This may wind up being the most unique spring practice in Arizona history. For the third time in my career covering Wildcat football I have covered a spring after a coaching search and this one is fairly unique. Rich Rodriguez is not just getting ready for next season, but he’s transforming a program.
There were radical transformations when John Mackovic replaced Dick Tomey and then later when Mike Stoops replaced Mackovic. The coaches took time in the spring to put their own stamp on the programs, but spent most of it implementing schemes and evaluating talent. Although Stoops tried to create a positive culture change, it is nothing compared to what Rich Rodriguez is attempting.
Like Stoops, RichRod is making changes based in schemes, intensity and a new conditioning program, but he is also playing mental games to change the culture. He is not trying to slowly move the program in his image, he is trying to break the mold and drastically change things.
Rodriguez is using every avenue at his disposal. Like Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller, he is subtly, and not so subtly, using the media to get his message out. Whether it was the preseason comments about the Wildcats lack of strength, or more recent comments about how the team cannot go full speed due to a lack of overall conditioning. Past coaches worried about public perception and ticket sales would not have aired their dirty laundry. Rodriguez is not worried about that. He wants his players to know what they have been doing is not good enough. My guess is the strength and conditioning issues are not as bad as RichRod makes them out to be, but he wants the players and the public to know that things have to get better. The commitment level needs to be amped up.
“If they have not lifted or worked or trained a lot since November, they’re not treating themselves like an elite athlete,” Rodriguez said prior to the spring. “I believe if you are a division one college athlete, in any sport, I think you should be considered and treating yourself as an elite athlete. This is a high level in every sport, so elite athletes never take two months off from training or two weeks off from training.”
This was the first case of Rodriguez raising the bar and some of the players instantly responded. Several players cancelled spring break plans to remain in Tucson to train. Others adjusted plans to make sure they got workouts in around or during their breaks.
The fact that Rodriguez is calling his players “elite athletes” and expecting them to behave, train and perform like that shows a new level of expectations.
Stoops completely changed the culture from what Mackovic did, but Rodriguez is trying to take it to another level.
He has not just used the media to make his points, but has implemented things during practice. He jumped all over players in the first practice that did not move fast enough on and off the field or from station to station.
He installed a stoplight to let the players know at what pace they should be practicing. When the green light is lit, they should be at full speed…and the green light is lit a lot.
On Monday he cancelled on-field practice and instead had the team concentrate on film study from that weekend’s scrimmage. I can’t imagine Stoops or Mackovic giving up on-field practice time to watch film of a scrimmage, but Rodriguez obviously felt more could be learned by watching the tape. He seems less focused on today and tomorrow, than he is the long term changes he needs to make to the culture of the program. So if that means, two hours less on the field and two hours more in the film room, so be it.
By all accounts it was a humbling viewing for many players.
“It humbles some people,” said receiver Dan Buckner in an interview with TucsonCitizen.com’s Anthony Gimino. “You’re going to be put on the spot in front of all your team. You don’t want to let your team down. It’s not to embarrass you. It’s not personal. He called me out. He called a lot of players out.”
You get the feeling that Rodriguez hopes the desire to not be “called out” leads to better efforts, better performances.
“I think we all came out and worked harder today,” Buckner said after Wednesday’s practice. “Me personally, I didn’t want to put the film on and let my teammates down, let my coaches down. What you put on the field, that’s your resume.”
His most recent addition is the blue line. Rodriguez had a blue arc painted in front of the entrance of the practice field. Rodriguez wants the line to be the place where, for a few hours, players put school, family and personal issues to the back burner and focus on football.
“Once they cross the blue line, academics, personal issues and everything else has to go in the background and it’s all football,” Rodriguez told the media before Wednesday’s practice. “And when they cross back over, I hope they still think about football a little bit, but then their focus can go to other things as well.”
It’s again another ploy to shake things up. Rodriguez obviously felt the things he had been doing and saying were not enough, so a not-so-subtle reminder was painted on the grass.
With two weeks left of spring practice, you can bet Rodriguez is not done. You can also bet there have been other tactics have been used behind the scenes.
Rodriguez is, of course, building towards the season opener, but he is also building for the future. He is using spring to install an offense and defense, but to also see who is committed for the long term. He is seeing who will buy in and be ready to do it his way, not just next season, but the next few seasons.
Rodriguez does not want to coach a .500 program. He is not interested in a string of Las Vegas Bowls, he has his sights set on bigger and better things and that means changing things right now. He does not want to make small changes over the next few years, he wants to change things right now and will do what he needs to do to make those changes.