The Arizona Wildcats had become a reflection of their head coach. All wound up. Tense. Twitchy. Tight.
Mike Stoops’ sideline behavior provided an interesting debate for more than seven seasons — passionate or emotionally wasteful? — and it appeared that, at least lately, the critics had it right. Stoops’ explosions had become counter-productive.
Instead of inspiring, Stoops more created an element of fear.
“I think we played to not make a mistake sometimes, and that’s not really the right way to play the game,” said interim head coach Tim Kish.
“Hopefully, we have made a few corrections that way and allowed ourselves to be freed up mentally, as well as physically and emotionally. I anticipate that being a good thing for us moving forward.”
Arizona (1-5 overall, 0-4 Pac-12) will try to move forward tonight against UCLA (3-3, 2-1) on a Thursday night game on ESPN beginning at 6 p.m.
The Wildcats are desperate for a fast start. They have been outscored 41-3 in the first quarter of the past five games, all losses. They have trailed by double-digits in the first quarter of four of those games. In the one game that was an exception — Oregon State — the Cats then gave up 27 second-quarter points.
Stoops, often asked about those slow starts, never seemed to have an answer, never seemed to make an adjustment.
Kish has tried to lighten the mood by making changes at practice and introducing more competitive situations, as opposed to just drill work. He was brought in others to speak to the team, such as men’s basketball coach Sean Miller. He had the coaches wear funny hats during Tuesday’s practice.
One thing often mentioned since Stoops’ firing on Oct. 10 is that everyone wants the team to have an element of fun in the second half of the season.
A fun team doesn’t necessarily equal a good team, but a fun team equals a not-tight team, which might equal a team that plays like it has nothing to lose from the opening kickoff.
“I anticipate us coming out and playing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” Kish said. “I think it’s good we get an opportunity to start at home with the transition.”
It’s also probably good that the opponent is UCLA, which is one team Arizona has had little trouble with in recent seasons.
The Wildcats have won four in a row against the Bruins. Arizona has not allowed UCLA to gain more than 300 yards in any of the past five meetings.
Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel said he figures his team will be going into a “hornets’ nest” tonight because of the coaching change.
“They’ll feel like this is kind of a fresh start,” Neuheisel said.
If all goes well for Arizona, that is exactly how they will take it.
Kish is expected to make some schematic tweaks, but he is keeping any of those potential course corrections close to the vest. That adds to the air of mystery about this matchup.
Kish knows he isn’t going to be the full-time head coach here. It’s not correct to say he has nothing to lose — everyone is still keeping score, after all. But there is a certain freedom in knowing that any changes he makes or chances he takes can mostly be done without a thought of how it will reflect on his future at Arizona.
“This is not an audition for Tim Kish to be the head coach at the University of Arizona,” he said. “This is for Tim Kish to help lead this team in a positive manner.”
And he’s not above asking for a little help.
“The only thing I can say to this community and this university is that if there is ever a time when this team really needs their support, it’s now,” he said.