PHOENIX -- It is called the "Arizona Road Tour" but truth be told, Thursday night's University of Arizona event at the Audi Club at Chase Field might as well have been touted as the Rich Rodriguez Comedy Show.
Rodriguez was one of four Wildcats coaches in attendance along with AD -- and master of ceremonies -- Greg Byrne greeting some 350 fans at the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was the Wildcats' way of connecting with their fans in the Phoenix area, where the school has over 30,000 alumnae. It also was an ideal time with an additional two dozen media members in attendance to get the word out to local recruits.
Over the past decade, the Phoenix area has become one of the most fertile recruiting areas on the West Coast. It is the sixth-largest city in the U.S. and one of the fastest-growing. The area, as Arizona hoops coach Sean Miller pointed out, has been very kind to the Cats' powerhouse basketball program, producing Richard Jefferson, Mike Bibby, Channing Frye, Jerryd Bayless and rising star Nick Johnson, among others. However, in football neither the Cats nor archrival Arizona State has had great success protecting their backyard. Over the past few years, it's rare when both schools combine to keep more than a couple of the top 10 in-state players at home. For the 2013 signing class, Arizona and ASU both only landed one player among the top 10.
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In eight seasons in Tucson, Rodriguez's predecessor, Mike Stoops, landed 32 blue-chip recruits ranked as four-star prospects (using the Rivals.com database going back to his first season in 2004) but only five players were from the state of Arizona.
A few years ago, Rodriguez's staff at Michigan did what it referred to as its' "Willingness to Leave" study, analyzing which state's top recruits percentage-wise were most likely to leave home. Arizona ranked near the top of the list. Rodriguez had his share of success while at Michigan snagging prime talent from the Phoenix area in pass-rushing star Craig Roh, Arizona's 2008-09 Gatorade Player of the Year, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, a guy many are projecting as a top-five prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft.
The stakes figure to get even higher this year because the 2014 recruiting class has been pegged by some coaches as Arizona's best crop of talent in years, with a half-dozen blue-chippers high on the national radar: QB Kyle Allen; WR Jalen Brown; athlete Cameron Denson; WR Mark Andrews; OL Casey Tucker; and DE Qualen Cunningham.
Denson is already committed to the Wildcats. Arizona also figures to be a strong contender for Andrews, who has an older brother who attends the school. Brown also has a strong family connection to Arizona. His stepdad is former U of A standout Chuck Levy.
Before addressing the room, Byrne, Miller and Rodriguez each ducked outside for a 10-minute session to field questions from the local media.
"Without question, being able to recruit the Valley is absolutely critical for us," Rodriguez said. Five of his incoming recruits are from the Phoenix area and there will be 15 newcomers on the roster, including walk-ons, from the state of Arizona. (Full disclosure: Rodriguez is a former colleague of mine at CBS Sports Network.)
"We're two hours away," said Rodriguez of the campus' distance from the Phoenix area. "We've got brand new facilities, a beautiful campus and there's nothing we won't have that these other schools will have -- other than we don't have a Rose Bowl tradition, but you gotta start somewhere. And that's been part of our pitch to them, 'You can make a difference and start your own legacy here at U of A.'"
His program has momentum after an impressive debut season, where the Cats went 8-5 -- winning twice as many games as they did the year before Rodriguez arrived. The eight wins tied the most the school has had since 1998. Better still, Rodriguez is proud to talk about the school's new facilities upgrades that include a new football building that Rodriguez and staff will move into July 1.
"I think we have a lot to sell, and going forward, I have the benefit frankly of having a lot more to sell than Mike Stoops and Dick Tomey and all the guys before me here did. We have the new facilities, the new exposure through the media and the Pac-12 Network so I'm in a good situation."
• • •
Inside the sprawling room, Wildcats fans mingle while chewing on hors d'oeuvres. Byrne, perhaps the most social media-savvy AD in major college athletics, circulates like a well-schooled politician. The school's mascot Wilbur Wildcat, in full costume, also is busy working the room, high-fiving fans.
About 40 minutes after arriving with Rodriguez, Byrne moves to the podium and takes the microphone. After introducing the president of the Arizona Alumni Association, Byrne brings up Dave Rubio, the long-time head coach of the women's volleyball team. Rubio draws the first "Ohhs" from the crowd when he mentions that one of his players is the granddaughter of pro wrestling legend Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and that despite only being 5-feet-6, she can grab the rim on a 10-foot basketball hoop. Rubio also draws some chuckles when he refers to the athleticism of some of his towering recruits as "they're not dorks." Rubio's segment is followed by Niya Butts, the women's basketball coach, before Byrne brings up Sean Miller, who is coming off a season where he led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16.
Byrne rotates who closes out the shows between Miller and Rodriguez. On Thursday night, it was Rodriguez's turn to bat cleanup. The other speakers talk for between five and 10 minutes. Rodriguez grabs the mic for what is probably the 1,000th time in his career. In this setting, Rodriguez is tough to beat. Like most coaches, Rodriguez has built up a pretty deep reservoir of one-liners and anecdotes. His delivery is what sets him apart. His style is folksy, reminiscent of a younger Bobby Bowden, but Rodriguez also leans toward self-effacing humor. That persona helped make his transition to TV as an analyst so smooth, especially in the aftermath of three turbulent (putting it mildly) seasons at Michigan.
Rodriguez opens by mentioning that a week earlier he spoke to the Arizona high school coaches association and this week had been in town for the Pac-12 meetings with the conference's athletic directors and commissioner.
