The fifth year of being a head coach at Arizona is like coming to the most difficult part of the obstacle course — either the coach keeps going after climbing that treacherous wall to the other side or he falls flat.
The average span of an Arizona coach over the last 80 years (16 coaches) is five years. Rich Rodriguez’s team is 2-6 overall and 0-5 in the Pac-12 in his fifth season in Tucson.
Larry Smith’s fifth year at Arizona was in 1984. The Wildcats were 4-4 after consecutive losses to USC and Washington. Smith felt the heat in Tucson from fans a year after the Wildcats reached No. 3 in the AP Top 25 poll. His frustration reaching its zenith, Smith lambasted the refs after the Washington loss, commenting, “The officiating stunk, the Pac-10 officiating stinks, and I am sick of it.” Smith argued that 7-0 Washington got the calls to keep the conference’s top team unbeaten, while Arizona, serving an NCAA probation, was an afterthought.
Smith’s lifeline at that time was coaching Arizona through that probation from the previous staff. Arizona played in the Sun Bowl the following year against Georgia, only its fifth bowl in school history. The following season, in 1986, Arizona won its first bowl, the Aloha Bowl, over North Carolina. The Wildcats were 20-6 (including 9-3 in 1986) after that Washington loss in 1984. Smith left for what seemed like greener pastures at USC following the Aloha Bowl win and Arizona fans who once criticized the coach, loathed him for being a traitor.
Dick Tomey’s fifth season in 1991 was forgettable, a 4-7 record that included the Wildcats losing five of their last seven games, including a 37-14 loss at ASU, ending “The Streak.” Tomey had at least 13 starters miss playing time because of injuries that season. Tomey felt the pressure in Tucson starting from the previous season when he lost three of his last four games. From the end of 1990 to three games into the 1992 season, Tomey was in a 6-11-1 stretch. He held an individual meeting with all of his players after tying Oregon State in Corvallis three games into the 1992 season.
The next game, at No. 1 Miami on Sept. 26, 1992, the Desert Swarm defense was born. The Wildcats came a missed field goal away from beating the Hurricanes, losing 8-7 at the Orange Bowl. The Wildcats went on to win five consecutive games, culminating with a 16-3 dominating win over No. 1 Washington in Tucson. Arizona reached the Fiesta Bowl a season later, routing Miami 29-0, to finish 10-2. Tomey had more bumps along the way until coaching the 1998 team to a 12-1 record and Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. Overcoming that fifth-year hurdle, Tomey lasted 14 years, the most of any coach since J.F. “Pop” McKale served 16 years ending in 1930.
Mike Stoops was at a high point in his career in his fifth season in Arizona, digging the program out of the depths from the failed John Mackovic experiment from 2001 to 2003. In Stoops’ fifth year (2008), the Wildcats finished 8-5 ending with a Las Vegas Bowl victory over BYU.
The Wildcats finished 8-5 the following season but the 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl signaled a turn for the worse. In 2010, Arizona reached the Alamo Bowl despite losing its last four regular season games. The Wildcats were blown out 36-10 by Oklahoma State in the bowl. Arizona started 1-5 the following season and Stoops was fired with six games remaining. After the Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU, Arizona went 16-16 including a 1-10 stretch between the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Stoops survived through the five-year barrier but unlike Smith and Tomey, he fell flat, dramatically, afterward.
Arizona is now in Rodriguez’s fifth season and the Wildcats are in the midst of their first five-game losing streak since the stretch in 2011 that led to Stoops’ firing. Where does Arizona go from here following last night’s 34-10 listless loss to Stanford on Homecoming at Arizona Stadium?
Can Rodriguez pull a Smith and Tomey and keep his footing after the five-year barrier? Or will the program take a turn for the worse like what happened to Stoops?
Arizona is in that unknown territory, the abyss.
Recruiting is the answer and nobody knows — not even Rodriguez and his staff — if the recruits from last year and the Class of 2017 will be the answer.
What is known: Arizona has a new staff on defense with Marcel Yates only in his first season as the coordinator. He needs at least three seasons, through 2018, for his system to take shape with his kind of players.
Panic button or snooze button? Your call as Arizona falls further and looks for a spark after loss to Stanford.https://t.co/zSNlEtDpQ2
Smith and Tomey were defensive-minded coaches who made it to the next season and beyond knowing Arizona’s defense would win games; they knew the Wildcats would find it difficult to outscore opponents. Although Rodriguez’s read-option spread offense can be potent — with healthy quarterbacks, running backs and linemen — he knows the Wildcats will not be successful trying to always win high-scoring games.
Arizona needs a defense with players of the same mentality of Scooby Wright III and the no-nonsense Desert Swarm defenders to turn its fortunes around and keep Rodriguez alive past this five-year impediment. It needs more quality depth on defense. It needs to be coached up.
Is Yates and his staff the answer for Rodriguez? Will they recruit the right kind of player in abundance?
Barring a collapse next season similar to what happened to Stoops in 2011, the 2018 season could be one for the books for Rodriguez, one way or the other.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.