October 10, 2011
Arizona is 1-5, in last place in the Pac-12 South and as of tonight, it's without a head coach: After seven-and-a-half years, Mike Stoops has been officially fired, per a university release. He'll be replaced on an interim basis by defensive coordinator Tim Kish, and whatever sense of shame comes with exiling the man who led you out of the wilderness right back into it.
The negativity in Tucson — or, worse, the apathy — is no surprise: The Wildcats closed 2010 on a five-game losing streak, and have currently dropped five straight after an opening-day gimme against Northern Arizona, extending their losing streak against I-A/FBS opponents to ten games. That's bad, and the attendance at Arizona Stadium is beginning to look even worse. But in the short term, it's also more or less exactly what everyone expected: With a dozen new starters, an entirely new offensive line, a rash of preseason injuries and the most brutal early schedule in the country, they may as well have painted "REBUILDING YEAR, OK?" in the end zones.
Take the the current five-game losing streak. The first three of those losses came against teams currently ranked in the top ten (Oklahoma State, Oregon and Stanford) with a combined record of 14-1. The fourth was a seven-point road loss to the most talented team in the league, USC, which currently sits at 4-1. Literally everyone in America who follows college football expected this particular edition of Arizona to lose those four games.
Saturday's 37-27 flop at previously winless Oregon State was not so foregone. The Beavers came into the game riding a six-game skid of their own that included September losses to Sacramento State and UCLA, and had Arizona in a 30-6 hole in the third quarter before a late Wildcat rally made the final score somewhat presentable. That's a bad loss for Arizona, and a bad sign for the prospects of the team to pull a one-eighty when the schedule lightens a bit over the second half of the season. There is no conclusion to reach that doesn't end with the fact that Arizona, in October of 2011, is a bad football team.
But regardless of the current record, there's also no denying it's a dramatically better football program than the one Stoops inherited in 2004 on the heels of four consecutive losing seasons, the last two of which featured a) a player mutiny against head coach John Mackovic in 2002 and b) Mackovic's termination after a 1-4 start in 2003. That team finished 2-10. Stoops' first two teams in 2004 and 2005 both finished 3-8.
From there, the Wildcats demonstrably improved four years in a row, falling just short of bowl bids in 2006 and 2007 before breaking through with back-to-back eight-win seasons in 2008-09. In '09, they were in the thick of the Rose Bowl race in late November; last year, they spent eleven weeks in the top 25, climbing as high as No. 9 and holding in the top 20 through Thanksgiving. They won eight games against ranked opponents in six years. They went to three consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1992-94.
Then they didn't even let him stick around long enough to see the streak end. The Wildcats have six games left after a bye week, all of them potentially winnable with the meat of the conference schedule in the rear-view, and a chance to build toward a solid rebound with a more veteran lineup returning in 2012. The foundation for a consistent winner is still in place; the coach who laid it is not.
Maybe the low expectations of a "rebuilding year" are part of the problem in and of themselves — after eight years, who's still "building" on such a scale that justifies a regression below .500? The sense of stagnation is very real. Maybe new athletic director Greg Byrne took a look at the ashes-to-glory trajectory at Stanford over the last five years and thought, "Why not us?" Maybe he's got the next Jim Harbaugh lined up to take the reins in 2012, and all of Stoops' defenders are going to look like shortsighted sentimentalists in three or four years. Then again, maybe he has the next Walt Harris, or Tyrone Willingham, or John Mackovic, and Wildcat fans will be reminded in short order just why they were so patient with Stoops in the first place.
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