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Byrne makes statement with Rodriguez hire

Will+Ferguson+%2F+Arizona+Daily+Wildcat%0AUniversity+of+Arizona+athletic+director+Greg+Byrnes+held+a+press+conference+announcing+that+head+football+coach+Mike+Stoops+has+been+fired.+The+press+conference+was+held+in+the+McKale+Athletic+Center+on+October+10%2C+2011.+
Will Ferguson
Will Ferguson / Arizona Daily Wildcat University of Arizona athletic director Greg Byrnes held a press conference announcing that head football coach Mike Stoops has been fired. The press conference was held in the McKale Athletic Center on October 10, 2011.

By turning Rich Rodriguez into the face of Arizona football on Monday, Athletic Director Greg Byrne made a statement – he’s not afraid to take a risk.

Bringing Rodriguez to Tucson is a bit of a gamble, as the 48-year-old coach certainly doesn’t come without a warning label.

But Byrne chose to ignore the fine print.

Rodriguez hasn’t proven himself since his days at West Virginia. He was chased out of Michigan after three disappointing seasons, and left the program with NCAA violations to boot.

But, to Byrne, the prospects of a big name in Tucson outweighed those risks. The intrigue of Rodriguez molding the Wildcats into a Pac-12 power was too great.

The hope that Michigan was simply a bad fit for Rodriguez seemed too likely, and a not-so-pressure-packed Tucson market figures to be the perfect place for Rodriguez to revive a once-flourishing career.

The hire makes sense, and if Rodriguez proves to be Arizona’s saving grace, Byrne’s move was genius. Even if Rodriguez flops, it would be hard to fault the Wildcats’ athletic director.

Byrne proved his aggressiveness by firing Mike Stoops mid-season. With the firing, Byrne put massive pressure on himself to find a big name for the Wildcats. Letting go of an established coach in the middle of the season has to eventually lead to bigger and better things.

But while the timing of the Stoops firing seemed controversial, it gave Byrne time to recruit big-time coaches who were unemployed. If he waited until the end of the season, would big names like Rodriguez be around?

Maybe not.

Yes, Rodriguez has his flaws — defense comes to mind — but Arizona football needs a major shot in the arm. The Wildcats don’t need a safe coach who will keep them .500 for the next five years.

They need someone who’s proven he can turn programs around. Rodriguez did that at West Virginia, taking the Mountaineers from mediocrity to a national power.

Sure, the Michigan experience was a flop, but Rodriguez is still a proven commodity. And was Chris Petersen really going to leave Boise State? Would Mike Leach actually come to Tucson for anything but a book signing? Was 60-year-old Mike Bellotti really the right fit for Arizona?

Rodriguez gives the Wildcats an identity it’s been missing. But this hire isn’t just about Rodriguez. It’s about Byrne’s vision at Arizona and willingness to take risks to reach his goal. It shows he’ll take that leap of faith, which is something that wasn’t apparent initially.

After Byrne left Mississippi State for Arizona, he came into stable situation. Jim Livengood just found the heir to Lute Olson in Sean Miller, Stoops just went to back-to-back bowl games and the rest of the UA coaching regime was set in stone.

Prior to firing Stoops, Byrne’s only personnel decision was finding a replacement for legendary UA swim and dive coach Frank Busch.

Without personnel moves to make Byrne was able to play the PR card. He rounded up cash for a colossal scoreboard, the North Endzone Project and new basketball facilities.

He became a fixture on Twitter as @Greg_Byrne, gaining popularity by hosting giveaways and promotions. He was quickly known as the new age AD, that cool uncle that relates to the younger crowd. Byrne had yet to be tested with a major personnel decision.

While it remains to be seen if Rodriguez is the answer at Arizona, it’s at least clear that Byrne is a risk taker. He’s aggressive, he doesn’t fear failure, and he has the network and sales pitch to land a major name like Rodriguez

Will Rodriguez turn Arizona football around like he did at West Virginia? Time will tell.

But what is known is that the Wildcats have an AD willing to do whatever it takes to turn Arizona into a legitimate football program like he set out to do when he arrived in Tucson. For a 3-8 team in a competitive Pac-12 Conference, that’s all you can ask for.

—Mike Schmitz is a marketing senior. He can be reached at Sports@Wildcat.Arizona.edu

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