It helps to have connections.

Rhett Rodriguez’s father, Rich, coached at the first Manning Passing Academy more than 20 years ago.

The former Arizona Wildcats coach is now the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss — which happens to be the alma mater of Archie and Eli Manning.

Archie asked Rich whether Rhett, a junior quarterback at the UA, would be interested in serving as a counselor at this year’s Manning Passing Academy. Rhett jumped at the opportunity.

But here’s the thing about Rhett Rodriguez: He’s much more of a what-you-know guy than a who-you-know guy. Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you he has the mind of a coach. It seems inevitable he’ll follow his father’s lead and become one.

Rodriguez got a taste of that life at last week’s Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, Louisiana. After returning to Tucson to continue summer workouts, Rodriguez sat down with the Star to discuss the experience.

Topics included his interactions with Peyton Manning, his potential future in coaching and the outlook for the 2019 Wildcats. The conversation has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

How would you summarize the experience at the Manning Passing Academy?

A: “Overall, it was a good chance for me to connect with other football minds. The Mannings. There are a lot of great coaches that work it. A lot of the other quarterbacks. It was cool to talk to them and kinda pick their brains – see how different programs run practices, drills, what their classes are. Just the chance to kinda see what college is like at different places around the country.”

What was your personal highlight of the weekend?

A: “The very first night everyone’s in there after the first practice, there’s a Q&A with all the college quarterbacks that are there. There’s like a thousand campers. They pick a few quarterbacks to sit on stage and answer questions. I just remember when I was there as a camper, I think it was Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota up there. I was just completely starstruck. And then to know that I was on that stage and had worked to get to that point was kind of a moment where it was like, ‘This is really happening.’

“Most of the questions were going to (Clemson’s) Trevor Lawrence and (Georgia’s) Jake Fromm. I still got a few. It was just cool to be on the stage, having all the counselors look up to me.”

How much interaction did you have with the Mannings?

A: “Right when we all got there, we kind of had a welcoming and introduced ourselves. Every staff meeting, they’d all be there. We’d all hang out. And then we had an individual meeting where it was Peyton, Eli, Brian Schottenheimer (offensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks) and the quarterback counselors. That lasted about an hour. It was just a Q&A — whatever we wanted to ask. Nothing was off the table.

“Then, every social event at night, they’d have food catered. Peyton Manning would come up and sit at our table and talk to us for like 30 minutes. That was really cool. Just how accessible they are. Everyone in the world knows who they are. For them to take the time to come up to us and talk to us really shows their character.”

What’s one thing you gleaned from hearing Peyton talk?

A: “Peyton Manning’s biggest thing, as everyone knows, is preparation. He said — which really stuck with me — that his worst nightmare would be if, in Week 2, a team showed a blitz. And (then) it was Week 16, and they didn’t study that game and that blitz beat them.

“That was his biggest nightmare. It wasn’t if he threw a bad pass or made the wrong read (but) if a team showed something on film and he wasn’t prepared for it. That’s what he was always trying to avoid.”

Would you like to be a coach someday?

A: “That’s something I’m considering going into. I have some connections in the field, which is a really big part of it. I love the game. I can’t really picture myself leaving the game. So right now I’m leaning towards it, but I’m trying to keep all my options open.”

What appeals to you about coaching?

A: “This time, being a college football player, is something I always looked (forward) to. This was kind of my dream when I was younger. Being able to help kids through that process, being there for them, to try to help them, whether it’s go to the NFL or just be a really good college player, that’s a really transformative time in players’ lives. I kinda would like to be a part of that process.”

What’s the offseason been like for the team compared to last year, when everything was still so new?

A: “Last year, I wouldn’t say a feeling-out process, but we were still trying to figure out what the coaches were expecting of us and what we were supposed to do. Now we’re a year in, so we know what they want. This offseason, it’s really about getting better. And the little details aren’t little anymore.

“Last year we didn’t really have the year that we wanted. A lot of it could have been avoided if we had paid attention to the little details. This offseason it’s kind of what we’re working for, to make sure everyone’s on the same page — that no one’s overlooking anything.”

What are your expectations for the team in 2019?

A: “The goal is always the Pac-12 championship. That’s what we’re working for every day. Anything short of that is short of our goal. We’re not just looking to make a bowl game.”

How much do you still think about the UCLA game, which you started and lost by literally the smallest margin a team can lose by?

A: “I think about it every day. That was simultaneously the highest moment of my life and the lowest. That whole process, being able to start in the Rose Bowl, I still look back and go, ‘That’s crazy. That’s unbelievable.’ It’s something I’ll never forget. And then at the same time knowing how disappointed I was in the end.”


Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.