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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Winning 101: Close but no cigar for Stoops’ troops thus far

    Roman Veytsmanassistant sports editor
    Roman Veytsman
    assistant sports editor

    Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

    What Vince Lombardi failed to mention, however, was that before winning can become the only thing, learning how to win must become everything. For Arizona football, winning has been essentially nothing after two 3-8 seasons under no-longer-new head coach Mike Stoops.

    Amid the hardship, there has been progress.

    “”The past few years have been a little uncomfortable but not unusual,”” Stoops said. “”I think our team has made a lot of improvement in a lot of areas, and I think certain things have to happen within your program to win and you go through stages, and obviously we went through another one of those stages of playing a lot of people close and just not getting it done.””

    Unfortunately for Stoops and company, the only progress tolerated in Tucson this year will be in the win column.

    Close only counts in horseshoes, and “”almost”” is a term better served for mothers of Pee Wee football players.

    Close is exactly where the Wildcats have been the last two years.

    Close in the first half against an undefeated Utah team in 2004, but the Wildcats fumbled in their first possession and couldn’t score in three straight opportunities from inside the 1-yard line, a score that would have cut the lead to four points and put the pressure on the Utes.

    In a game when quarterback Kris Heavner out-dueled eventual No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith in passing yards and the Wildcats had just 14 fewer total yards than the high-powered Utah offense, Arizona still lost 23-6.

    Close is the following week, when Arizona held a 7-0 lead at halftime against No. 20 Wisconsin before falling 9-7 as kicker Nick Folk’s field goal doomed Arizona to yet another – close – loss.

    Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

    It was close the following week against Washington State; the Wildcats had it all wrapped up, needing only to run out the clock, possibly leaving the Cougars with just a few ticks left and a Hail Mary or two from starting the season 2-2.

    Instead, Arizona ran the ball but couldn’t hold on to it as running back Gilbert Harris wrapped a present for Washington State by fumbling with 1:31 left to play. A Cougars’ touchdown later, the Wildcats’ 1-3 record demolished not only a chance to be respectable, but it killed the confidence of a young team.

    After one season, Arizona’s expectations were raised slightly, but learning how to win had not become engrained in the players’ minds.

    A three-point loss at Utah in the first game of the season. A narrow one-touchdown loss to No. 12 Purdue in the third game. A four-point loss to Stanford in the sixth game. A one-touchdown loss to Oregon in the seventh game. A three-point loss at ASU in the last game.

    You don’t have to be Pythagoras to realize that losing five of eight games by a touchdown or less has more to do with an inability to overcome an invisible obstacle than an inability to play better than the opponent for 60 minutes.

    “”All we’ve been doing in the offseason is learning how to finish,”” said senior receiver Syndric Steptoe. “”We weren’t finishing games last season. I wouldn’t say we were giving up, but letting up, letting teams come back when we had them beat.””

    Will this year be any different? Will this still fairly young team with a sophomore quarterback be able to take the lessons of consecutive frustrating seasons and learn how to win?

    “”I still think we’re young, but we have to grow up fast, and our talent is young, but no one really cares once you step on the field what grade you are,”” Stoops said. “”When you’re out there, you have to produce,””

    Willie Tuitama has a full spring and summer under his belt as the No. 1 quarterback, No. 1 junior-college recruit Louis Holmes is finally eligible to practice and No. 1 NFL secondary prospect Antoine Cason (according to various online draft forecasts, including Footballsfuture.com) headlines arguably the best defensive backfield in the Pacific 10 Conference.

    “”Our team gained great confidence, and before you beat those teams you have to learn how to play them close, and I think we did that,”” Stoops said. “”I think our kids understand there are certain things we have to do better to win those close games.””

    Winning is a culture.

    The Atlanta Braves have won 14 straight division titles with good teams and mediocre teams. The New England Patriots won three of four Super Bowls with a team of makeshift players-turned-stars and a coach who vowed to make them play together.

    Losing is a culture too. The Kansas City Royals, the Arizona Cardinals, the Golden State Warriors.

    Losing can breed more losing, or losing can breed an attitude of change.

    This year’s Detroit Tigers went from cellar dwellers to World Series contenders in a heartbeat. The Los Angeles Clippers went from the laughingstock of the NBA to suddenly one of the NBA’s up-and-coming teams.

    How do you change a losing culture?

    “”It comes from when you lose so much you understand what it takes to lose, so you try to reverse your fate and do the opposite of what you’ve been doing,”” Steptoe said.

    After two seasons of being on the brink, two seasons of spreading the wings but not flapping, year three of the Stoops regime promises to either change the culture or face yet another year of Winning 101.

    “”Where we were two years ago and where we’re at now,”” Stoops said, “”there’s no comparison.””


    Roman Veytsman is a journalism senior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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