Once Greg Byrne and Rich Rodriguez were safely aboard a private jet Monday near Ann Arbor, Mich., Byrne asked the pilot how long the return flight to Tucson would take.
"We've got some strong headwinds," the pilot said. "Buckle up."
Thus, Rich Rod was officially introduced to Arizona football as UA fans have known it for 112 years: This could be a bumpy journey, but no UA football coach in program history comes with better credentials.
There will be sensitive questions about Rodriguez's messy exit at West Virginia, his conflicts with the NCAA rules manual and about his 15-22 record at Michigan. But after 41 days and 41 nights in the wilderness, the time Byrne spent searching for a new football coach, Arizona's director of athletics said this about his new football coach:
"After due research, after several meetings in various places, I was sold on Rich at every level."
Indeed. The energetic, 40-year-old AD has delivered the big prize.
"I think we can make Arizona the destination program for all the great players in the West," Rodriguez said last night at Byrne's Foothills home. "It's a college town, it has great passion for its sports and football, it's got great weather and I don't see any reason why we shouldn't win big."
Like a lot of high-profile college coaches working on Act II, III or IV, Rodriguez, 48, has some mileage and a sea of detractors. Some perform the do-over better than ever. Pete Carroll arrived at USC after having been beaten up in the NFL. Steve Fisher, who, like Rodriguez, was judged to be "not a Michigan man," took San Diego State to the Sweet 16 and a 34-3 basketball record last season.
As Byrne learned, you don't hire from the top. At Arizona, the football coach is running against the wind. Sometimes you take a chance on a Redemption Tour.
It is Arizona territory, after all. In a century of statehood, we have been America's Second Chance State.
And remember this about what Rodriguez inherited from Lloyd Carr at Michigan: A few months before the hiring, the Wolverines lost to Appalachian State. It's not like Rodriguez took a smooth handoff from Bo Schembechler and screwed up the works.
Byrne avoided the traps that overcome so many stressed out ADs. He did not offer a hot young assistant an on-the-job tryout, as his predecessor, Jim Livengood, did with Mike Stoops. Byrne did not try to squeeze a few more years out of a guy who used to be good a long time ago, such as Mike Bellotti. And he did not take a flyer on a small-school guy, Southern Miss' Larry Fedora, for instance, whose idea of pressure is the annual game against East Carolina.
Rodriguez arrives in Tucson with 75 major-college coaching victories. That's more than Larry Smith and Dick Tomey had combined (74) when they became Arizona's football coach. He has a system, a style and a reputation.
Somehow, Arizona hired a $4million coach for about half the price.
The acquisition of Rodriguez also breaks the chain of Arizona hiring a football coach from the lower ranks. In the last 70 years, UA football coaches arrived from head coaching duties at Tulane, Cincinnati, North Dakota State, Hardin-Simmons and Hawaii.
Can't the Wildcats now begin to think of bigger things than third place?
What I most like about Rodriguez is that he successfully overhauled West Virginia, which was stuck on an Arizona-like treadmill when he was hired in 2001. In the previous seven seasons, under Don Nehlen, the Mountaineers went a Tomeysque 7-5, 4-7, 8-4, 7-5, 8-4, 5-6 and 7-6.
Rodriguez quickly changed the culture and identity of West Virginia football. He went 33-5 his final three seasons. He coached his teams to the Sugar Bowl and the Gator Bowl, winning both. His personality drove the bus. Put it this way: If Arizona State fires Dennis Erickson and hired Rodriguez, wouldn't you have viewed it as a coup for the Sun Devils?
Wouldn't you have thought ASU was positioned to make a move out of the middle class of Pac-12 football?
Rodriguez joins Erickson, USC's Lane Kiffin, UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Oregon's Chip Kelly as those who have been under the microscope of the NCAA police. It's not a reputation easily shed. Among Rodriguez's first duties at Arizona will be to acknowledge that he is repentant and agrees to work on a zero-tolerance basis.
After that, assembling a coaching staff that can effectively recruit in California and Texas becomes imperative.
At Michigan, Rodriguez's 2010 staff included seven men who had coached with him at West Virginia. None have ever coached west of the Mississippi River. His lone coach with ties to the West, former UCLA and NFL defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, flopped. His defense yielded 35.2 points per game.
Perhaps Rodriguez will do as "Michigan man," former Wolverines defensive coordinator Jim Young, did when he was hired at Arizona in 1973 and went on an unprecedented run of 8-3, 9-2 and 9-2. Young brought five Michigan assistants with him but retained UA coaches Sharkey Price, Willie Peete and Bill Belknap.
It clicked. For three brief years, UA football finally had the wind at its back.
Now, in a new age and new era of college football, Rich Rodriguez, baggage and all, gives hope that Arizona might again keep pace with the leaders.
After 41 days, search for coach is over
With a tweet, AD Greg Byrne reveals the identity of the 30th UA football coach. Page A1
Rodriguez never coached west of Dallas
Coach brings a lot to his new job, but a strong regional background isn't on the list. Page B2
If you go
• What: Rich Rodriguez news conference
• Where: McKale Center
• When: Noon today
• Parking: Free parking in the tailgate area of the McKale lawn
Contact columnist Greg Hansen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4362