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Still Arizona’s coach, Rich Rodriguez prepares Wildcats for bowl

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
LISTEN: Rich Rodriguez, UA football head coach

It’s safe to say Rich Rodriguez’s dalliance with South Carolina made Arizona Wildcats fans nervous.

After all, while the school’s football coach for each of the last four seasons has never outwardly professed a desire to leave or given any indication he was unhappy in Tucson, the fact that an SEC school was apparently interested in prying him away made it a possibility that the 52-37 loss to Arizona State in the Territorial Cup was his last game on the UA sideline.

But it was not, as Rodriguez ultimately declined South Carolina’s overtures and chose to instead return to the Old Pueblo.

“I think everything, without going into all the details and all that, I think the best situation for me is right here in Tucson, Arizona,” Rodriguez told Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Monday. “I’m excited about the future.

“I could give you the normal coachspeak, but the truth is I think everything is in a great spot for us right now at Arizona. We’ve got some work to do, get some guys healthy and got to finish off a great recruiting class, but I think we can win big here and I think the future’s pretty bright and I think this is the best situation for me.”

The Wildcats finished this season with a 6-6 record, including a 3-6 mark in the Pac-12. South Carolina, on the other hand, went 3-9 with a 1-7 record in SEC play. Both schools are disappointed with the results, but while it’s fair to say USC is more of a football school and may be easier to recruit to than Arizona, at the same time expectations are significantly lower in Tucson than they are in Columbia, where Will Muschamp was hired to lead the football program.

That’s not to say Wildcats fans are comfortable with six wins and a low-tier bowl game, but you also do not have anyone with the school saying the expectation next season is to be in the College Football Playoff.

Did that play a role in Rodriguez returning to Arizona? Maybe, or it’s possible he decided it wasn’t the right fit for other reasons. Maybe the “why” doesn’t even matter, because the “what” worked out in Arizona’s favor.

“I think sometimes people say ‘why did you even entertain anything else if you’re happy where you’re at,'” Rodriguez said. “I’m very happy where I’m at, but sometimes there’s a situation that you so-call kick the tires, I think, on both ends. Schools kick the tires, coaches kick the tires, and sometimes you look at it.

“Sometimes it makes you — I’m in the process of evaluating our own program, and sometimes that helps to evaluate your own program when you’re evaluating other programs and they’re evaluating you, as well.”

Rodriguez said he told his team a couple weeks ago that when coaches or players look into other schools it gives them an opportunity to get a better idea of what they are doing in their current situation.

And in this case, the 52-year-old’s current situation isn’t all that bad.

Rodriguez has guided the Wildcats to a 32-20 record — including a 17-18 mark in Pac-12 play — in four seasons with the school. Under his watch UA will appear in four consecutive bowl games, which has never been done in the program’s history.

Last season, Arizona won 10 games and the Pac-12 South while earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, and this year, though they slumped to six wins and a fifth-place finish in the division, they were still invited to play in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl against New Mexico.

Incidentally it is the site of Arizona’s first bowl game under Rodriguez, where the Wildcats knocked off Nevada in a 49-48 thriller in 2012. For a team that went into the season with higher aspirations than this, some may wonder if motivation will be an issue.

Rodriguez acknowledged it is a valid question, noting that a playoff game or a New Years Six game — like the Fiesta Bowl — is easy to get fired up for.

“But in this thing here, as I tell our guys, we’re only going down there for three days,” he said. “So it’s not really the bowl experience, even though they do a great job at the New Mexico Bowl, we’ve been there before. It’s more of a business trip and I wanted our guys to kind of enjoy the last couple weeks of practice, I want them to enjoy each other.”

Rodriguez added the nice part about this game is it kicks off the bowl season, which means the players can practice, prepare and play and then go home for the holiday break. That wouldn’t be the case if the game was later in the month or in early January which, unless a playoff game or high-profile bowl appearance, may not be as ideal.

Rodriguez said he feels his team’s practices have been pretty good and he has a sense that the players are excited to play Saturday.  Arizona will face the Lobos, who posted a 7-5 record (5-3) in the Mountain West. The Wildcats are a double-digit favorite in the game, but will face a challenge in New Mexico’s triple-option offense.

“I wish I had more (time), because normally you have about a month — not a month of practice — but at least a month of preparation to watch the film, and in this case we only have two weeks and one of those weeks was busy with recruiting last week,” Rodriguez said. “I wish we weren’t playing — it’s kind of a pain, especially for our defensive guys — we’ve had our struggles over there anyway with personnel and injury. Our guys have worked hard, we’re caught up I think, a little bit, but we’ve got to have some good practices the rest of the week to get ready for it.”

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