Rich Rodriguez was once the most famous man in Morgantown, W.Va. At Michigan, he was a popular -- but polarizing -- resident of Ann Arbor. He has coached football games at The Big House and in the Horseshoe, and has been part of Backyard Brawls and battles for little brown jugs.
Today, the Arizona Wildcats' head coach takes Hollywood for the first time.
(OK, it's Universal Studios. But what's a few miles?)
Sizzle sells in the new Pac-12 Conference, and none of the league's legion of new coaches arrives with more swagger than Rodriguez. Hired in November to energize a program that had gone stale under Mike Stoops, Rodriguez -- the former boss at Michigan and West Virginia -- will be asked to win games and win over new fans, all while he waits for a stadium construction project that will eventually pull the UA even with many of the Pac-12's well-heeled programs.
His first season will be a tough sell. The UA will be picked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 South Division today, when the conference holds its annual Media Day at Universal Studios.
It's easy to see why: The Wildcats went just 4-8 a year ago under coaches Stoops and Tim Kish, and that was before quarterback Nick Foles, receiver Juron Criner and cornerback Trevin Wade left for the NFL. Rodriguez was hired in late November with hopes that his spread-option offense and 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense will give the Wildcats a strategic edge.
If nothing else, they should be more exciting -- eventually.
"The way we've always done things, you're scraping the rust off before you paint," Rodriguez said. "If you get lucky in the first year, you scrape the rust off while you paint."
If the coach is optimistic with one week left before the start of training camp, it's out of habit.
NCAA rules mean Rodriguez has seen very little of his team since the end of spring practices. Linebackers Brian Wagner and David Lopez left the team last month, and safety Adam Hall -- who tore the ACL in his right knee during the spring game -- is expected to miss the entire season.
The club will open camp with 25 true freshmen, many of whom could contribute right away.
"It might take a couple games to figure what we've got," Rodriguez said.
The Wildcats have a few things going for them, though. Fifth-year quarterback Matt Scott fits the spread-option system perfectly, and running back Ka'Deem Carey could thrive with regular touches.
The Pac-12 South is top-heavy, with only USC and Utah expected to compete for a conference championship. The other three teams in Arizona's division combined to win just 15 games a year ago; two of them, Arizona State and UCLA, fired their coaches.
The UA will play eight home games in Rodriguez's first season, a soft-enough schedule that the Wildcats could compete for a bowl game.
It'd be a Hollywood -- OK, Universal City -- ending to a season that can't start soon enough.
"The one thing that I do like from spring is that their attitude is really good, and they're hungry," Rodriguez said. "But it's easy to be hungry in spring. Were they hungry this summer? I think most of them were. I'll know more the first week of practice."
Projecting the Pac-12
Arizona Daily Star reporter Ryan Finley's preseason Pac-12 picks. A poll will be released today:
-- Oregon. The defending Rose Bowl champs will have a tougher time with stars LaMichael James and Darron Thomas gone, but the Ducks are still the class of a weak north.
-- Washington. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will try to overhaul a unit that allowed 67 points and 777 yards in last year's Alamo Bowl. With even a minor improvement, the Huskies can do big things.
-- Stanford. Forget the quarterback: Stanford's season will hinge on how running back Stepfan Taylor and linebacker Shayne Skov perform as seniors.
-- Oregon State. Nothing went right for the Beavers in 2011, and they finished with their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1997-98. There's good news, however: OSU returns 17 total starters in 2012.
-- Washington State. The Cougars have a compelling 1-2 quarterback combo in Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, and a first-year coach -- Mike Leach -- who loves to chuck it. They'll be fun, if not successful.
-- Cal. The Golden Bears return six defensive starters from a unit that's led the league in total defense the past two seasons. But the club is too inconsistent, and has too tough a schedule -- including a September game at Ohio State -- to be relevant this fall.
-- USC. The Trojans emerge from postseason purgatory boasting the nation's best quarterback, Matt Barkley, and dynamic receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Lee. USC is, once again, the west's best hope for a national champion.
-- Utah. The Utes won eight games in their first Pac-12 Conference season, and proved that they were tough enough on defense to hang with the best. If quarterback Jordan Wynn can stay healthy, they'll head back to the postseason.
-- UCLA. What to say about a team that made the Pac-12 title game a year ago, and fired its coach anyway? Oh yeah, the Bruins' best player -- senior Jeff Locke -- is a punter.
-- Arizona. The Wildcats face an uphill battle in coach Rich Rodriguez's first year, but at least they get to sleep in their own beds. Arizona's 2012 schedule includes eight home games, including three in a row to start the season. Somewhere, Mike Stoops is green (well, probably red) with envy.
-- Colorado. The Buffs return just three offensive starters from a team that went 3-10 a year ago, and they're all offensive linemen. Meaning, basically, that this year's team will be both inexperienced and bad.
-- Arizona State. Dennis Erickson's final team may have been a mess, but at least it had stars Brock Osweiler and Vontaze Burfict to keep things interesting. This year's Sun Devils return just eight total starters, face a tough nonconference schedule and must learn two new schemes. It won't end well.
-- PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: USC over Oregon
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