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Rodriguez basking in Arizona warmth

Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez celebrates with wide receiver Austin Hill (29) after beating the USC Trojans 39-36 at Arizona Stadium.
If Rich Rodriguez looks happier at Arizona than he did at Michigan, there are reasons.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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TUCSON, Ariz.

He comes off without a hint of I-told-you-so. Well, maybe a hint. But Rich Rodriguez has gone on a career path that has labeled him from offensive guru and genius to idiot, and now, as Arizona’s football coach, back again.

In fact, the University of Texas sent an assistant coach to his practices this spring to get advice on exactly how to run his creation, his offense that helped to change college football.

“It was easier when we were the only ones doing it,’’ he said.

In the sunshine and desert, Rich Rodriguez is rewriting his narrative after his gloomy three-year nightmare at Michigan. And while he has moved on, he hasn’t forgotten. How can you forget the backstabbing? Or the unwelcoming party he had from the first day: You’re not a Michigan guy. You don’t know the Michigan Way. It was written about in a book, "Three and Out," but Rodriguez hasn’t come out and said it before.

Until now: Were you undermined at Michigan?

“Well,’’ he said Wednesday in his office, pausing, “I found out later I was. I didn’t know it at the time. You’d heard rumors and all that, but I was kind of incredulous, like, `Nah.’ But after you leave, you find out a lot more.’’

Who undermined you?

“I think, you know, there’s books out there,’’ he said, smiling. “I didn’t write the books. There were things I’d like to have done differently, too. You do the best job you can with the people you have. But we thought we could fight through all the so-called `stuff,’ and that should be OK. But we didn’t.

“The biggest frustration about Michigan wasn’t that there were different factions — I mean, that was frustrating that people that should be rooting for you in your own building were really rooting against you — but more we thought we had turned the corner and that year four and five. . . . We didn’t get a chance to see it through.’’

While Rodriguez wouldn’t name names, he was theoretically pointing the finger at former coach Lloyd Carr, who was still in the building as an ambassador to the program. The book alleges that Carr suggested to players, shortly after Rodriguez was hired, that they leave.

Rodriguez wouldn’t get into specifics like that. He isn’t dwelling on it. He was answering my questions. But this is a guy who, over the course of an hour in his office, and then through the day in practice and after, was smiling, joking the whole way.

He talked about the journey of his coaching career, starting with a job at Salem College, which decided to drop the program a few weeks before he got married. He and his wife went to Cedar Point roller coaster park in Ohio for a one-day honeymoon.

And then when he took his next job, “The band didn’t know how to play the fight song because they never had a chance to score.’’

This is not the same guy you saw at Michigan, who was fired after three years. The football offices at Arizona are filled with so many of the same coaches he had at Michigan, and this is as collegial a workplace as you’ll see, with coaches laughing and giving each other a hard time.

They are free to win at Arizona. Rodriguez said he didn’t realize at the time at Michigan how much his demeanor and look had changed.

“Friends of mine and family said, `You looked, I don’t want to say stressful. But you looked like you weren’t yourself,’ ’’ he said. “I said, `My life’s based on winning. If we’re losing, I’m miserable, you know?’

“They said it was more than that. I didn’t think it was, but hearing it from enough people, they’re probably right. But here I am now, in the desert, beautiful weather, new facility. So it’s not bad.’’

Genius, failure, success. It’s all the same guy, doing roughly the same things. There is something to be said about a person being where he belongs, and not always jumping for something bigger just because it’s bigger. It’s true out of sports, too.

Arizona was good again last year, Rodriguez’ first season there, but not great. His hurry-up offense takes getting used to. The Wildcats scored 38 points a game, made games a RichRod-like must-go experience and came from behind to beat Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl. Rodriguez was lucky enough to walk into a team that had senior quarterback Matt Scott, the type of experience he could have used at first in Michigan.

But we don’t need to go there again.

Arizona is about to unveil those new facilities, more than $70 million worth. They were in the works before Rodriguez took the job, though they helped convince him this was the place to be. That, and the fact he didn’t know if his reputation was good enough anymore to land a really good job again.

