? It's not just the guy sitting in the head coach's office. It's a whole mindset. It's making football more important."
So you are welcome to try out here if you can run and hit. There's a scholarship in your future. Now, about that future ...
It includes joining a 4-8 team that lost direction after Stoops was fired on Oct. 10. It includes the promise of a new $72 million football facility that will dazzle. It includes an aggressive AD, Greg Byrne, who knows all about the Pac-12's promise and that cash. That's why he hired one of the best free-agent coaches on the market.
As word started to leak out in late November, Byrne decided on dropping his own version of a scoop. Moments after the deal was done, Byrne tweeted out the photo of Rodriguez and family.
After Michigan Twitter fiends had their fun, the reality set in. This should work. RichRod fits better here. Change the culture? Yes, please. Arizona is a place with little pretention, few hidebound traditions to pay homage to. That "Bear Down" motto burned into the field? It's 86 years old, a quote from a dying former player John Salmon.
Besides, the Wildcats could use a little bearing down right now.
"It's going to be painful at times and costly," Rodriguez. "I've told people this: It was like [when I started at] West Virginia 12 years ago except better weather. The mindset at West Virginia is, [football's] a bigger deal."
Byrne always had Rodriguez in the back of his mind if he ever had to make a change. As different as he was to the locals at Michigan, Rodriguez is fresh salsa in this part of the Southwest. His spread option that spawned imitators around the country will be welcome. It made stars and award winners of Pat Smith, Steve Slaton, Noel Devine and, oh yes, another Michigan leftover -- Denard Robinson.
Told that Michigan is trending toward a more pro-style approach, Rodriguez offered: "I've always said, let Denard be Denard. They've got to do what they've got to do. I would have liked to walk in with the Big Ten offensive player of the year coming back. It was one of those things that was hard to watch."
What Rodriguez watched in his year off was Michigan winning the Sugar Bowl. He worked in 2011 at CBS Sports Network. His work was so good the network nominated him for an Emmy.
At game sites as an analyst, he would notice how his counterparts would shut down, turn quiet the day before a game. Rodriguez was looking at himself in a previous life.
For the first time in 26 years, he tailgated.
When Stoops was let go, Byrne was meticulous and secretive in his search. He and Rodriguez met in Detroit and then again in New York. RichRod took the job without setting foot on the campus. Six of his former West Virginia assistants followed him. The band that made the Mountaineers one of the biggest college football stories of the previous decade is back together.
Rodriguez's unpretentiousness is staggering. Two elderly couples dropped into the football office unannounced recently in the middle of the day. His administrative assistant poked her head in the coach's office and relayed a name: "Buddy James?"
"Buddy James, he's here?" RichRod boomed. "Send him in."
James is a former Parkersburg, W.V. high school coach who once faced Rodriguez the player in a state playoff game.
"Have you got a quarterback?" James asked.
That's really the central question for now, isn't it? Nothing happens in RichRod's scheme unless there is a triggerman. Rodriguez quickly described fifth-year redshirt holdover Matt Scott who last played in 2010. The coach then fetched some Arizona apparel out of a drawer and 20 minutes later the unannounced guests were on their way. Dazzled.
"The best way to say this is, he's just as good with the hard-working guy off the street buying two tickets as with our folks who are our top givers," Byrne said. "One thing about Rich, he grew up in the hollers of West Virginia. He's not used to having a silver spoon in his mouth. Tucson in a lot of ways is a hard-working town."
This is the disclaimer where you are reminded that West Virginia under Rodriguez (2001-2007) won two BCS bowls and came within a game of playing for the 2007 national championship.
It didn't work at Michigan, but it wasn't a failure. See: Kovacs, Robinson, etc.
"Even with some of the issues Michigan may not have wanted to believe that they had," Rodriguez said, "we thought we fixed them. We just didn't get to enjoy them after they all got fixed.
"When you get burned a little bit, you have a tendency to dip your toe in the water first. I still like to believe in the good of people."
This is when how that unpretentiousness is meeting laidback. It's a different fix here. Rodriguez rented Stoops' home while the family settled in. The new coach was disgusted at the look and feel of the training table. Unexciting food. Players went to their tables, heads down and talked in hushed tones. Now there's ice cream. A chef is being hired.
The new coach installed his no-huddle, spread option offense at full speed. That's the way it is played so that's the way it will be practiced, even if some of the teaching points fly right over their heads for the moment. Only 50 total plays were learned.
The first day of spring practice the Wildcats were so tired they couldn't make it to the sideline to get popsicles during a break.
"Hell, they passed out where they were at," Rodriguez said. "We had to bring popsicles to them."
They will learn. They will have to learn. This is how RichRod's teams play. Back in his office, the remaking of Arizona continues. The coach is looking at that walk-on film for the next Rich Rodriguez.
"For me it's easy to sit in front of a kid and say, 'Listen, we will really give you a shot. Thirty years ago I was in the exact same shoes. It worked out for me,' "RichRod says.
"You can't win a national championship with all walk-ons, but I'm not sure you can win one without some contributing."
There is that soft spot again. But for how long? There is a culture to change, facemasks to break, a Rose Bowl to chase.