Of all the chatter to surface from the Pac-12’s football media session last week, one comment stuck:
“If you’re not at the brand-name schools, you get a master’s in learning how to deal with rejection.”
That was Rich Rodriguez essentially informing the college football world that Arizona is a nobody.
Such news would be a revelation to the late Larry Smith and to Dick Tomey, who for 20 years, 1981-2000, built a reputation — a brand — as the toughest football program in the Pac-10. Over those 20 years, Arizona had the No. 3 record in the league behind Washington and USC.
The Wildcats, often out-manned, and on NCAA probation from 1982-84, took on all comers: They beat a pair of No. 1 teams, played home-and-home series with Miami, Notre Dame, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, overturned the long domination by Arizona State and built an 8-0-1 streak over the Sun Devils. They were the first Pac-10 team smart enough to mine the rich vein of Polynesian football talent, and produced a series of game-changing players from Ricky Hunley to Chuck Cecil to Darryll Lewis to Tedy Bruschi to Chris McAlister, Max Zendejas and the B&E, Byron Evans.
The assistant coaching staffs were flush with rising stars and former head coaches like Chuck Stobart, Jim Young and Homer Smith, men who could’ve coached anywhere.
The brand created by Smith and Tomey ultimately vaporized during the John Mackovic years. Give Mike Stoops credit for building from scratch and becoming a tough out for a few years. But the UA is no longer a tough out in Pac-12 football. It no longer plays the big-name schools regularly. It has become soft.
In my opinion, only three Pac-12 football schools truly have a brand: USC, Stanford and Oregon. But I’ve never heard a coach in any Pac-12 sport, even those at remote Washington State, admit they are not among the chosen few.
It comes off as surrender.
After an offseason of change and uncertainty, RichRod has made a tangible move to restore Arizona’s edge. He hired Cecil to help with defensive analysis and player development.
So many of those who helped build Arizona’s reputation for 20 years — NFL coaches Tom Quinn and Jeff Hammerschmidt, and program-building players from the 1980s like Mike Freeman, Tony Neely, Jim Birmingham, David Adams, Jerry Beasley, John Kaiser and Claudius Wright — all responded with positive feedback on Cecil’s Facebook page.
A lot of people are putting faith in No. 6, believing — hoping — Cecil can help to restore the toughness that he helped establish.
That’s a lot on one man’s plate, especially when that man is 52 years old.
Cecil played his first game for Arizona in October 1984 as a kickoff coverage player against the Oregon Ducks. Cecil volunteered to be what he called the “wedgebuster,” taking on the middle of the Oregon kickoff team.
He told the Star: “I ain’t afraid of no wedge.”
Once again, 33 years later, Chuck Cecil has become a wedgebuster.