• This story is courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat.
For a head coach at a new school, it’s hard to just jump head first into a new rivalry.
UA coach Rich Rodriguez wasn’t here to experience the infamous collapse of former kicker Alex Zendejas two years ago, or last year when Arizona spoiled ASU’s chances at winning the Pac-12 South. ASU’s Todd Graham is new to the duel too.
Ironically, this isn’t the first time Graham and Rodriguez have crossed paths though.
The familiarity between the two staffs might not make the game any more meaningful than it already is, however, as both Graham and Rodriguez quickly pointed out.
“Obviously this game is bigger than any individual or any person,” Graham said. “This is what college football is all about to me: these rivalries. It’s big enough in itself.”
The coaches might not admit it, but the existing relationship between the two adds a nice element to the rivalry and a crash course for Rodriguez and Graham.
Back in 2001, when Rodriguez first took over as head coach at West Virginia, he hired Graham as his linebackers coach. Graham was then promoted to defensive co-coordinator the next year before bolting to greener pastures in Tulsa, Okla. Graham was first the defensive coordinator for the Golden Hurricane before eventually becoming the head coach in 2007 — with a brief stint as Rice University’s head coach in between.
Morgantown, W. Va., wasn’t where Rodriguez and Graham first met on the football field, though. That was in 1993.
In those days, Rodriguez, the head coach at Glenville State, lost 49-35 to the East Central and its defensive coordinator Graham in the NAIA National Championship. Even with the loss, Rodriguez was the NAIA National Coach of the Year that season, and his success with the Pioneers eventually led to his job at West Virginia, where he hired Graham.
Friday will mark the first time the two have met on the gridiron since their West Virginia days together.
Rodriguez has stressed that the game is about the players and winning another football game, not the coaches.
“If they change the rules and me and Todd can go at it one-on-one maybe [it’ll be personal],” Rogriguez joked. “I’ll try to be ready for that, but that’s not gonna happen. I’m not playing … our coaches aren’t playing, it’s all the players.”
One thing the work history will bring to the table is a familiarity in philosophy and style. And with how close Arizona (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) and ASU (6-5, 4-4) are in the conference, any little advantage could help.
No matter what the two say, though, the water isn’t completely clear of blood.
When Rodriguez decided to come to Arizona, three of the coaches working for Graham in his one season as head coach at Pittsburgh last year — co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, receivers coach Tony Dews and safeties coach Tony Gibson — left to join Rodriguez in Tucson.
According to Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Graham referred to Magee, Gibson and Dews as “nothing but mercenaries” at the time.
Graham later said that the comments were taken out of context, but either way it adds an extra layer of intrigue to a rivalry that really doesn’t need much more.
“From a preparation standpoint,” Rodriguez said, “I think that helps them know us a little bit and us know them a little bit. But other than that we’re competing now, I’m not calling them up and trading bedtime stories.”