Arizona football: Firing surprises some ex-Cats

Arizona produced 16 NFL draft picks during Stoops' time at school
2011-10-16T00:01:00Z 2014-09-15T10:20:57Z Arizona football: Firing surprises some ex-CatsRyan Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 16, 2011 12:01 am  • 

Antoine Cason was in San Diego, enjoying the start of a bye week, when he heard Mike Stoops had been fired. Mike Thomas was in Jacksonville, Fla., still giddy after signing a lucrative contract extension. In Houston, Brooks Reed took time off from preparing for his first pro start to think about his former coach; teammate Earl Mitchell did the same.

Throughout the NFL, former Arizona Wildcats responded to Stoops' Monday dismissal with a mix of surprise and sadness. That there were players in the league to mourn him speaks to the polarizing coach's legacy.

Though Stoops went 41-50 overall and 1-2 in bowl games during 7 1/2 seasons as UA coach, he proved to be a keen evaluator of talent. Arizona produced 16 NFL draft picks under Stoops' watch; five of them - Cason, Reed, running back Chris Henry, offensive tackle Eben Britton and tight end Rob Gronkowski - were taken in the first two rounds.

At least two more, wide receiver Juron Criner and quarterback Nick Foles, are expected to be drafted this spring.

"You can't look at that and not think Stoops played a part in it," Thomas said this week. "Look back to the way he recruited, he developed, whatever the case is. He had his guys."

Stoops raised the quality of players that Arizona recruited, and got, following the John Mackovic era. The former Oklahoma assistant surrounded himself with quality recruiters, and, starting in 2004, installed a first-rate training program.

The result was a culture change that, while not necessarily reflected in the standings, altered the way Arizona carried itself.

"It wasn't just him, but the staff he brought in with him," former quarterback Willie Tuitama said. "He did a great job of bringing in coaches who would help."

Once on campus, the Wildcats were "coached up" - a favorite Stoops phrase - and, in some cases, moved to new positions. Mitchell and Reed started their careers as fullbacks, while D'Aundre Reed- selected by the Vikings this spring - arrived at the UA as a linebacker. Thomas was considered too small to be successful coming out of DeSoto (Texas) High School; he left Arizona as the Pac-10's all-time reception leader.

But it was Stoops' ability to identify talent in the secondary that set him apart. The Wildcats' coach moved Cason into the starting lineup as a true freshman. By the end of his senior year, Cason was an all-conference player and recipient of the Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's top defensive back.

The San Diego Chargers selected Cason with their first-round selection (27th overall) in 2008.

Cason said this week that his pro career wouldn't have been possible without Stoops, former UA defensive coordinator Mark Stoops and ex-assistant Charlie Williams. All three lured Cason out of Los Alamitos (Calif.) High School with a promise of playing time.

"What they saw in me was a passion to play, a passion for the position, a passion to be willing to win, to do things necessary to help the team," he said.

"I wasn't a five-star guy, but I put all my effort and energy to go in there and do things the right way. The way I looked at it, I was a small piece to the puzzle that they were trying to build."

Stoops continued to develop defensive players long after Cason left. Cornerback Trevin Wade overcame some meager expectations - he was a two-star recruit in high school - to become a three-year starter.

Stoops' hands-on approach proved to be a mixed blessing.

ESPN cameras loved focusing on Stoops in the heat of the moment - berating assistants, yelling instructions at players or voicing his dismay over bad calls. Many fans privately cringed at his sideline demeanor.

Arizona's teams often amounted to less than the sum of their parts, and the head coach received much of the blame.

Still, those who survived Stoops and moved on to the NFL said they'll miss his fire.

Thomas said the coach's sudden dismissal "is the name of the game, I guess."

"Stoops was great, man. He was very passionate about what he does and passionate about football," Thomas said. "He was everything that a head coach was supposed to be about. He got a lot of stuff from people about the way he was, but a lot of people respected him for his style of play."

1

First round (Antoine Cason)

4

Second round (Chris Henry, Eben Britton, Rob Gronkowski, Brooks Reed)

1

Third round (Earl Mitchell)

1

Fourth round (Mike Thomas)

0

Fifth round

3

Sixth round (Nick Folk, Spencer Larsen, Ricky Elmore)

6

Seventh round (Kili Lefotu, Michael Johnson, Syndric Steptoe, Wilrey Fontenot, Lionel Dotson, D'Aundre Reed).

What they're saying

Former Wildcats react to Mike Stoops' dismissal:

"It's tough. We kind of started out together, and we both kind of helped turn the program around. We always did a good job of fighting; you know it wasn't easy, but if there was one thing that we always did, it was kept fighting. We never gave up, and (Stoops) made sure of it. He made sure that every week we had a chance to win. I'm very thankful for him being a coach and the times I had there. We had so many ups and downs."

Willie Tuitama, quarterback (2005-08)

"I'm surprised. … I love those guys. It's kind of hard to think the guys I grew up around in my four years, my 4 1/2 years, are not going to be around. We all understand how (college football) works but at the same time, every time I look back to Arizona, I'll think of Coach Stoops. I love Arizona, and those coaches are some of the names that I'll remember. Coach Stoops, that was my coach."

Antoine Cason, cornerback (2004-07)

"He was everything that a head coach was supposed to be about. A lot of people respected him for his style of play. And he was a cool cat: I know he was always looking serious, but at the same time, when you got to know him a little bit, he wasn't that way. He wanted to be respected, and he put his heart and his soul into what he did."

Mike Thomas, wide receiver (2005-08)

UA's NFL draft picks under Mike Stoops

Year Player Team RND (overall)

2006 OL Kili Lefotu Redskins 7th (230th)

2007 RB Chris Henry Titans 2nd (50th)

2007 K Nick Folk Cowboys 6th (178th)

2007 S Michael Johnson Giants 7th (224th)

2007 WR Syndric Steptoe Browns 7th/234th

2008 DB Antoine Cason Chargers 1st (27th)

2008 LB Spencer Larsen Broncos 6th (183rd)

2008 DB Wilrey Fontenot Falcons 7th (212th)

2008 DE Lionel Dotson Dolphins 7th (245th)

2009 OT Eben Britton Jaguars 2nd (39th)

2009 WR Mike Thomas Jaguars 4th (107th)

2010 TE Rob Gronkowski Patriots 2nd (42nd)

2010 DT Earl Mitchell Texans 3rd (81st)

2011 DE Brooks Reed Texans 2nd (42nd)

2011 DE Ricky Elmore Packers 6th (197th)

2011 DE D'Aundre Reed Vikings 7th (215th)

UA's draft picks by round

Up next

• What: UCLA at Arizona

• When: 6 p.m. Thursday

• TV: ESPN

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Pac-12 South football standings

  Conference Overall
Team W L T PCT W L T PCT
Arizona 7 2 0 0.778 10 3 0 0.769
USC 6 3 0 0.667 8 4 0 0.667
UCLA 6 3 0 0.667 9 3 0 0.750
Arizona State 6 3 0 0.667 9 3 0 0.750
Utah 5 4 0 0.556 9 4 0 0.692
Colorado 0 9 0 0.000 2 10 0 0.167

Pac-12 North football standings

  Conference Overall
Team W L T PCT W L T PCT
Oregon 8 1 0 0.889 12 1 0 0.923
Stanford 5 4 0 0.556 7 5 0 0.583
Washington 4 5 0 0.444 8 5 0 0.615
Cal 3 6 0 0.333 5 7 0 0.417
Washington State 2 7 0 0.222 3 9 0 0.250
Oregon State 2 7 0 0.222 5 7 0 0.417
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