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Oklahoma State football: Wild ride of Rich Rodriguez crosses paths with Cowboys

Rich Rod is working to improve his image and put Arizona Wildcats football on the radar.
by John Helsley Published: September 5, 2012

The home state ties weren't enough to keep Rodriguez from exploring greener grasses elsewhere.

“I know Rich pretty good,” Gundy said. “At the functions we're at, over the last six or seven years, he and I always got along, sat around, had conversations. His wife (Rita) and Kristen have become friends.

“I've never asked him about any of that.”

Rodriguez said he admires what Gundy has done at OSU.

“I think every place and every situation is unique,” he said. “Mike has certainly done a tremendous job there. He's got great support, from both inside the university and outside. I think he's building one of the best programs in America.”

Rodriguez was doing that, too, at West Virginia.

Yet Rodriguez wanted more. Whether it was more commitment from his administration or more of everything that you find at a tradition-rich school like Michigan is hard to know.

“There's always a lot more behind the scenes than maybe people know,” Rodriguez said. “It may not be so much that the other school has so much more, but maybe you get concerned the school that you're at won't keep their commitment or won't be able to do the things you want to do to have success going into the future.

“Every situation is a little unique. As coaches, guys like myself and Mike, who have been around a little bit, we look at things like, ‘OK, what's the possibility that our program can elevate to be the best in the country and stay there?'”

Rodriguez speaks of no regrets, although his departure from West Virginia set off a wild misadventure that has now led him into the desert.

After leaving Morgantown, school officials claimed he either took or shredded files belonging to the football program. They also sued him for the $4 million buyout in his contract signed the year before, eventually settling for $1.5 million.

The Michigan marriage started well, with his arrival hailed as an inspiring hire for a program perceived with a stale offense.

At his initial press conference, Rodriguez spoke of his desire to retire at Michigan and even introduced his 9-year-old son Rhett, saying he'd pledged his verbal commitment to the Wolverines, class of 2017.

Verbal commitments are not binding, which now appears to be a good thing.

Rodriguez's time at Michigan was a mess, from his 15-22 record — including a 3-9 debut that ranks as the worst season in school history — to player defections and claims by some players that he violated NCAA rules by practicing them longer than the allowed 20 hours per week, leading to self-imposed sanctions.

There was even a tearful odd moment during a postseason Michigan football banquet where Rodriguez quoted the emotional Josh Groban song “You Raise Me Up,” and then had it played. He was fired in January 2011.

At Arizona, Rodriguez will have to raise himself up.

The Wildcats have no history of sustained success and have endured 11 non-winning seasons over the last 17 years. Some help is on the way, in the form of a $72 million football facility that will house coaching offices, locker rooms, a weight room, a cafeteria and meeting rooms.

As for his part, the 49-year-old Rodriguez has installed his spread option and is trying to instill a new level of toughness. His practices have been tough and he's been tougher, banning cellphones in the locker room and at the training table and creating the need for a “hard edge.”

“It means we're going to have to play with that edge and intensity,” offensive lineman Kyle Quinn told The Arizona Republic. “The ship has definitely tightened up. There's accountability now.

“Coaches are making sure guys are buying into the system and doing everything they can.”

Rodriguez is doing everything he can, too, to remind the college football world that he's still alive — and well — in the desert.

“It's a great town, really neat university, beautiful weather,” he said. “We've got some work to do with the football program. We understand that. But I really feel good about the staff and the kids are working hard.

“We're trying to put the foundation in place.”