A year ago today, at 4:35 p.m., Rich Rodriguez was unveiled as the Arizona Wildcats' next football coach. Athletic director Greg Byrne made the announcement in a tweet - "And the new Arizona football coach and his family is …" - with a photo of RichRod, Byrne and a smiling Rodriguez family, all wearing Arizona gear.
Since then, Rodriguez has overhauled the UA's offense and defense, established a "hard edge" attitude in line with his Big East roots, and - in perhaps the most amazing development of all - surprised the football world with an impressive season.
The Wildcats are 7-4 heading into Friday's Territorial Cup game with Arizona State; with a win, host UA can match its best regular-season record since 1998.
The last year has flown by, Rodriguez said.
"In some regards, it has," he said.
"Some weeks, it hasn't. But I've enjoyed coaching these guys. We had a whole lot of concerns coming in, and I still have those concerns. But our guys are trying hard."
Arizona's return to relevance has been a four-step process:
Step 1: Sell the seniors. Shortly after taking over, Rodriguez met with the Wildcats' soon-to-be seniors. During 1-on-1 meetings in his new, sparsely decorated office, the Wildcats' coach appealed to each of them after they finished 4-8 in 2011.
"He just told us, 'Guys, it's your team. I may not have recruited you guys, but you're my guys,'" center Kyle Quinn said. "We've bought into his philosophy and mindset."
By including the seniors in the process, Rodriguez was able to dodge dissension and build trust right away. Five players - quarterbacks Daxx Garman and Tom Savage and linebackers Brian Wagner and David Lopez - left the team. Safety Adam Hall, clashed with the coaching staff and left the team in October.
Step 2: Install the schemes. Arizona's coaching staff spent most of the spring teaching the Wildcats' returning players how to run a pair of schemes: Rodriguez's famous read-option offense and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 "odd stack" set.
It helped that, at least on offense, the UA had the returning talent to run it. Matt Scott was a quick study at quarterback; Ka'Deem Carey fit nicely at running back. Through 11 games, Carey leads the nation in rushing as a sophomore with 1,585 yards. He's almost certain Friday to break Trung Canidate's UA single-season rushing record of 1,602.
"It feels good to know your hard work and your dreams are starting to come true," Carey said.
Step 3: Set the tone. Rodriguez admittedly had no idea whether the Wildcats would succeed this fall. But he insisted that they be tough. The coaching staff instituted a "hard edge" attitude that's visible in the Cats' play. Arizona painted the words inside its practice facility and stuck them on the front of UA's helmets, giving players - literally - a hard nose.
The mantra - Rodriguez added "spot the ball," a reminder to play fast on offense, during training camp - has served the Cats well during an injury- plagued season.
"He's brought very good discipline and structure to our program," Byrne said.
Step 4: Surprise them all. Rodriguez admits that his team, at 7-4, is a victory or two better than he thought they'd be. But maybe he shouldn't be surprised. Arizona's coaches have set a foundation that, in time, should yield more good years than bad.
The process is already working.
"We're building a program," Rodriguez said, "not a team."
• Eight Wildcats were honored by the Pac-12 Conference today for their success in the classroom.
Four received first-team all-academic honors: redshirt freshman running back Jared Baker (3.56 GPA, undeclared major), junior linebacker Jake Fischer (3.32, marketing), sophomore safety Jared Tevis (3.25, finance) and senior kicker John Bonano (3.93, physiology).
Senior tight end Michael Cooper (3.92 GPA, business) and senior guard Trace Biskin (3.29, political science) earned second-team honors. Sophomore receiver Trevor Ermisch (3.00 GPA, pre-business) and sophomore defensive lineman Reggie Gilbert (3.18 GPA, undeclared) received honorable mentions.
• The Wildcats will celebrate Thanksgiving a day early, with dinners at their position coaches' houses. The team will eat its regular pregame meal on Thursday night.
On StarNet: Follow the Cats on Ryan Finley's blog at azstarnet.com/finley
• Who: Arizona State (6-5, 4-4) at Arizona (7-4, 4-4)
• When: 8 p.m. Friday
• TV: ESPN
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)