Prominent financial boosters say they will back Arizona football coach Mike Stoops even if the Wildcats lose to rival Arizona State on Saturday.
“If we get rid of Mike, I will withdraw a lot of my support,” said Phoenix-area attorney Augustine Jimenez, for whom the UA practice field is named. “I will continue what I have made commitments for. I won’t back out from them, but I will be on the outside for a while after that. It would be a big mistake to get rid of him.”
A defeat would make Arizona 6-6 and give Stoops his fifth straight nonwinning regular season, although the Wildcats have qualified for their first bowl game since 1998.
Since UA’s last-second 19-17 loss to Oregon State on Nov. 22, fans’ speculation on Stoops’ future has increased through talk radio and Internet and newspaper message boards. Stoops, who turns 47 this month, has two years left on his contract.
UA athletic director Jim Livengood and president Robert Shelton have shown public support for Stoops.
“If we don’t (beat ASU), I will get a whole lot of e-mails that night and the next day,” Shelton said. “I will sit down with Jim and say, ‘OK, how have we done,’ look at the whole season and try to put it in context and understand where the shortcomings are and how we can help the people running the program fix them.
“You can say you always need a win every week, but you can say it against ASU even more.”
Arizona has lost three straight games to ASU, but boosters praise Stoops because of the bowl berth, improved recruiting classes, academic progress and increased home attendance.
“Those who are yapping don’t know how to be successful,” said local financial consultant Dean Greenberg, a UA booster. “What Mike Stoops has done is build a program and not a winning season (yet). You build that with cement and not a house of cards.”
Car dealer Jim Click visited practice on Monday, taking long snaps with players and having a friendly talk with Stoops. Click has been one of the coach’s most vocal supporters since UA hired the former Oklahoma defensive coordinator.
Stoops heads into the 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday against Arizona State with a 23-34 record since taking over in 2004 – a year after UA suffered its lowest win total (2-10) in 46 years.
“We had the worst program in college football five years ago. The worst,” said Greenberg, a frequent visitor on the UA sideline. “Fans definitely have a right to say what they want if they are frustrated. When it comes down to firing, that’s when I have to put my foot down.
“You have to look at the big picture. How long does it take to build a successful business? Five years. If you make it through five years you can be successful. Why is it any different for the building of a football program?”
Livengood gave Stoops a vote of confidence at least three times publicly over the last week.
“I have said that every way I think humanly possible,” Livengood said.
Shelton said he is “backing” Livengood on this. He has said the appropriate things that he supports Stoops and that Stoops has brought the program a long way.
“I was not here when (Stoops) came, but there was a long way to come,” Shelton said. “I’m very much in mind with what Livengood is saying. Would I like to be 9-3 at the end of the season? Sure. We could have been. Next year will come.”
Stoops has gone 3-8, 3-8, 6-6, 5-7 and is currently 6-5. The Wildcats know they will play in the Las Vegas, Emerald or Hawaii bowls following Saturday’s game.
It will be the first postseason game since Dick Tomey led UA to a 23-20 win over Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. The Wildcats have been in flux since John Mackovic replaced Tomey after a 5-6 record in 2000.
Mackovic went 10-18 before being fired five games into the 2003 season after player unrest during his tenure. A group of nearly 40 players met with then-UA president Peter Likins in 2002 to voice their complaints.
Arizona had a 4-20 Pac-10 record from 2001-03, a .167 winning percentage.
The Wildcats are 16-26 (.381) in league play under Stoops, but that includes upset wins over then-top 10 ranked UCLA (2005), California (2006) and Oregon (2007).
“We’re so close that I can taste it,” said former Wildcat player Donnie Salum, who said he donated more than $600,000 for weight room equipment to UA several years ago. “It’s frustrating that we’re not 9-3, but we have lost five games by 28 points. . . . We are going toe to toe with the best teams we’re playing.”
Salum and other boosters use the word progress. They cite:
• A possibility of UA’s first winning record in 10 years. The Cats could finish as high as 8-5 with a bowl victory.
• Improved recruiting classes, with a pair of top-25 classes under Stoops. “Just look at the caliber of athletes we are getting since Stoops has been here,” Salum said. “It’s night and day.”
• The increase of team grade-point averages, after the program was docked six scholarships with the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report. The Wildcats still ranked the worst in the Pac-10 in the APR but were not penalized this season.
• Arizona’s home attendance, which has soared since Stoops’ arrival. The Wildcats expect to draw almost 364,000 fans this year, the third-highest total in history. UA has had four of the top seven all-time home attendance figures in Stoops’ tenure.
“Mike is trying to create this masterpiece,” Jimenez said. “Look at the players we have now, see the depth of the players we have and the depth of the coaching staff. They’ve evolved and are getting a lot better.
“Are they where we want them to be, or where they want to be? Not yet, but they are getting there. It has been an uphill battle from day one, and some people seem to forget that. We have to support Mike and his staff.”
Stoops, who makes $650,000 per year plus incentives, would have to be bought out for approximately $800,000.
Costs in this economically challenged time are a concern, especially with UA likely to pay a hefty amount to lure a new head basketball coach to replace the retired Lute Olson.
“You would have to pay (Stoops) out,” Greenberg said. “And then you aren’t going to get a $2 million (football) coach here. Mike is doing what it takes to be successful.
“Look at the recruiting. When they were down and out, they were able to get Antoine Cason to come here and they turned him into a Jim Thorpe Award winner. Look at what they can do with talent around them now.”
What would it take to put Stoops on the proverbial hot seat?
“If we were going backwards, then maybe you could look at it, but we are not,” Jimenez said.
ASU (5-6, 4-4) at UA (6-5, 4-4)
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Arizona Stadium
TV: ESPN and FSNA
Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM
Line: UA by 10.5