It wasn't long ago when Arizona's Mike Stoops was on the hot seat. Now, he's coaching one of the fastest-rising programs in the Pac-10.
Stoops, 47, entered 2008 under fire. In fact, some felt he had to deliver a bowl bid or lose his job. Stoops hadn't been to a bowl or had a winning record in any of his first four years on the job, and Arizona closed 2007 with three losses in the final four games.
The outlook has changed. Last season, he guided the Wildcats to an 8-5 record and a Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU. This season, Stoops' Wildcats are 8-4, including a 6-3 mark in Pac-10 play (second). It could have been better, as the Wildcats were just a 44-41 home overtime loss to Oregon away from playing in the school's first Rose Bowl.
Arizona will play in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, which is coached by Stoops' Youngstown, Ohio, friend Bo Pelini. Arizona hasn't been to consecutive bowls since 1997-98.
Since a season-ending win at USC, Stoops has seen his brother, Mark, leave to take the defensive coordinator post with Florida State. Mike Stoops now will have co-defensive coordinators, promoting Tim Kish and hiring Greg Brown from Colorado. Stoops feels good about the direction of his team and recently spoke to Rivals.com.
At what point did you know this could be a good team?
I felt confident about this team all along. I thought we were underrated going into the year by prognosticators. We thought we had a pretty solid team coming back. We felt that if we could find some balance offensively, that we would have a pretty good team. We also needed to find a quarterback. Plus we had [tight end] Robby [Gronkowski] coming back. It was disappointing to lose him before practices started [to a back injury]. It took us a little bit of time to move around the offense we had installed around him. Once we had our quarterback situation squared away and found a new identity on offense, we kind of took off.
Both were good and bad. You see signs, but both lacked consistency. It was a predicament, trying to find the right guy. We gave Matt the first shot. And he did some awfully good things. It was more us trying to re-identify ourselves after losing Robbie early on. We then started spreading it. We like the zone read ... but that's not what we like to feature. We went to more spread and four wides with Gronkowski out. And that is where Nick flourished. He liked that and adjusted well to it.
What's the most underrated part of your team?
Our consistency is what you look at. Look what we have done over the last two years. We have been very consistent against top-tier teams, what we have done against top-25 teams. I mean, come on, look at how many good teams we have beaten this year. Oregon State, Stanford, Central Michigan, USC. I think we've been an undervalued team.
Do you think you were on a hot seat entering 2008?
Oh, yeah. It was pretty hot. That was really hard -- hard on our players and coaches. We had played good football the last three or four years when you looked at it. Look at our schedule strength. We played a top-10 schedule the year before and this year.
Playing nine conference games? I mean, come on, let's be real about this. How many [league games] does the Big East play? Seven. And how many do they play outside the conference? Look at some of the schedules. Look at the indifference in scheduling. Come on. That is a joke.
It is a travesty what we go through. We don't get any credit for that. We don't buy wins. We played Iowa and Central Michigan [this year]; they won 21 games between them. And we had five conference games on the road this year. We played Cal, Oregon State, Washington, USC and ASU [Arizona State] on the road.
What facilities need to be improved to make Arizona a better job?
We desperately need a football facility. We don't have one. We are in the McKale Center [the basketball arena]. Our facilities definitely need upgrading. We haven't done anything facility-wise in I don't know how long. People are excited about what we're doing. This is the time. We have to parlay this into building a program that can take this to the next level.
What has been the low point of your tenure?
There have been a lot. There have been so many hard losses. There has been a lot of stuff we have had to fight through. Even within your own program, you are fighting. You inherit such poor attitude and work ethic. It just gets better and better, and you keep working at it every day. It has taught us a valuable lesson. We appreciate where we are at a lot more than other people just because we have had to fight through so much.
How bad of shape was the program when you took over?
We didn't even have a summer workout program. Not even a voluntary one. Not a good work ethic. But from Day One, the players never quit on us through this whole experience. People forget that we were 6-6 our third year. And look at the teams we beat, and we didn't get a bowl. Are you kidding me? They act like we didn't know what we were doing.
What was the best team you played this year?
I would say it's between Iowa and Oregon. Iowa defensively, to be able to play their scheme like they did and be as physical and fast as they were ... their defense by far was the best and most difficult for us to deal with. And obviously Oregon's offense; they have so many ways to attack you and put so much stress on you every play. Those two teams stressed us going into the game.
What was wrong with USC this season?
I think maturity and change. Some of the stability they had, whether it be players or coordinators, was missing. Look at the players they lost. Those linebackers were studs. That's hard to go through something like that. And the conference has gotten better. And any time you lose your coordinators, it hurts. Not having those guys to lean on hurts, the comfort level. I think that's pretty important.
Was it good for the Pac-10 to have someone other than USC win the league title?
Sure, it's great. I think people are starting to respect the depth of the Pac-10. There isn't any question about it. Washington is coming on, Stanford -- it is incredible to go nine deep now. It's impressive.
How long will it be before Arizona plays in its first Rose Bowl?
We were about six seconds away this year. That quarterback [Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli] made some great plays. He is so good under pressure. He's strong, fast and just makes plays.
He's very good, fantastic, one of the best offensive minds I have see in a long time with a traditional offense. He certainly has bravado. He is an interesting guy. He's very confident. I like him.
What will it be like to coach against fellow Youngstown, Ohio, Cardinal Mooney High alum Bo Pelini?
It'll be interesting. Philosophically, we are similar in a lot of ways in how we structure our teams. Our discipline and toughness are what we stand for. We always are putting out good defensive efforts. It will come down to which offense can make some plays. You have to score some points. And they have been hard to come by vs. them. And we have played pretty sound defense. It will come down to offenses trying to get the ball into the end zone. It'll be a pretty intense game.