June 4, 2009

Stoops has Arizona moving in right direction

The sign sits on the desk of Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood, the words figuratively screaming at him.

"What have I done today to get us to the Rose Bowl?"

"I have to ask that question each day," says Livengood, who has been athletic director at Arizona since 1994. "You don't need to remind me that we are the only Pac-10 school never to have gone to the Rose Bowl. We will get there one day."

Last season went a long way toward telling Livengood that Mike Stoops looks to be the right coach to help the program continue on its way to Pasadena. Last season, the Wildcats went to their first bowl since 1998, finishing 8-5 after a victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The only "Big Six" schools with longer bowl droughts entering last season were Vanderbilt (1982), Duke (1994) and Baylor (1994); Vandy also went bowling last season.

"That was big," Stoops says. "We needed that. Now we have to back that up with another strong season to give us more credibility."

Another bowl trip would be further proof that Stoops who signed a contract extension through 2013 in December has gotten the Wildcats over the hump.

"Now we know what it's like to go to a bowl," Arizona defensive end Brooks Reed says. "We need to continue that momentum. We had a very strong spring but need to focus on finishing games in the fall. That has been a problem."

A 19-17 home loss to Oregon State last season was especially galling. The Beavers took over on their 20 with 1:19 left and no timeouts, then moved 73 yards to enable Justin Kahut to kick a 24-yard field goal on the final play of the game.

"That's what I'm talking about," Reed says.

But Arizona didn't let that loss ruin the season, and some of that can be attributed to Stoops, 47, who's continuing to evolve as a coach. One of the biggest adjustments has been a toned-down sideline demeanor. Stoops still remains a passionate coach, but he knows he sets a better tone and example if he remains calm rather than go ballistic.

And the winner is
The biggest question that must be answered if Arizona hopes to advance to a second consecutive bowl is who will take over at quarterback for record-setter Willie Tuitama.

Sophomores Matt Scott and Nick Foles are battling to run the Wildcats' spread attack. Scott, who saw limited action as Tuitama's backup last season, is more of a runner. Foles, a transfer from Michigan State, is considered the better passer.

Whoever emerges will have some skill-position talent to work with, most notably tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Nicolas Grigsby and a strong group of wide receivers.
"I think I have matured as a coach," says Stoops, whose biggest gaffe may have been an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he drew in a 29-27 home loss to New Mexico in 2007. "It's just a process you go through to find a place of peace."

The best example of the positive impact a cooler and calmer Stoops can have was last season at Oregon. Trailing 48-17 in the third quarter, it's highly unlikely the Wildcats would have rallied to score 28 straight points to stay in the game had Stoops been coaching as if his hair were on fire.

"Mike loved being an assistant coach," Livengood says. "And it took him time to adapt to know the difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach."

Good thing, because there was a growing sense of urgency in Tucson entering last season. In his first four seasons, Stoops was 17-29 overall and 12-22 in the Pac-10. He had teased the fan base with some big victories, dumping No. 7 UCLA in 2005, No. 8 California in 2006 and No. 2 Oregon in 2007. The Wildcats also played USC close on several occasions.

But the Wildcats were just as quick to disappoint, having lost maddening games to the likes of New Mexico, Stanford and Washington at home. Stoops' best effort was a 6-6 record in 2006, which was Arizona's first non-losing season since Dick Tomey coached the program to a 12-1 record in 1998.

Arizona president Robert Shelton reportedly emphasized to Stoops before last season that it was bowl or bust, though Livengood downplays that.

"Go back and check to see what I said [before last season]," says Livengood, who has had to deal with a major transition in the basketball program with the departure of legendary coach Lute Olson, "You'll see that I believed in what we were doing under Stoops. It may not have been happening as fast as we would have liked, but I felt we were making progress."

If there was a win-or-else ultimatum, Stoops rendered it moot.

"If I had to pick a high point in my tenure, last year obviously would be it," Stoops says. "And the win over Arizona State [in 2004] also was a big point in my career, too."

Pulling rank
Mike Stoops has five victories over ranked teams in his five years on the job. Before his arrival in 2004, the Wildcats had lost 18 games in a row against ranked teams dating to a 31-15 win at No. 22 USC in 2000. Here's a look at the five upsets:
Nov. 26, 2004: 34-27 over No. 18 Arizona State
Nov. 5, 2005: 52-14 over No. 7 UCLA
Nov. 11, 2006: 24-20 over No. 8 California
Nov. 15, 2007: 34-24 over No. 2 Oregon
Oct. 18, 2008: 42-27 over No. 25 California
Now comes the difficult part: stringing together success. Arizona hasn't been to bowls in consecutive seasons since 1997-98.

The school's best run of prosperity was from 1992-94, when Arizona posted a composite 24-11-1 record and went to a school-record three consecutive bowls. The highlight was the '93 squad, led by a defense known as "Desert Swarm." That season, the Wildcats went 10-2, tied for the Pac-10 title and thumped Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Tomey was forced out after going 6-6 in 1999 and 5-6 in 2000, just two years removed from that 12-1 record in 1998. Among other things, drab and predictable offenses were Tomey's undoing.

Then came the John Mackovic era, marked by bad football and player unrest before it came to a merciful end five games into the 2003 season. Mackovic went 10-18, and left the program largely devoid of talent and spirit.

Enter Stoops, who was defensive coordinator at Oklahoma for his brother when he was hired.

"When we got here, this program pretty much was rock bottom," Stoops says. "It has taken us time to build up the talent base."

It's too much to ask Arizona to win the Pac-10 this season, but the Wildcats' rise may be coming at the right time. The conference looks to be in a bit of flux. USC still is USC and California remains solid. But UCLA and Washington are in transition, Oregon just changed head coaches and Arizona State looks to be a work in progress.

Feeling left out
Last season, Arizona ended a bowl drought that stretched to 1998. Here is a look at Football Bowl Subdivision programs that haven't gone to a bowl this decade.
School Last bowl season
New Mexico State1960
Kent State1972
Eastern Michigan1987
Utah State1997
San Diego State1998
NOTE: Florida International, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky never have been to a bowl.
"We have a chance," Stoops says. "That's always our goal, to win the league."

Record-setting quarterback Willie Tuitama is gone, but the offense still welcomes back eight starters. Stoops made a good move when he hired Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech to run the offense before the 2007 season. Since Dykes' arrival, the Arizona offense has flourished. Nic Grigsby heads a nice collection of running backs. And the strength of the unit this fall will be the wide receivers, led by Delashaun Dean and Terrell Turner. Dean is from California and Turner from Texas, and that duo is evidence of where Stoops and his staff have gone to increase the talent base.

Defense always has been strong in Tucson under Stoops. Perhaps the biggest offseason move was a non-move by coordinator Mark Stoops, Mike's younger brother. He was wooed by another "Big Six" school for the same job but opted to remain. He'll have plenty to work with, as eight starters return.

The schedule is tough. There are five league road games, and the season begins with a potentially dangerous visit from Central Michigan and its star quarterback, Dan LeFevour. There also is a trip to Iowa, which should be one of the top teams in the Big Ten.

That trip to Iowa Stoops' alma mater begins a three-game road swing that also has stops at Oregon State and Washington. Visits from Stanford, UCLA and Washington State follow. Still, Arizona's ultimate success will be dictated by the final four games, three of them on the road: at Cal, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC.

"We are going to get after it," Reed says. "We have a sign hanging in our locker room that says it all for us: 'Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.'

"That's what Coach Stoops preaches to us. And it has gotten us this far. Now, we want to go another step further."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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