New head coach Rich Rodriguez talks with reporters at the first spring practice for the University of Arizona football team.

A.E. Araiza/Arizona Daily Star

I have seen Rich Rodriguez sit in the Zona Zoo and sing "Bear Down, Arizona." I have seen him dress in all-white - shoes, socks, pants, shirt - for a "White Out" at McKale Center.

He became one of the guys.

I have seen him shadowed, 12 hours at a time, by writers from powerful Sports Illustrated and ESPN, and by those from an obscure outlet like

He became Mr. Hospitality.

I have seen a Facebook photograph of Rodriguez at a backyard barbecue with a dozen of the greatest Wildcats of the Pac-12 years, including Kevin Singleton, Ty Parten, Lance Briggs and David Wood.

I have seen Rodriguez re-establish a coaching clinic for high school, youth and junior college coaches, more than 100 strong - a clinic that had been terminated by Arizona's previous regime - and tell them "it will always be an open-door policy with me."

In his first 90 days on the job, he invited Salpointe Catholic football coach Dennis Bene to his office three times.

On Sunday night, I walked into the lobby of the UA Student Union, lost in a shuffle of several hundred people, and finally saw, in the middle of the humanity, Rich Rodriguez, working the room.

"He wants to get out; he knows how important it is," UA athletic director Greg Byrne said. "He knows that if he can look someone in the eye, shake their hand and engage them, that it can go a long way."

Rodriguez later sat at a table with Hall of Fame coach Jim Young and learned that Young's first Arizona team, 1973, went 8-3.

"Now that I realize how successful coach Young was in his first year," Rodriguez told the audience of 400 people, "I have no excuse."

Rodriguez spoke for 29 minutes, without notes, and afterward did not excuse himself from the final hour of the program for the Southern Arizona Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.

He didn't employ the old I'm-really-busy dodge.

Instead, he mixed with high school football players, their families and their coaches. And not only did Rodriguez come off as genuine and approachable, he also brought (and introduced) five of his coaches, recruiters and administrative staff members on what was to be a rare day off during spring camp.

"The thing I've seen with Coach Rodriguez is that he'll spend as much time with a family of four, whose tickets are in the corner of Arizona Stadium, as he will with any other segment of our fan base," Byrne said. "If he doesn't care about our fans, why should they care about supporting us?"

You'll have to forgive those who follow UA football for their reaction to this unexpected outreach.

It is customary for a first-year coach to work the room on a Meet and Greet Tour, but Rodriguez has gone beyond; he has gained appreciation for his energy and enthusiasm. Some of it is calculated, and it should be.

But for the last 11 years, Arizona's head football coaches, Mike Stoops and John Mackovic, were notorious for their bunker mentality.

Their policy seemed to be the public be damned.

On Sunday night, RichRod said, "I'm really just a hillbilly from West Virginia" and came off as sincere as he was charming.

"We've got a lot of community leaders in this audience," he said. "Frankly, I need your help."

This is a new way of football in the community, here and elsewhere.

Arizona State president Michael Crow recently told the Arizona Republic that his school's football program will no longer be isolated, as it was with failed coaches Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson.

"If someone wants you to talk, you're going to be there," Crow said. "If there's a Kiwanis club that wants to learn more about ASU football, you're going to be there. If there are reporters who want to talk to you and meet with you, you're going to talk to them.

"There's not going to be this 'Oh, I can't do this, I can't do that.' There's this notion that winning is certainly important. But it's not the only thing. We actually want a football program connected to the community, but we don't have that. And we know that."

Crow spoke for the Sun Devils but what he said resonated in Tucson. The UA's football program hasn't been connected to the community since Dick Tomey left office in 2001.

That's why Byrne's decision to hire Rodriguez went beyond the coach's 120 career victories. The UA was desperate to reconnect to a constituency that knew its last two football coaches as much for bad tempers and bad manners as anything else.

Somehow, sometimes surprisingly, more than 50,000 people kept paying to watch Arizona football, but there was little, if any, love in return.

Now the man in charge has a warmer approach.

Before he left the Student Union on Sunday, Rodriguez told his audience, "I hope to get a chance to introduce myself to all of you in my 15-year career at the University of Arizona."

Any objections?