When Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez received a call from Greg Byrne to inform him he was leaving to become the athletic director at Alabama, he wasn't completely caught off guard.
It wasn't public yet, but Rodriguez had heard rumors about the possibility and had worked with Byrne long enough to understand why Alabama came calling.
"He's so well-respected and has done such a good job wherever he has been that the fact that an athletic program as established as Alabama sought him out is not a surprise at all," Rodriguez said last week.
Byrne was responsible for hiring Rodriguez prior to the 2012 season and has since been viewed as a staunch supporter of the former West Virginia and Michigan coach. That was an easy stance to take at first, as Rodriguez led Arizona to bowl games in his first four seasons, including a Pac-12 South title in 2014.
The early success built up enough good will to easily justify Byrne's continued public support of Rodriguez in the wake of a disastrous 3-9 record last season. In short, Rodriguez, who is 36-29 in five seasons, had no need to worry about his job security in the short term. But with Byrne out and former Central Michigan athletic director Dave Heeke in, the equation has changed -- and soon the university will also name a new president to succeed Dr. Ann Weaver Hart.
It's possible that Heeke and the next president will be strong supporters of Rodriguez, but it's also fair to assume his margin for error will be smaller than it would have been had he remained employed under the two people who were tied more closely to his success.
"[The coach-athletic director relationship] is always important, of course," Rodriguez said. "In football and probably men's basketball -- those two sports in particular -- winning and losing determines your job status most of the time. You do want to have a good relationship with the AD.
"Most of the ADs understand that successful football and probably men's basketball programs are going to be high profile and if those two programs are having success, it's generally viewed that the department is having success. That works hand in hand."
There isn't as much pressure to win in football at Arizona as some other more traditional powers, but Rodriguez can't string together multiple seasons like last year and expect to remain employed for long. At the same time, there needs to be a continued commitment to the program for the Wildcats to compete consistently in the Pac-12, which is where the administration comes in.
"I've said this since I got here, but it's got to be ok for us to say football is important at Arizona," Rodriguez said. "People have asked, 'What's it like to be at a basketball school?' I'm like, 'I think it's great to be known for something.' The truth is we're known for a lot of our sports. Our women's softball, our Olympics sports, certainly men's basketball and they've been good in football in the past too.
"It can be done here at the highest level in all sports. But we've got to make sure that's it's ok to say it's important to be good in football and we've had that mindset here with President Ann Hart and Greg Byrnes."
For Rodriguez, the most pressing need for the program is the construction of an indoor practice facility to allow the team to escape the scorching heat of the Arizona desert. He said there was a general agreement among university officials that one should be constructed, but that it doesn't yet have the required funding to move forward.
From an on-field standpoint, the Wildcats are approaching the midway point of spring practice, and there is a clear understanding that significant progress needs to be made on the defensive side of the ball. Approximately two-thirds of the roster has turned over since the Wildcats played for the conference title two years ago, and Rodriguez is happy with the infusion of new faces and renewed competition.
On last season, Rodriguez was succinct and accurate: "We were just bad."
That assessment led to a top-to-bottom evaluation of all areas of the program. One phase that jumped out was recruiting, where Rodriguez feels like they haven't done a good enough job evaluating high school talent.
"In our competitive situation the way the Pac-12 is going, you've got to -- especially at a place like Arizona -- you better be a little bit fortunate and really on top of your game in all aspects to have a chance to compete," Rodriguez said. "Some of them we're not going to get fixed over night, but I feel as confident as ever that we're going to have great success.
"We don't want to be average and last year was awful, so there's a lot of work to do."
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