Over the course of the University of Arizona’s football history, it is rare that the school has dealt with the stress of a coach potentially moving on.
There was Larry Smith, who coached the Wildcats for seven seasons and left for USC following a 9-3 season that saw them finish 11th in the AP Poll in 1986, but for the most part, the program has rarely been successful enough to warrant its head coaches being poached.
But that was the reality UA faced this past winter, when Rich Rodriguez’s name was mentioned for a handful of vacancies, with the opening at South Carolina being attractive enough for Rich Rod to interview with the school.
For a brief time, at least, it appeared as if UA may have needed to find a new coach.
“I have a pretty simple outlook on that: I’d much rather have a coach that people are interested in than one that say, ‘boy, how do we get rid of this guy,'” Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne told Doug and Wolf Tuesday as part of Newsmakers Week on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “I knew when we hired Rich there would be a chance, because of his roots being back in the eastern part of the country that that could be something we’d have to deal with from time to time.
“The reality is you always have to be thinking of what happens.”
Byrne added his father Bill, who was also an athletic director, would always say you have to be prepared in case your coach gets hit by a bus.
“I tell our coaches to look both ways when they’re crossing the street, however you always want to be prepared,” he said. “Just like any other time, I was prepared and we would have gone and done something if we needed to, but Rich knew we wanted him at Arizona and we’re certainly glad he’s our coach.”
In four seasons, Rodriguez has guided the Wildcats to a 33-20 record that includes a Pac-12 South title in 2014 along with a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Last season, the team battled through injuries and inconsistency to post a 7-win season, though the program set a record with its fourth consecutive bowl game.
In a lot of ways, Rodriguez’s tenure in Tucson has led to the rehabilitation of his image, as many once again see him as one of the country’s elite coaches as they did when he was at West Virginia, and not the disappointment he was during three seasons at Michigan.
Knowing that, as Byrne said, it stands to reason other schools will come calling, though he is not at all surprised Rodriguez turned down a chance to move to the SEC a few months ago.
“The SEC is a great conference, there’s no doubt about it; and no, UofA’s a great place, too, and we’ve invested heavily in our football program,” Byrne said, noting the football program is not what it once was. “We’ve made a lot of progress — winning the Pac-12 South the year before last and going to the Fiesta Bowl and those are steps in the process of being a very strong football program year-in-and-year-out, and we’re making those steps now because of his leadership and what he’s done, and I think the future’s very bright.”
Folks in Tucson would likely agree, though there are some caveats.
As already noted, Rodriguez has had a lot to do with football’s rise, and though on a different level, what Sean Miller has done to return the men’s basketball program to an elite status is something that would not be easily replicated by another coach.
Should either one of those coaches choose to leave, no doubt Arizona would be in a bind to replace them. Yet, the presence of Byrne would ease a lot of the nerves, as he’s proven to be rather deft when it comes to finding quality coaches.
And therein lies the other caveat: how much longer will Byrne be around calling the shots?
Pretty much any time an athletic director job opens up at a big-time school, his name gets mentioned as a possible replacement. Just this month, as news broke that Pat Haden would be stepping down at USC, it was rumored that Byrne would be a potential candidate to replace him.
The 44-year-old has was hired by Arizona in March 2010 and has quickly earned a reputation for being one of the country’s better athletic directors, leading many to believe he could do better than the University of Arizona.
But while some coaches may have specific jobs they would jump at the chance to land, Byrne said there is no potential job that, if available, he would get in line for.
“No, there’s no ‘all bets are off’ type of job,” he said. “It’s going to be six years, next month, since I’ve been named — I think we’ve made a lot of progress, I still think we have a long ways to go — and Dr. Hart, our president, has been great to me. We’ve got a great staff of people; I like our lineup of coaches with almost anybody in the country.
“My goal is I hope I can be remembered, when I’m done at the UofA, in the same light as a Ced Dempsey or something like that. I hope that doesn’t sound selfish, but I think if that can happen we’ve done a lot of really good things at the UofA.”
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