Rich Rodriguez, wearing a bright-red Arizona Wildcats polo shirt and gray shorts, greets a visitor at his office inside the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility on a cool, cloudy Wednesday morning. He is relaxed. Shoeless, in fact.
It’s the calm before — and after — the storm.
Earlier this week, the Wildcats football coach released two longtime aides: defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jeff Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich. Later this week, Rodriguez will attend the American Football Coaches Association Convention in San Antonio, where he will interview candidates for those jobs.
Rodriguez addressed that topic and others in an interview with the Star. Here are the highlights from that conversation:
Let’s start with the defensive staff changes you made this week. What was the general thought process behind that?
A: “It was obviously very difficult because they’re outstanding coaches, very good people, longtime colleagues, longtime friends. It was just a situation where we had to look at some things for the program. It was probably best for everybody involved for us to kind of look for a new direction with some of the things we’re doing on defense.
“Again, it was the most difficult decision of my head coaching career. It was kind of, I don’t want to say starting over, but we’re going to have kind of a new birth for our defense. And not just scheme-wise. That part is not as much of a factor as just recruiting-wise, approach-wise. We’re going to take a look at everything. I’m evaluating everything in the program. It starts with me.
“It’s not just schemes. It’s everything that we’re doing. We’ve been here four years. It’s time for me to take a good, hard look at everything that we’re doing so we can continue to grow. We had a lot of stuff happen this season injury-wise and all that, which made it really tough, especially on defense. But I’m also pretty excited about what we’ve got built so far. I just want it to grow.”
Why now? Is it because you saw something headed in the wrong direction defensively?
A: “I don’t want to get into all the particulars. It’s done, and everybody’s moved on. It’s my job as the head coach to do whatever it takes to have the program grow to another level.”
When the 2016 Arizona defense takes the field, what are some of the things you’d like to see out of that unit that you haven’t seen recently?
A: “It’s probably not fair to compare because a lot of the things we always want to see, sometimes there’s some luck involved with injuries and personnel. Like anything else, I want us to be good and stop people. Have kind of a personality that embodies what this program is about. That’s not to say we didn’t have it when we were healthy the last couple years.
“I want to build the best program in America. People say, ‘Well, it’s this side of the ball, it’s defense or it’s offense or it’s special teams.’ No. It’s everything. I want us to be better next year than we were this year. Pretty simple.”
You’re going to be interviewing some coaches at the convention. Do you have a timetable in mind?
A: “Nah. Whenever I’m comfortable. I’ve kind of got a plan. But at the same time, I’m not necessarily looking for one person to come in and run his defense. He’s going to run Arizona’s defense. And everybody in the program will be on board with it. I’ll be the one making the hire, but I’ll involve some of the other coaches in the interviews as well.”
Everyone’s curious to see if you’re going to stick with the 3-3-5 defense. Do you envision that happening?
A: “No matter what I do, why would I tell anybody? We don’t have a game until the end of August (actually Sept. 3). What do we open up with, BYU? Come to the game or watch it on TV, and you’ll see what we’re running.”
Do you view Anu Solomon as the returning starter at quarterback, or is this an open competition?
A: “It’s always open. He’s the returning starter. But anybody can be a returning starter and get beat out. It’s good if you’re a returning starter; you’ve got some experience. But we’re only going to be better if you return as better than what you were. Our challenge with Anu and everybody else is, let’s get better. With Brandon Dawkins, see if you can come in and compete for it. And whoever else comes in competes for it. I think our guys know the way we run things. Being entrenched as a starter is not something that we talk about. You’ve got to compete all the time.”
All things considered, how do you feel like Anu performed this past season?
A: “When he was healthy, I thought he played pretty well. He missed some games, obviously, with some injuries. There’s still another level he can get to. He’s a talented guy that I think is ready to take the next step. He had a really good year in his first year as a starter. This year was kind of up and down. Some of it was due to injuries. But now I think he’s ready to take the next step.”
How confident are you in running back Nick Wilson’s ability to stay healthy?
A: “We’re hopeful. Football’s important to him. He’s had some tough luck this year. We’re better when Nick is healthy for sure because he’s a really good player. We didn’t do any contact with him last spring and probably won’t do much with him this spring either. I feel good that he should be fine by the fall.”
You interviewed at South Carolina but didn’t take the job. What’s your takeaway from that whole situation now?
A: “Sometimes, just out of curiosity, you’re looking to see if there’s mutual interest. Curiosity can help you build your own program. You find out what you have, what you don’t have, what you can do to improve. I think there was mutual interest, but not enough on either side to make a move. But I also felt that it was very educational for me, if that’s the right word, when I had my talks with them, because I was able to make a comparison of where that program is and what they have, and where our program is and what we have, what I need to do to build this one.
“Sometimes fans get upset. Why would you even look? I think that was kind of a really quick opportunity for me, out of curiosity, to make some comparisons. That’s basically what I did. We have a lot of good things here. There’s some things we’ve got to work on and things we’ve got to get better at. But we can get it done here.”
So you feel good about the future here, even though last season didn’t go the way you wanted?
A: “Last season, we were average. Seven-and-six, you’re just average. It’s good to win the bowl game because you don’t want to have a losing record for the seniors. There were a lot of factors that went into it; there always are. The issues that we have, we’re not going to stick our head in the sand. I can’t stick my head in the sand and say, well, it’ll just automatically get better. We’ve got to work to get it better. But I’ve got a good group of kids on the team. … I think the players are bought in. I think the community wants successful football, and I hope they’re as excited as I am.”