Arizona Fires Mike Stoops: Life After Glen Mason Territory

Mike Stoops rebuilt Arizona's football program, but was fired while rebuilding its roster through a merciless opening schedule. How far did he guide the Wildcats, and how far can they go without him?

It was probably a bad sign when somebody took the time to purchase, eh?

Most coaches don't get to retire when they want; they get retired. And in the end, most coaching changes happen either because a) a coach was successful and got pulled away by a bigger/better job, b) the coach's program completely fell apart and a change was both obvious and necessary and c) Glen Mason Territory reared its ugly head, and the program bit the bullet and made a move. Though Arizona's recent record suggests (b), this takes on a (c) feel to me.

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Glen Mason Territory is defined as follows:

Back in my blogger infancy, i coined a term called Glen Mason Territory to describe when a coach achieves at a higher-than-normal level at a given school (probably a second-tier BCS program that hadn't won in a while before he showed up) but cannot ever break through to the next level; he keeps making bowl games and winning, say, 6-8 games a year, but fans begin to get impatient. The crazies begin to start yelling things like "settling for mediocrity!" on talk radio and message boards, season ticket sales begin to fade, and even the rational fans in the base (the SBN readers, naturally) begin to start wondering if a change is needed. [...]

Voluntarily making a change should only be done when you absolutely know your current coach is not going to deliver; you could make the mistake of replacing a coach who wins seven games a year (which is what Glen Mason did over his past eight seasons) with one who wins four.  There is no easy, correct decision when you reach Glen Mason Territory.

When you reach Glen Mason Territory, as Arizona did with its strangely consistent, mesa-like recent on-the-field product (last three years: 8-5, 8-5, 7-6), you try to let fate make your decision for you. Either you finally break through, or you cut bait the moment you get a reason. When Minnesota blew a huge lead to Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl, finishing with a losing record (6-7) for the first time in five years, Mason was shown the door. And in facing perhaps the most difficult early schedule in college football, Arizona got their tipping point.

The Wildcats entered 2011 facing a major rebuilding project on both lines, and their star receiver spent most of the offseason dealing with some personal issues. If their early schedule had included San Jose State, New Mexico and New Mexico State, then perhaps they could have gotten their footing a bit. Instead, they had to face three consecutive Top 10 teams -- Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon. They lost by a combined 130-55. Then they had to go on the road to face a ranked USC squad and an Oregon State team finally developing a pulse. A strong team with that schedule could still have started 2-4 (and indeed, early opponent-adjusted numbers suggest the team may not be a complete debacle, at least not yet). But in losing to Oregon State, 37-27, last Saturday, it appears that Stoops' fate was sealed.

With road trips to Washington and Arizona State remaining, suddenly something like 3-9 was the most likely scenario for 2011; when there is already grumbling that your program may have peaked, a sudden dip like that (even one that can be explained away by strength of schedule) is, to say the least, not good for fan interest and season ticket sales. If Stoops had managed to win at a slightly higher level in recent years, he could have perhaps weathered the storm. But combine Arizona's recent plateau with the fact that chief rival Arizona State looks like it will coast to the first ever Pac-12 South title, and the timing of this move begins to make sense.

(Then again, Arizona has now lost ten straight games to FBS opponents. Even though seven of those losses came to ranked opponents and five to Top 10 opponents, maybe that's all the analysis needed for explaining the move and its timing.)

So now Arizona moves on. And thanks to Stoops' work, his successor should face a much friendlier rebuilding process than the one he took on when he started in Tucson in 2004.

After six years in the wilderness, Arizona at least climbed to the level of the perfectly decent over the last four and a half seasons. And for that, the fiery Stoops deserves quite a bit of credit. He took an unattractive job and made it a lot more attractive. With the right hire, Arizona's rebound from what will almost certainly be a forgettable 2011 could be both faster and more sustainable than what Stoops faced. In a best-case scenario, Stoops could end up a table-setter like Larry Smith, who experienced success at both Arizona and Missouri but also upgraded each program to the point that the next guy could succeed at an even higher level -- Dick Tomey took Arizona to two Top 10 finishes in the decade after Smith left, while Gary Pinkel has won double-digit games three times in a decade at Missouri.

At the same time, of course, there is the worst-case scenario. As Minnesota found, you may get tired of six to eight wins, but it is still better than the fate that could await when you make a move. The Gophers are 18-38 since Mason left after one down season. The combination of a potentially thin cupboard and an iffy hire (Tim Brewster) meant Minnesota faced another coaching change this past season, and early indications are that their second rebuilding project may be deeper and more difficult than the first. Arizona may be a much more attractive program now than they were when Stoops took the job, but Arizona athletic director Bill Byrne still has to make the proper replacement hire, and there isn't an A.D. in America who hits a home run with every hire.

As SBN's Arizona Desert Swarm suggests, Stoops' dismissal is not necessarily surprising. But it is a bit jarring just how quickly things fell apart. Just last October, the Wildcats were undefeated and ranked ninth in the country. They were still 15th heading into November. Stoops' tenure went from turning point to tipping point in the blink of an eye.

The Morning Tailgate runs weekdays. Catch up on the archives.

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