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Rich Rodriguez: Five burning questions

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Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez coaches in his final game at Michigan -- the 2011 Gator Bowl, a 52-14 loss to Mississippi State. Photo by Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

And away we go …

Is Rich Rodriguez a good hire for Arizona?

The Wildcats just hired a man who couldn’t win at Michigan, going 15-22 in three seasons. The last coach to leave Michigan with a losing record did so in 1891. Yes, 1891.

Losing at Michigan is hard to do, but RichRod did it. So, that’s not good.

But here is what I have always thought about Rich Rodriguez at Michigan: “Wrong man, wrong time” and not “bad coach.”

This is the ultimate “buy low” opportunity for Arizona. If the Wildcats had to make this hire four, five years ago, Rodriguez wouldn’t have paused to return a text message from Arizona. This is a guy who turned down Ala-freakin-bama after the 2006 regular season.

Then came a messy departure from West Virginia (allegations that Rodriguez shredded personnel files and other documents on his way out, and a lawsuit over the $4 million buyout in his contract) and the washout with the Wolverines (which included NCAA violations regarding limitations on practice time and off-field activities).

Those are not small marks against his record, but they did make him available to a school like Arizona, which otherwise wouldn’t be in a position to hire a guy who won four Big East titles in seven years. He was one victory away from having the Mountaineers in the BCS national championship game before a devastating 13-9 loss to Pitt at the end of the 2007 regular season.

If he’s that coach — the one who went 32-5 in his last three seasons at West Virginia — then Arizona got itself a bargain.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that Rodriguez was athletic director Greg Byrne’s first choice. I believe recent negotiations with former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti were serious before cooling on one side or another, possibly both.

Not that it matters now. Rodriguez is the guy. Let’s judge him on what he does here. Plenty of excellent coaches weren’t the No. 1 choice at their school.

I have little doubt that Rodriguez, the 48-year-old son of a coal miner, will “win the press conference” Tuesday afternoon and charm fans and boosters in the offseason with his folksy personality.

Good hire? Time will tell — how’s that for a cop out? — but it’s a swing-for-the-fences hire, which is what we expected from Byrne.

What becomes of the offense?

Rodriguez is a pioneer of the read-option offense, the kind that Oregon uses to run over most Pac-12 defenses. Arizona fans have gotten used to a passing spread offense; this will be a running spread offense.

UA is passing in historic numbers this season, averaging 48 attempts and 370.5 yards per game. Senior quarterback Nick Foles is setting all kinds of season and career records, and they might stand for a while.

West Virginia, in Rodriguez’s final season in 2007, averaged 20.4 passes per game. The Mountaineers attempted 17.9 passes a year earlier and just 16.1 the season before that.

Hey, whatever works; West Virginia averaged 36.9 points in those three seasons.

This all sounds like a good fit for athletic quarterback Matt Scott, a senior-to-be who can handle the run game. This is bad news for Rutgers transfer Tom Savage, who is a pocket passer. He has two seasons of eligibility left but just spent his redshirt season on this year’s transfer to Arizona.

What about recruiting?

Rodriguez isn’t from the West and hasn’t really recruited hot-bed California (didn’t we hear the same complaints about basketball coach Sean Miller?). It’s a resume deficit that can be overcome with the right assistant coaches and a little bit of time.

He’ll have ample time to keep together and/or add to Arizona’s current recruiting class. The Wildcats had two players de-commit after the midseason firing of coach Mike Stoops; 16 committed recruits have been playing the waiting game to see which coach landed in Tucson.

After Rodriguez was hired at Michigan, he made headlines (and enemies) around the Big Ten when he swooped in at the last moment to grab three players who had been committed elsewhere — two to Penn State and one to Purdue.

Then-Purdue coach Joe Tiller called Rodriguez “a guy in a wizard hat selling snake oil.”

Will any of the current assistants be retained?

At Michigan, Rodriguez retained only one Wolverine assistant, importing most of his staff from West Virginia. It is expected that he will bring in a mix of his assistants from Michigan and West Virginia.

An exception could be quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo, who was on the same staff as Rodriguez at Tulane in 1997 and 1998, working for head coach Tommy Bowden. The Green Wave went 12-0 in 1998, and quarterback Shaun King led the nation in passing efficiency.

Considering how Scelfo did wonders last season with Matt Scott’s throwing mechanics, the coach could be a valuable guy to have around in 2012.

Arizona sports information director Tom Duddleston tweeted that Rodriguez, who arrived in Tucson late Monday night, said he hoped to quickly hire two or three assistants.

What does Rodriguez do about the defense?

His preferred style of play is a 3-3-5 defense that worked well at West Virginia but flopped at Michigan without the right coordinator. Look for him to try to pry his old Mountaineers’ defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel, out of Morgantown, something he couldn’t do when he left for Ann Arbor.

RichRod’s Michigan defenses got progressively worse, from 67th nationally to 82nd to 110th in 2009.

Arizona, with ample young defensive backs, has the personnel to make the 3-3-5 work — and the Cats just played with a three-man front last week against Arizona State.

The defensive coordinator will be Rodriguez’s most important hire.

Related stories:

Rich Rodriguez reaction: ‘He will love it’ in Tucson

Greg Byrne tweets: Rich Rodriguez is Arizona’s new coach

Video: Rodriguez on the theory of the pregame speech

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