Gimino: With Arizona football, uncertainty rules
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - This story is like a bad offensive line. It had a lot of false starts.
It has been my intention to try to reel Arizona Wildcats football fans back off the ledge, to assure them that, if not this season, everything was soon going to be all right, that coach Rich Rodriguez has a plan and that, quite simply, bad seasons happen to good programs.
I still believe most of that, but if I couldn't really convince myself of all of it without bending logic into a pretzel, I probably had no chance to successful sway the doom-and-gloomers.
Arizona sits at 5-4 overall, 2-4 in the Pac-12, without a quality win, coming off a 46-point loss at Washington, and beset by an injury situation that doesn't figure to get any better in the just over two weeks left before the regular-season finale at Arizona State on Nov. 21.
There's your doom. There's your gloom.
That's the short-term look. Don't worry, I wanted to say. Use the wide-angle lens.
The program, I maintain, has never been in better shape, bolstered by three pillars -- athletic director (Greg Byrne), head coach (Rodriguez) and still-new facilities (Lowell-Stevens Football Facility). That combination is the best it has ever been at Arizona.
But maybe that won't be true in a few weeks, which kind of ruins the whole keep-calm-and-take-a-knee narrative I was ready to lay out.
I wrote last week that the coaching vacancy that would be most troublesome for Arizona would be Virginia Tech. And, indeed, 69-year-old coach Frank Beamer announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season, over the weekend.
With Rodriguez's name mentioned prominently for that job (and, to some extent, at South Carolina and Miami), Byrne even acknowledged the speculation in his Wildcat Wednesday newsletter.
Byrne wrote: "(Y)ou've likely heard Coach Rodriguez's name mentioned with some of the coaching vacancies around the country. It's a great reflection on our program and Coach Rodriguez, and he knows that we want him to be our coach. Meanwhile, it's important that we stay focused on the remainder of this season, which starts by going up to Los Angeles and playing well against USC."
That makes it hard to look at the big picture beyond this season.
But I wanted to anyway.
Go ahead and lose your mind over this season, but I'm mostly baffled at why Rodriguez doesn't get a pass. He won 26 games in his first three seasons -- featuring two of the most decorated players in school history (Ka'Deem Carey and Scooby Wright) -- and won last season's Pac-12 South title ... all while still being in rebuilding mode from the Mike Stoops era.
More was expected after last season's 10-win campaign, but progress isn't always linear. The no-bye schedule, all the injuries and recruiting misses have conspired to whip together a perfect storm of this year's struggles.
So, this season might end up at .500 or below. You want to know what other programs have finished (or likely will finish) no better than .500 in the regular season since 2013?
Bad seasons happen to good programs. All but the very elite are immune.
TCU went 4-8 in 2013, which was Gary Patterson's 13th season as head coach of the Horned Frogs. They are 20-1 since then.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson went just 7-6 in his sixth season, then he won the ACC Coastal, and now the Jackets are sitting at 3-6 after starting the season 16th in the AP poll.
Kyle Whittingham had losing seasons at Utah in his eighth and ninth seasons in the program (2012, 2013). Now, the Utes are leading the Pac-12 South and reached as high as No. 3 in the AP poll before losing at USC.
Shoot, Arizona State might not get past 6-6 this season.
Point is, a bad Arizona season in Rodriguez's fourth year doesn't have to mean anything other than "stuff happens." Year-to-year momentum is a myth.
"Every year, it's a whole new team," Rodriguez said Monday.
"You might have a lot of guys back and you kind of know what they have, but having players back is a good thing if they continue to improve. That is one thing I was optimistic about -- we have quite a few players back and I thought they were going to be better.
"But some of them got hurt, and they haven't been able to play, or play as effectively as we like them to do."
Rodriguez said his players had the best summer workouts since he arrived after the 2011 season, that they were "staying hungry."
"The attitude within the program was really good," Rodriguez said.
"The summer was really good. And the beginning of camp was really good. And then all of a sudden things happened, a little of bad luck happened."
Wright has been played the equivalent of one game at linebacker because of injuries following his multiple-award-winning season as the best defensive player in college football. The team's second-best linebacker, Derrick Turituri, has missed half the season. The team's potential third-best linebacker, Cody Ippolito, is going to miss all the season.
Running back Nick Wilson has missed almost all of the past three games and might not return this season. Quarterback Anu Solomon hasn't quite been the same since suffering a concussion Sept. 26.
Two athletically promising up-and-comers touted to be potential stars -- sophomore cornerback Cam Denson and left tackle Freddie Tagaloa -- have been disappointing. Denson has lost his starting job to true freshman Jace Whittaker; Tagaloa was moved to left guard.
That's a very partial accounting of what has gone awry.
Yes, I think RichRod has earned a pass, deserves some trust, even if the Cats can't come up with any more victories in the final three games this season. But I also can't sit here and make a compelling case for how the defense is going to be that much better next season, especially if Wright takes his talents to the NFL.
And that assumes Rodriguez is still coaching in Tucson.
If he stays, I think Arizona will be fine -- and, by fine, I don't mean "Ohio State fine" or "Alabama fine." I mean, a winning program that makes a legit run at the Pac-12 South title at least once every few years, mixed in with an occasional stinker.
If he leaves, well, that's a step back, but the program is more enticing than ever, thanks to Byrne and Pac-12-level facilities.
I'm more optimistic than not about the future of Arizona, but uncertainty rules for now. Panic if you must. I'm probably not going to be able to talk you out of it.
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Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.