LAS VEGAS – Mike Stoops’ plans for the day after Arizona’s bowl victory? Let’s just say that he who wins in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Stoops earned a couple of extra days of R and R, which seems fitting because R and R is what he has brought back to UA’s football program – respect and relevance.
After accepting the Las Vegas Bowl trophy following a 31-21 victory over BYU on Saturday night, he took the microphone and told the red-and-blue throng that stormed the field:
“This win is for everyone here tonight, and everyone back in Tucson!”
It’s also for the seniors. For the coaching staff. For anybody who suffered at all through nine consecutive seasons of non-winning football.
Mostly, though, it’s for Stoops.
There have been false starts and false hopes in his five seasons at Arizona, but this much we declare true: The rebuilding is over.
This is where we would, if we could, add the sound effect of a striking gavel.
“What this means is that Mike and this staff and this team know what they’re doing,” said athletic director Jim Livengood. “Anybody who doesn’t think this program is headed in the right direction doesn’t understand the game of football.
“It’s not about vindication. It’s not about anything other than we are where we are right now – and it’s pretty doggone special. And it’s only going to get better because the foundation has been laid right.”
Stoops has done it. He’s taken a program tied to the train tracks by dastardly former coach John Mackovic and whisked it to safety just in the nick of time.
It took longer than he originally thought, than some people would have liked, but so be it.
What Stoops and the Wildcats did by winning their happy-happy trophy games at the end of the season – ASU and the bowl – is close a chapter.
It can no longer be asked if Stoops is the right man to rebuild Arizona.
The question now changes: Is he the right man to build on his rebuilding?
He’ll get that chance. Livengood said an extension of Stoops’ contract, which runs through the 2010 season, is a “no-brainer.” Livengood hinted that details would come sooner rather than later.
Just a few days ago, rumors swirled that Iowa State was interested in hiring Stoops, which, if nothing else, gave the coach leverage to get a better deal at Arizona.
Iowa State ended up hiring someone else Saturday morning, but Stoops didn’t need that leverage at all. All he needed was to beat 17th-ranked BYU, which gave Arizona a victory over a Top 20 team in each of Stoops’ five seasons.
“I am really happy coach Stoops is staying,” said junior safety Cam Nelson.
“We heard a lot of rumors that coach Stoops was leaving. A lot of guys were worried. When we saw it pop up on ESPN, we were so glad that we got our coach back. He has worked so hard . . .
“Hopefully, we can do something bigger and better next year.”
The schedule is more difficult next season – including a non-conference game at Iowa and five conference road trips. Replacing a veteran quarterback is also a dicey issue.
But the Wildcats have as much depth and talent as they have had in a decade, and Stoops is riding a hot streak of good moves.
He hired offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes two years ago and upgraded the offense. He took advantage of an opportunity last offseason to hire his first true-blue Wildcat – assistant coach Jeff Hammerschmidt.
He took the team for the first time to Fort Huachuca for part of fall camp, an exercise in team bonding that seemed to help the Wildcats navigate the season and finally finish like a champ. Hooah.
He has, especially last week when he teared up publicly on more than one occasion when talking about his senior class, showed a depth of emotion that hasn’t always been readily apparent.
“He cares for the kids like you wouldn’t believe, like they are his own,” said Hammerschmidt, who has ties to former UA coaches Larry Smith and Dick Tomey.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘How is he to work with?’ I wouldn’t like working with anybody else. He’s that type of person. . . . When it comes down to it, those kids love him and he loves those kids.
“They’re busting their butts. It’s awesome to be around.”
Awesome was a popular word Saturday night because it simply can’t be overstated what the Las Vegas Bowl victory meant.
The difference between being 8-5 and 7-6 rivals the span of the Grand Canyon.
One record brings an offseason of happiness, contract extensions, raises, pats on the back and high hopes for 2009.
The other would have brought discontent and the familiar doubts about Stoops being capable of leading the Wildcats into the light.
“Until you do it, people are always going to question you, and rightly so,” he said.
There aren’t those questions now. Just congratulations.