Arizona Wildcats football coach Rich Rodriguez likes to quote a moment from the movie “The Lion King.”
The monkey Rifiki hits the lion Simba on the head with his stick. Simba asks, “What was that for?” Rifiki answers, “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.”
That wasn’t RichRod’s message on Wednesday at Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood.
Arizona is coming off a 3-9 season in which it didn’t do anything right — except for running for 511 yards to beat Arizona State in the season finale, 56-35, somehow dodging what would have been a winless conference season.
“You can take the approach that it didn’t happen, it’s in the past, but we can’t do that. It was there. And it’s going to be there until we start playing. We have to do what we have to do to learn from it,” Rodriguez said on the Pac-12 Network.
“There hasn’t been a day gone by since last season was over that I’m not ticked off, that the players aren’t ticked off, that the staff isn’t ticked off.
It’s awful. It’s embarrassing. It’s ridiculous. But you have to look inward first — what do we have to do to get better. I have been doing this for a long time, but I can’t sit back and say, ‘Well, we’ll keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. That’s insanity, right?”
Problem is, whether Arizona is looking in the past or peering to the future, the picture isn’t pretty.
The Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South in poll of league media. Seems fair. You can make a case for fifth — the argument being that Arizona State is in possible similar disarray — but to hope for much more enters you into the land of unicorns and rainbows.
The Wildcats have few players ready for all-conference honors, no hot NFL Draft prospects for 2018, and the injury problems of the past two seasons already have begun to resurface before camp begins on Monday.
Linebacker DeAndre’ Miller — one of the few guys on defense who looks the part — might not be ready for the start of the season because of a foot injury. Junior college transfer Sione Taufahema, looked to as a needed mountain in the middle of the defensive line, should not be anointed as an immediate savior.
“He had a little injury issue, he gained a little bit of weight, so he’s got to drop some weight and get in shape before he can contribute,” Rodriguez said at Media Days. “But if he gets in shape in the next month, he can help us.”
What might be different moving forward?
Rodriguez, entering his sixth season, now acknowledges mistakes in recruiting strategy. When he assembled much of the old coaching gang from his West Virginia days, he abandoned recruiting in the state of Texas and largely ignored a Polynesian pipeline that had been so good to Arizona, especially during the Dick Tomey era.
That he has come around in both areas shows that he is looking to the past and learning. But is it too late? Arizona football is in this predicament because of substandard recruiting. Fixing that is the only way out.
One thing that won’t change — for better or worse, you could argue — is Rodriguez’s intensity.
Fifth-year offensive lineman Jacob Alsadek was asked about his career in an interview on the Pac-12 Networks.
“Coach Rod being so intense,” he said.
“I’ve never experienced that in my life. Just seeing somebody scream at (former quarterback) BJ Denker like he would scream at BJ Denker was definitely something that I will always remember.
“When we do offensive meetings, if we had a bad game, everybody dreads that so much. You’re like, ‘Oh god, I’m going to get reamed for this play, this play, this play, whatever. He’s a very intense man. It makes you want to play for him, though.
“He wants to win so bad. And that is something that is really important to all of us. You see that drive from him, it makes you want to work as hard as does to win.”