•This story is courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat.
After the Wildcats’ 41-34 loss to Arizona State, the mood in the press conference room was dreary and dismayed at best.
The players and head coach Rich Rodriguez were visibly upset and rightfully so — Arizona blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead at home to its hated rival on senior night.
The normally open and talkative Rodriguez gave uncharacteristically short answers at times.
“We just didn’t get open and weren’t executing,” Rodriguez said. But when the coach was asked what was most disappointed about the game, the true emotions were released
Rodriguez emitted an audible “Wow” and then quickly said “We lost.”
After losing to the rival Sun Devils, it’s hard for the city of Tucson to shake this feeling. The idea of a rivalry game defining a whole season has been written ]and talked about so much — it shouldn’t be the case, but in the wake of the aftermath it’s hard to move past the painful loss.
But after being coaxed to expand on his answer, Rodriguez did. “I’m disappointed that we lost, I’m not discouraged by our kids; I love our kids. I’m really proud of our seniors. I’m disappointed that we lost and so are our kids.”
With a bowl game at least three weeks away, it’s not an easy loss for the players to forget. The normal 24-hours rule is tough to implement when there’s no defined team to look forward to, no specific style to prepare for. A loss to Arizona State always lingers longer for Wildcat fans and players, but like Rodriguez’s answer, there’s a silver lining.
The game might have ended the chance for a fairy tale season — a new face heroically riding into town, turning everything around and defeating the evil demons from up north. But in reality the loss to the Sun Devils was just one of twelve (thirteen after the Bowl Game) and this season was anything but disappointing.
Arizona went 4-8 last season, with two of the four wins coming against non-major conference teams. After the year the Wildcats lost three players to the NFL, including the Philadelphia Eagles’ new starting quarterback Nick Foles, and a huge transfer player in Brian Wagner decided to retire because he lost his love for football.
With how shallow and unproven the roster was, it looked like the Wildcats had enough talent to match last year’s win total and maybe surpass it barely if quarterback Matt Scott developed into a solid starter. Instead the Wildcats secured a winning season and were ranked during three separate occasions despite playing one of the hardest schedules in the nation.
The Arizona stands at 7-5 and if it wins its bowl game, the team will have improved its win total by four games, a feat only matched or beaten twice in the school’s Pac-10/Pac-12 existence. Former head coach Dick Tomey improved his team by five wins with the magical 1998 Desert Swarm team and earlier by four in 1993 when Arizona tied for the conference title and beat Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.
To even be in the same breath with easily the two best seasons in Arizona’s history is quite an accomplishment for a first year head coach.
Since World War II only two of Arizona’s 14 different coaches has ever increased his team’s win total by more than even a game in his first season — Jim Young in 1973 (he improved by four wins in the Western Athletic Conference) and now Rodriguez. It’s not like Rodriguez has a track record for early starts either.
In his debut seasons at West Virginia and Michigan, Rodriguez won just three games apiece. This Arizona squad may have proven to have several uncovered gems that helped ease the transition, but Rodriguez managed to keep this team on track even after two humbling road losses at Oregon and UCLA.
“Our team has heart,” running back Daniel Jenkins said. “We never quit, we never give up. I think coach Rod did an excellent job coming in here as a first year coach and instilling that in us.”
If the Wildcats end up losing their bowl game, the season can’t be viewed with unbridled optimism and praise — Arizona finished in the bottom half of the Pac-12, lost its rivalry game at home to a slight underdog and was handed those two high-profile blowouts.
But even with the bowl loss, when you considering the hand this team was given, Rodriguez’s first season as coach was a success. If they win? This will be Arizona’s best season since 1998.
Not too shabby for a first year in charge.