Rich Rodriguez has Arizona Wildcats fans excited once again for football season. After an inconsistent and mostly-frustrating Mike Stoops era, 'RichRod' brings a new energy and hunger to the program.
Season ticket sales are up, as is hope and optimism for that elusive Rose Bowl bid. There will be bumps along the way, but coach Rodriguez's numbers speak for themselves. And now that he has transplanted nearly his entire coaching staff from his days at West Virginia -- days where he led the program to the highest of highs in school history -- you can only feel the 'Cats are in good hands.
As is normally the case with first-year coaches, there are a number of red flags surrounding the team as practice began on Thursday evening. One of them is a limited number of veterans who have seen meaningful playing time. RichRod has acknowledged this in the past, and now he turns to his seniors for leadership.
"I met with seniors as a group yesterday and asked them to take leadership of this team," Rodriguez said. "I saw that today and they did a great job of teaching the freshman what to do and keeping them engaged in practice."
After some disappointment in the conditioning and shape of the returning players during spring practices, the coaching staff has preached the importance of working hard and getting better every single day. Simply put, if a player wasn't in shape, he isn't going to play.
The Wildcats had not trained at the necessary level to take that next step in the college football world. In this new era of football in Tucson, that will change. And it's about time.
"I think most of the guys were in pretty good shape and I think it showed," Rodriguez said.
"It's a night and day difference certainly from our first practice in the spring to the first practice now. Our execution wasn't there but I liked our enthusiasm and I liked the way we moved around."
Arizona will continue to improve every day from here on out. Changing the program's culture will not be an overnight process, but Thursday's practice officially signaled a new brand of football.
With hard work, dedication and a little bit of luck along the day, football season will no longer be "the season before basketball season" in Tucson.
The next six months are going to be a wild, wacky and unpredictable ride. It's a scary leap, but one that the University of Arizona is ready to make.