Former Arizona Wildcats football coach Mike Stoops says he feels like he is on a bye week. Nothing important to do on Saturdays. He is adjusting, he says, to being “unaffiliated.”
Reached by phone late Saturday afternoon, Stoops said he planned on following his old team on TV against Washington that night, even though doing so might be bittersweet.
“My heart,” he said, “is still with these players.”
Athletic director Greg Byrne fired Stoops on Oct. 10 after the team’s 1-5 start and a 10-game losing streak against FBS competition. “He handled himself with class and dignity,” Byrne said at the time.
Three weeks removed from the firing, Stoops stayed classy publicly when asked about the timing and, perhaps, surprising nature, of the firing.
“I just felt like Greg was trying to do what was best for the program,” Stoops said.
“That’s what we all try to do. Every decision I had to make was what was best for our program. In his heart, I believe, he did what he thought was best for the program.”
Stoops was 41-50 in 7 1/2 seasons, taking Arizona to bowl games in each of the past three seasons. He took over a program that had hit bottom after three years under John Mackovic.
Based on how many times he said “our program” and “our kids” in a 10-minute interview, Stoops still feels connected and invested in Arizona.
What is he most proud of?
“Restoring credibility to our program,” he said.
“I think the most important thing to me is Arizona being relevant again. That is the one thing I am most proud of. And just the way our kids competed, day in and day out for an extended period of time, on and off the field. They have done some extraordinary things.
“Our kids competed well in all areas and had discipline toward doing the right thing. That is something we had to change as a culture within our program.”
Stoops visited his brother Bob, the head coach at Oklahoma, when the Sooners lost at home to Texas Tech on Oct. 22. Mike Stoops says he likely will visit other coaches and programs as the regular season winds down.
Stoops, 49, says his next likely coaching step will be as a college defensive coordinator, which could then lead back into a head coaching position.
“My passion is coaching defense,” he said.
“That is where my heart has been. As a head coach, it’s hard to be everything to everybody. I have certainly enjoyed coaching defense and the intimacy you have with a group of guys that you don’t really have as a head coach.”
Regrets at Arizona?
“I don’t really look at it that way,” Stoops said.
“We laid a great foundation and developed excitement in a program that people bought into and continue to believe in. Winning a championship, I think it can be done. We came close (in 2009).
“Whoever comes in will have an opportunity to build on some of our recent success. I think we’re closer than we are further away.”
Stoops attended the Salpointe Catholic at Ironwood Ridge high school football game in Oro Valley on Friday night.
“It’s kind of odd,” he said about being around town.
“People don’t really know what to say to you. It’s been very positive toward our program and what the players did, for the majority. You’re going to have detractors. I understand that. We’re not perfect. I certainly wasn’t perfect in any way.”
Stoops, however, did not offer specifics as to what he would have done differently at Arizona.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “There were some tough losses in there. Wish I could change history a little bit. Hopefully, I can become smarter through this experience and use it to become better.”
Free of what he calls the “24-hour stress of coaching,” Stoops said he is trying to relax and is enjoying spending more time with his two children. Stoops received about a $1.4 million buyout for his contract, which ran through the 2013 season.
“I gave it everything I had,” he said.
“I know in my heart what I tried to do here and how much it took out of me. It’s not an easy job. … I thought our kids did a great job in a sometimes difficult time. They did it. We just tried to help them.”