The stadium is enclosed all the way around now, with new luxury boxes. In the same building, new coaches' offices, new weight room, new locker room with the rows of lockers all angling in, so Rodriguez can see the whole team at once while talking at halftime.

At least, I think that’s what it was. The lights were off in the locker room Wednesday because half a dozen players were napping on the floor.

The walls throughout are gray and a little sterile for now. Construction workers in orange were walking up and down the halls, though the GE Profile fridge/freezer in the coaches' offices was stocked with at least a hundred ice cream sandwiches.

It was just the commitment Rodriguez was looking for. He wants to win a national championship. He said he left West Virginia because new administration there told him the financial commitment to the team was not going to be there.

When he left West Virginia, just months after negotiating a new contract, the place went nuts. It ended ugly, with a lawsuit.

“I had death threats and mailboxes torn out,’’ he said. “And I’m from there. A year before that, I didn’t go to Alabama (for the coaching job) . . . which turned out good for them.’’

He laughed.

When Rodriguez left for Michigan, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel stayed behind, not wanting to leave family and home in West Virginia. He knew something that Rodriguez didn’t. Casteel is now Arizona’s defensive coordinator.

“My wife says that on the way to my introductory press conference at Michigan,’’ Rodriguez said, “somebody yelled at her, `We sure hope you guys can fit in here.’ She’s like `What do you mean, fit in?’ "

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He never did. But also, I’m not sure he tried. He shares the blame. He didn’t communicate well with his home fans at West Virginia, and he didn’t either, really at Michigan. He ignored some of their traditions. His staff was accused of using excessively bad and degrading language on the players, which led to many of them leaving.

And it was anonymous players, too, who said that Rodriguez was running practices longer than NCAA rules allowed. It led to NCAA sanctions.

Not to mention: His teams never played any defense. Rodriguez said he was putting in an entirely new philosophy, one that the players there didn’t fit. He needed time to get his guys in.

He was put in position to fail, and he did, winning three games the first year, then five, then seven. He was landing top recruiting classes. But then, he was out.

How does he fit at Arizona? Perfectly. For one, people there are used to everyone moving in from out of town. Fit? A longtime Arizona football observer told me that previous coach Mike Stoops was a nice guy but the type who sits in the corner by himself at a party. He wasn’t comfortable selling the place.

“Turn off your tape, OK?’’ Rodriguez said Wednesday, as his phone rang. He took a call regarding the opening ceremony this weekend for the new facilities. He wanted the schedule of it to be a little different but kept saying he’d gladly talk to anyone as long as they like. He’ll talk for an hour, no problem.

“There was total buy-in at Arizona,’’ he said. “Everywhere. Everybody you worked with, everybody you worked for. Everybody was rooting for you.’’

The focus on Rodriguez now is back to offense, not Michigan. Around the country, everyone is going to the hurry-up. Earlier this week in Austin, I asked Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz if Stanford has the key to stopping it, having stopped Oregon last year.

“Yeah, Stanford shut down Oregon,’’ Diaz said. “But RichRod put a 48 on Stanford.’’

Rodriguez smiled on hearing that: “We still lost that one.’’

Yes, there wasn’t much defense last year, either. Now, most of the defense returns. He needs a new quarterback. But running back Ka’Deem Carey, who returns, led the nation in rushing last season with just under 2,000 yards.

The offense will produce. Rodriguez started it during his days at Glenville State, the place where he said the band didn’t know the fight song.

He decided to spread out the offense because his players were being pushed around. He took the passing routes from the run-and-shoot offense. Then, he put his quarterback in the shotgun because he was too short to see over the defensive line, and because he wanted to give him an extra second before being run over.

Then he remembered how much, as a defensive back, he hated it when the opponent was in the two-minute offense. So he thought he’d just run it all the time. In practice Wednesday, the offense got off a play every 14 seconds.

“Three-hundred fifty days of sunshine,’’ Rodriguez said. “Tucson is the sunniest city in the country.’’

Yep, whatever Michigan fans think of him, the sun is shining on RichRod again.

Tagged: Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, Arizona, Stanford

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