The images of Arizona Wildcats coach Mike Stoops will forever be of him on the sideline, screaming, shaking, stomping, contorted, cursing, out of control.
There really won’t be a whole lot of love lost for Stoops, who was fired Monday midway through his eighth season at Arizona, finishing with a 41-50 record. The timing of the decision might have been shocking, but the decision wasn’t.
The program wasn’t in position to move forward with Stoops at the helm.
Athletic director Greg Byrne knew it. He acted. Why wait?
“I felt we need a fresh start,” he said.
The end was excruciating.
Ten consecutive losses to Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Slow starts in every game. A failure to even compete against elite teams. Special teams play that goes straight to the next Football Follies DVD. The same old sideline tantrums that neither served a positive purpose nor was the reflection of the program that Byrne wanted to send.
Bottom line: Stoops can’t say his firing was undeserved or that he didn’t have enough time.
There should be no tears shed on his behalf — he failed to foster any cuddly good will with the Tucson masses — but neither should there be long lines to shovel extra dirt on his Arizona coaching grave.
Stoops took the Arizona football program from Point A to Point B, and that was no easy haul. Point A was being the laughingstock of college football after the John Mackovic mess; Point B was having a competitive, respectable program that went to three consecutive bowl games.
Getting to the postseason isn’t the same accomplishment it once was thanks to the proliferation of bowl games, but only one other Pac-10 school did that in the past three years — Oregon.
Problem was, Stoops, in the past couple of years, couldn’t get from Point B to Pasadena.
Regardless, Arizona is in a much better place now than when he was hired, and not just because the bar was set as low as an earthworm when he arrived for the 2004 season.
Stoops beat at least one ranked team in each of his first seven seasons. He restarted a dormant NFL pipeline, producing a top 50 draft pick in each of the past five years. The Zona Zoo student section was created and mostly thrived under his watch. Arizona’s best stretch of attendance has come with Stoops as coach, averaging 53,180 per game in the past seven seasons.
There was more to the coach than just the crazy Sideline Stoops.
“He took over a very challenging situation, and I think he got a re-commitment and a dramatic improvement from a football perspective,” Byrne said.
“He made us better from an academic standpoint; our graduation rates have improved. From a social standpoint, anytime you’re dealing with 100 kids, you’re going to have an issue or two, but I have been very pleased with how he’s been there.
“He and I have never butted heads from a compliance or academic standpoint.”
Byrne added: “At the same time, too, if you’re going to keep score you might as well try to win.”
It always comes back to that.
The sideline behavior and everything else didn’t help him, but, hey, if Stoops was sitting at something better than 1-5 after Saturday’s loss at Oregon State, he might be thinking about Tuesday’s practice rather than his next golf game.
With injuries, a front-loaded schedule and a roster that is out of kilter due to recruiting misses and mistakes — just way too young on both lines, for example — this season was set up to become the disaster it is.
Perhaps Arizona can finish out the season with a few wins, but it’s all just a waiting game to see who replaces Stoops. That new coach just might like what he sees beyond the plans for the new football plant in the north end zone of Arizona Stadium.
Arizona is set up nicely at quarterback in 2012 with senior Matt Scott (whose redshirt season is virtually guaranteed now) and junior Tom Savage, a former starter at Rutgers. Freshman running back Ka’Deem Carey has the look of a star. There is plenty of young talent at receiver. Both lines should grow up together. Sophomore cornerback Jonathan McKnight will return in 2012 from an ACL injury. Same for linebacker Jake Fischer.
Not a bad starting point for a new coach.
In the end, this is really Stoops’ legacy. He laid the foundation. He deserves credit for that.
Now, it’s time — it’s the absolute right time — for someone else to finish the job.
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