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Coaching Moves

Arizona, Greg Byrne Reel in Rodriguez

Within an hour of last night’s announcement, Rich Rodriguez was trending nationally on Twitter. Not in Arizona, not in Phoenix, not in Tucson — or Tempe — but nationally, from coast to coast, which is just what athletic director Greg Byrne was hoping for. Through 24 hours, Rodriguez’s impending addition receives the highest of high grades: hoping to grant legitimacy to the Arizona football program, Byrne nailed his first major hire since moving to Tucson from Mississippi State 18 months ago.

More Twitter: Byrne officially broke the news by posting a picture of the Rodriguez family, decked in Arizona hats and shirts, on his personal feed. Tech savvy, that Byrne.

And savvy, period. Let us count the ways: one, Byrne nabs a proven head coach fire-tested under the brightest of spotlights; two, Arizona hired an offensively gifted planner in a league that has rapidly become dominated by offensive potency; three, Arizona brings a top-flight coach into a Pac-12 South completely in flux; and four, Arizona hires a star while Arizona State plays out the string with Dennis Erickson, who will not last to 2012.

There’s no escaping Ann Arbor, however. In the immediate picture, Arizona is hiring a coach who failed in his biggest test. Rodriguez went 15-22 over three years at Michigan, increasing his win total in each season and even reaching bowl play in 2010 but, from top to bottom, failing to match the program’s standard for excellence.

But it’s easy to see how a negative can quickly become a positive. Success came easy to Rodriguez at West Virginia, where he ran the Big East with an iron fist from 2005-7; success came too easy, it could be said. Ann Arbor’s comeuppance might end up being the best thing that ever happened to him, if Rodriguez translates those painful lessons — and losses — over to his new job with the Wildcats.

Even when scuffling with the Wolverines, there was no doubting Rodriguez’s ability to coordinate a dynamic offense. Welcome to the new Pac-12: offense rules the day. Stanford does it with a pro-style bent, as does U.S.C. and Washington. Oregon wants to run you ragged. More so than any other league in the country, the Pac-12 is defined by outscoring your opposition; even this year’s Arizona team, 3-8 after Saturday’s rivalry win, is 21st nationally in total offense.

Rodriguez’s offensive mentality will fit the Pac-12 like a glove. It’s Oregon to a slightly less frenetic degree: still quick, still supremely aggressive, Rodriguez’s spread will put skill players in space and keep defenses sweating for 60 minutes, such as it did with the Mountaineers and the Wolverines. An offensive prolific conference just got another technician.

And he comes to the Pac-12 at the right time — the Pac-12 South, more specifically. U.S.C.’s play over the last few weeks, as well as the bowl ban that ends after this season, seems to put the Trojans in a position to run the division for the foreseeable future. But this is a six-team division without a clear top dog, and while U.S.C. will be the favorite in 2012 there’s little separating the division’s top from its bottom — though Colorado has a tough hill to climb.

Arizona’s road to the Rose Bowl would be deadly in the North; in the South, Rodriguez encounters a far easier road to Pasadena. Arizona has never been to the Rose Bowl, in case you hadn’t heard.

And Byrne makes his hire while the rival Sun Devils ponder an altogether uncertain future. One thing is certain: Erickson’s run is over. It might have lasted another season had his team got past the Wildcats on Saturday; the loss, Arizona State’s third in four years in the series, seals the deal.

The A.S.U. job has its appeal. Coach in the Pac-12. Coach in lovely Tempe. There’s talent on the roster. As at Arizona, there’s an opportunity for immediate and long-term success. But there’s no Rodriguez to be had: after beating the Sun Devils on the field, the Wildcats just pulled the ultimate trump card by reeling in a coach who can tip the rivalry’s balance firmly in their favor.

Arizona’s not Michigan. Arizona isn’t West Virginia. But the Rodriguez who steps into the job today is different from the coach who led the Mountaineers to B.C.S. glory or the one who crashed and burned in Ann Arbor: older, wiser, perhaps hungrier, he’s the best coach Arizona could have possibly asked for. Hats off to Byrne for a supremely farsighted hire — or perhaps an H/T, given his Twitter savviness.

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  1. Hokieshibe says:

    My cousin, a rabid Mountaineer fan also roots for Arizona (He attended WVU, but his mother attended Arizona, and he has grown up rooting for them as well). He was so angry I was worried he might have a stroke.

  2. Lee says:

    Great Fit, Great Hire.

    If he can find a descent D cordinator then he could do some damage because USC is going to fall off big time when Barkely leaves and the scholarship reductions start taking there toll.

    Perfect timing in all regards.

  3. Gotham Gator says:

    Great stuff, as usual, but you do need to fix the end of the second-to-last paragraph. ASU beat Arizona last year on the crazy extra point fiasco.

    Regardless, unless ASU somehow backs into the Pac-12 championship and wins it, Erickson is a dead man walking. Arizona is the latest proof that firing a coach in midseason can give a program a very valuable head start in finding a replacement. By the time ASU does what is nearly inevitable, which quality coaches will be left?

  4. j says:

    For everyone’ sake, I hope the AD reads Three and Out. As John Bacon makes clear and most Michigan fans would agree, most of Rodriquez’ failings would have been preventable by a proactive AD. Most importantly, shell out for a good defensive coordinator, but also touch base with other obvious problems – you can’t go 2 classes without linemen, you can’t field a team without home-state players, etc. Good luck to him.

  5. Lee says:

    Gotham Gator,

    Agreed! I think that teams like Ole MIss and Arizona are doing it the right way. It not only helps them get the first crack at the hot coaches out there. It also lets the current staff know that they need to be looking for a job instead of keeping them in limbo for the next 3 months.

  6. Zach says:

    What does Tom savage do now?

  7. Parker says:

    Hi Paul –

    Glad you are excited about the hire. I am lukewarm to it.

    I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way Rodriguez handled his departure at West Virginia.

    And then he couldn’t win at Michigan despite breaking NCAA rules.

    I really don’t know what the man stands for besides a spread offense keyed by a mobile QB.


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