UA football: Hurry up, and spread the word

New coach's offense tricky to learn, but it keeps foes up at night
2011-11-25T00:01:00Z 2014-07-08T15:42:54Z UA football: Hurry up, and spread the wordPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 25, 2011 12:01 am  • 

Rich Rodriguez watched his quarterback get sacked 22 times in his first spring game at Tulane.

The hotshot NAIA head coach brought his supposedly futuristic spread offense to an offensive coordinator job in New Orleans. But his players weren't grasping it.

Rodriguez, named the Arizona Wildcats' new head coach Tuesday, noticed the Green Wave defensive coordinator talking to the team's female trainer during the scrimmage.

"They said, 'We let her call the last series,'" Rodriguez said.

A trainer calling plays stuffed Rodriguez's spread offense, which featured a quarterback in shotgun, four wide receivers stretching the field and no huddling.

"I still couldn't get a first down," he said. "I thought, 'What is going on?'"

Frank Scelfo, the UA quarterbacks coach who worked with Rodriguez at Tulane, called the offense "horrendous" that day.

"But then," he said, "things got better."

Tulane went 19-4 in Rodriguez's two seasons, with an undefeated year in 1998.

Rodriguez followed coach Tommy Bowden to Clemson. Two years later, he was named the head coach at his alma mater, West Virginia. He spent three seasons at Michigan (2008-10) before moving to television this year.

The legend of his spread offense, however, was born a generation ago.

Shotgun wedding

Nobody tells a story like Rodriguez, Scelfo warns.

Still, this is a doozy.

In 1988, at age 25, Rodriguez became America's youngest head coach at tiny Salem College. He went 2-8 in his only season as the program was eliminated.

He spent a year as a volunteer assistant at West Virginia, where he had started as a walk-on but earned a scholarship after one season, before landing the head job at NAIA Glenville (W. Va.) State in 1990.

The Pioneers had been outscored 301-38 the year before.

"I think it was me and two other guys who applied for it," Rodriguez said with a smirk. "The other two never coached."

He had nine scholarships to distribute among his entire team.

In his second year at Glenville State, his QB, who had been sacked 32 times over two games, begged for a shotgun formation.

Rodriguez had been thinking the same thing.

As a defensive back as WVU, he knew the hardest offense to stop was the two-minute drill, a no-huddle attack that teams typically reserved for the ends of halves.

Rodriguez pitched an idea: Why not the two-minute drill the whole time?

He studied the run-and-shoot offense, which featured a shotgun formation and four wideouts, and implemented it without a huddle.

"I thought to myself, if we could get five guys up front, five linemen, they can get run over, and if I can get a quarterback and put him in shotgun and get rid of the football, we'll have a chance," he said.

"I have a quarterback that's about 5-10. I got five little chubby guys that get run over slowly, and it all took off."

Rodriguez remembers the first play in the system, a 13-yard completion.

"There's only 500 people in the stands and I'm related to 490 of them, so it's a friendly crowd," he said. "I looked around and I got a standing ovation. I was on the headset and I told the coaches, 'I ain't never leaving. This is perfect.' "

He spent seven years there.

Learning from a mistake

Were you to map the spread offense's family tree, Scelfo said, you'd probably find two patriarchs - Hal Mumme, the former Valdosta (Ga.) State and Kentucky head coach on the passing side, and Rodriguez on the running side.

One day at Glenville State, Rodriguez's quarterback fumbled before handing off to the running back.

When he picked it up, he ran outside, because the defensive end had crashed down the line to stop the planned run up the middle.

Rodriguez was intrigued, and began to run what's now known as the spread, read-option offense.

Now used nationwide, the scheme features a quarterback deciding, at the last second, whether to hand the ball to a running back up the middle or keep it and run outside.

"The thing he's always realized - which is a big thing I learned from Rich - is you have to run the football to win," Scelfo said. "When you get down close to the goal line, you have to be able to be a physical football team."

Rodriguez is a run-first coach.

At West Virginia in 2002, his team was second nationally in rushing offense and No. 108 in passing. In 2006, the Mountaineers were second in rushing, No. 100 in passing; the next year, they were third and 114, respectively.

UA athletic director Greg Byrne examined the spread offense when searching for a head coach. He remembered Alabama's coach Nick Saban saying the spread kept him up at night.

"You can run more out of the spread than pass," Byrne said.

'He'll take it to a new level'

Rodriguez's rise through major college football started at the suggestion of his wife, Rita. She encouraged him to take the Tulane job.

"She said, 'If you ever want to be a head coach in Division I, you've got to show your offense can work at that level,'" he said. "I wasn't sure."

The female athlete of the year and homecoming queen at her small-town West Virginia high school, Rita met Rodriguez when he played football for the Mountaineers.

When her husband debuted his spread offense at Glenville State, she knew he was on to something special.

"It was a really great experience at that small school, being able to experiment," she said. "You didn't have a choice. You almost had to.

"What I remember about it was how exciting it was and how fast it went. You were never bored."

Rodriguez has promised the same at Arizona.

"They can talk about Oregon and how fast that thing runs," Scelfo said. "He'll take it to a new level. The tempo he has is even faster than what those guys do."

Rodriguez's no-huddle approach hasn't changed - "I told the guys we're not going to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya,' " he said - but his personnel groupings have.

At Tulane, he rarely used a tight end; at Michigan, he used a tight end about three-quarters of the time.

Scelfo said Rodriguez makes his offense "adaptable to the personnel he has."

Not that the spring game will be pretty. The first one at every stop is ugly, Rodriguez said.

"I think it will be smoother here, because I think there are some guys already here - quarterbacks - that have some experience that'll be good in this system," he said.

Up next

• What: Louisiana-Lafayette at Arizona

• Where: 2 p.m. Saturday

• TV: None

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)

What a rush

Forget the spread offense misconception: Rich Rodriguez is a running coach.

Here's a look at where his offenses - first as the coordinator at Tulane and Clemson, then the head coach at West Virginia and Michigan - finished nationally:

Year, Team, Pass offense, Rush offense

1997 Tulane 33 30

1998 Tulane 13 23

1999 Clemson 31 44

2000 Clemson 63 10

2001 West Virginia 96 36

2002 West Virginia 108 2

2003 West Virginia 105 13

2004 West Virginia 104 7

2005 West Virginia 115 4

2006 West Virginia 100 2

2007 West Virginia 114 3

2008 Michigan 108 59

2009 Michigan 81 25

2010 Michigan 36 13

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