Greg Hansen: As football fortunes slid, Byrne had no other choice

2011-10-11T00:02:00Z 2013-09-17T16:18:59Z Greg Hansen: As football fortunes slid, Byrne had no other choiceGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 11, 2011 12:02 am  • 

Greg Byrne was out of bed at 4:15 Monday morning, in his office before sunrise and still at his desk after sundown. His eyes were bloodshot and his body language suggested that it had been an exacting and emotional day.

His workday had hit 14 hours and counting when a voice on his office flat-screen mentioned Mike Stoops. Byrne turned to watch as ESPN announced that Stoops had been fired after going 41-50 at Arizona and that a search for his successor was ongoing.

ESPN then cut to some video of Michael Vick.

Byrne shook his head at the absurdity of it. Stoops' eight years at Arizona merited 15 seconds on ESPN.

There is so much more.

Earlier in the day, Byrne had phoned Stoops in San Diego and asked him to return to McKale Center. Not when he could catch a convenient flight. Now. The UA sent a private jet to bring Stoops home and fire him.

Could any college football coach, even LSU's Les Miles or Alabama's Nick Saban, keep his job after losing 10 consecutive games to BCS opponents?

No. No way. Maybe in 1961 or 1975. But not now. And especially not Stoops, who rarely connected with the community, who chose to make it all about W's and L's and not about personality, charm or family.

Stoops had no equity, nothing in the bank, no one to reach out to save him when things went bad. From a we-love-you-coach standpoint, John Mackovic had as much warmth.

But Byrne still agonized over the decision. He had never had a Wildcat player, or assistant coach, come to his office to complain about Stoops' in-your-face tactics and four-letter vocabulary.

"I like Mike," Byrne told me. "If my sons were college football players, I would not hesitate to let them play for Mike."

Byrne made up his mind to fire Stoops in the transition from Saturday night to Sunday morning. On the flight back from Oregon State, they sat across from one another in emergency-row seats. They chatted idly, mostly about the results of the day's other games, but their friendship and professional respect could not make up for Arizona's losing streak.

College football at Arizona is a $25 million-a-year industry on its way to $35 million. You cannot have, as your CEO, a coach who is invisible, a stranger, in the community. Maybe that flies in Seattle or Phoenix, but not here.

You cannot be in last place in Year 8 with no realistic hope to think it will be any better next year.

Ultimately, Byrne gathered his lieutenants, his executive committee, and asked for a vote. Stay? Go? It wasn't close.

Next came the hard stuff. Byrne had to look hard into the eyes of Stoops' nine assistant football coaches as he told them their leader had been fired. Those assistant coaches have 16 school-age children among them, and very soon most if not all of them will be uprooted, selling their homes, moving on.

Sometimes firing a coach is a relief. That's the way it was with the petulant Mackovic in 2003. Sometimes it is a tear-fest, as it was when Dick Tomey was told his brand no longer generated enough excitement at the old stadium.

Stoops, 49, is somewhere in between. He insisted on isolating himself, off-limits to the public and media, roaring into town with an I-don't-trust-you demeanor rather than cultivating the average Joe.

The former Sooners assistant wasn't in Oklahoma any more.

He can't say he wasn't treated fairly. His audition was eight seasons and 91 games. That's more than a sample size. He was paid in excess of $8 million and is due $1.4 million more. His reputation as a defensive whiz, intact, is such that he will have his pick of good jobs, college and pro. He has 15 or 20 good years left.

He is not the loser. We are. You are.

As always with Arizona football, the loser is the guy in the seats, the poor schlub who puts down his money in hopes of watching the Wildcats get it right, go to the Rose Bowl, rid the school and this town of the terrible curse that has smothered its football team for a century.

For years, the school wouldn't commit to winning football, betrayed by the administration and other forces. Coach Tex Oliver bolted for greener pastures. Miles Casteel jumped to the enemy, Arizona State. And Jim LaRue paid the bill for a president who abhorred athletics.

Jim Young left before he could sustain a winner and so did Larry Smith. Tomey was asked to leave for the high crime of putting too much of a priority on punting and kicking.

Oh, how this school could use a good kick now.

"You need a type of person who can walk out in front of a group of people and represent the university," UA interim president Eugene Sander said Monday. "You need someone to rally support."

Sander congratulated Byrne for his decisiveness. Twice he said that firing Stoops was "absolutely necessary." Hear, hear.

So now we move on again. The season is lost, the future is grim and Greg Byrne will attempt to find The Right Man For The Job.

It's back to the future again.

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