"We talked 'bout Sean Miller for a couple of days," quipped Rodriguez matter-of-factly, referencing the officiating controversy surrounding the Arizona basketball coach at the Pac-12 tournament. The timing of that one-liner placed in the middle of his rundown of the past week draws the first big laugh of the night. And, as is the case with some standup, it sounds funnier than it reads.
Rodriguez seems to just be winging it, going from topic to topic. He will ramble for the next 20 minutes. There are no notes or index cards. Just a bottle of water and a very receptive audience.
"It's been a little over 16 months since I first came to U of A and everything I thought -- and hoped -- would happen is starting to happen," he said. "We're not all there right now. Winning eight games was, I guess, a pretty good and solid foundation but we had two or three games that we let slip away in the fourth quarter. We could've got 10 or 11, but hell, if we'd have won 10 or 11, you might've thought 13 for next year so I'm probably right on track right there." (Laughter)
Among the nuggets he worked in:
• That this year Arizona offered 17 in-state recruits, which he said may be the highest it has been for Arizona in years.
• That he doesn't know who his starting quarterback is going to be in 2013. "Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you. Why would you go ahead and let your opponent know?" he said, adding that B.J. Denker will compete with Jessie Scroggins and touted incoming recruit Anu Solomon. "It'll be wide-open."
• That star wideout Austin Hill tore his ACL in Arizona's next-to-last practice of the spring. "He will have surgery in a week and his availability for the season is questionable. That was a big blow for us."
• That he was "absolutely shocked" former Arizona QB Matt Scott went undrafted. "I've been a college coach for 28 years and Matt Scott's the best thrower I've ever had and I've had several go onto the NFL. One of them went in the second round (Tulane's Shawn King.)"
"I don't know how good we're gonna be next year, but I will tell you, we're gonna be entertaining.
"I'm telling you, we're gonna move the ball," he said, pausing for a few heartbeats. "I just hope it's forward. You know, it's like going to watch a train wreck sometimes. You're gonna watch somebody wreck."
In 2012, despite only having five returning starters on offense, the Wildcats went from No. 38 in scoring to No. 15 and finished seventh in the nation in total offense. They improved from No. 114 in rushing to 15th. For a guy best known for his ground attack, Rodriguez's team was dangerous through the air, averaging over 298 passing yards per game -- third best in the Pac-12. Scott only ran the ball about three times a game on zone reads, the coach later told me.
Before getting the West Virginia job and his ill-fated run at Michigan, Rodriguez was known in coaching circles as one of the sharpest offensive minds in football, becoming the godfather of the zone read. In eight seasons in Morgantown, the former Mountaineers safety went 60-26, leading his alma mater to three top-10 finishes in his final three years at the school. His teams also won two BCS bowls. Rodriguez also turned down a chance to become the head coach at Alabama before he accepted the job at Michigan.
Even though his program improved from three wins to five to seven (he also opened with a three-win season in his first year at WVU), by Year 3 in Ann Arbor, the environment seemed toxic and he was fired. Bad fit, is how many would call it. Rodriguez spent a year away from coaching as an analyst for CBS Sports Network, where he was able to refocus and get a different perspective on the game and the business, he has told me.
It's no secret that it was the defense that played a major role in his downfall at Michigan. The Wolverines' penchant for surrendering one soul-crushing big play after another, especially on third-and-long situations, undermined what was a young and explosive offense. Maybe things would've been different if Rodriguez had been able to coax his WVU defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel, with him to Ann Arbor. Casteel, though, is with him in Tucson, with a major renovation project on his hands. Last season, the Wildcats were No. 102 in scoring defense, up only slightly from their 107 slot in 2011.
"We need to get bigger athletes," Rodriguez told the crowd. "When I'm bigger than our defensive line, we got problems, and I've lost weight. I'm wearing black. It makes me look thinner, dudnit? (Laughter)
"We're way too small. Physically we couldn't hold up [last year]. But our guys have a good plan. We'll probably be playing way too many young guys this year. The good part is recruits see that as opportunity. If there's any recruits out there listening, you're going to have a good shot on defense."
Before closing, Rodriguez meanders his way into another anecdote, a bit that he hasn't used in awhile, Mike Parrish, Arizona's football ops man later says. Like most of his staff in Tucson, Parrish was with Rodriguez at WVU and Michigan. The backstory of the anecdote is the same but Rodriguez has polished it up to be more timely.
"I will tell y'all a little secret," he said. "It's an easy place to get comfortable [at Arizona]. Most of my coaching career's been in places where they have two seasons: winter and August. (Laughter) So this is kinda neat. I always wanted to be able to buy a convertible, particularly for my wife. My wife's birthday was a milestone. She was turning 50. She was in the tank about it. She's a lot older than I am -- I'm 49. (Laughter)
"I don't know if you knew but I got a new contract. I got a five-year deal. I guess that's the limit. I asked Greg for a lifetime contract. He said, 'I can't do that.' I said, 'Why not?' He said, 'Because if you lose, than I gotta kill you.' (Laughter) So I got a five-year deal. But anyways. ..."
The story gets into how Rodriguez courted his wife Rita; how he met her in college and how his future wife drove an old Chevette with a broken-off couch leg used in place of a missing stick shift. "Ever since that time, I said, 'Honey, at some point, we will get us a real 'Vette. So that's my goal and thanks to Greg Byrne for that."
About five minutes of Q&A later, Rodriguez exited the stage, posed for a bunch of pictures with toddlers and teens before he, Byrne and a few U of A staffers piled into the elevator. Asked how he felt about doing 20 minutes of standup, Rodriguez smirked, as if it to say he still has some better material up his sleeve.
"Aw, if we were in a bar and they've have had some drinks in them, I'd have really had 'em goin'."