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At Rich Rodriguez's Arizona, challenging yourself can mean letting fans call plays

Spring games are pretty pointless. Why not just have fans take over?

The head coach, with a mic, watching from the stands with fans
The head coach, with a mic, watching from the stands with fans

TUCSON, Ariz. - By and large, college football coaches hate spring games.

"You start thinking about it, and if you can get 40 or 50,000 in attendance then maybe it’s worthwhile in recruiting, maybe," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said.

The hardcore fan wants to believe an exhibition scrimmage six months before the season affects crucial position battles or accurately previews a new offensive or defensive system.

"Whatever you’re teaching scheme-wise, you’ve got six or seven months before players use it," Rodriguez said. "The 20, 30 spring games I’ve ever been a part of, all you do is worry about getting your starters hurt and not showing anything new to your future opponents.

"So hey, I can solve that problem. Let’s not have one."

Rodriguez has killed Arizona's spring game. In its place was an open event for fans this March, right in the middle of the Wildcats' spring schedule. Arizona players worked on position-specific drills like any other practice day, but rather than organize a full team vs. team contact scrimmage, Rodriguez and his staff walked into the stands of Arizona Stadium and found fans to sub in for players and coaches.

RichRod's intent was dual purpose: create that once-in-a-lifetime fan experience to build the brand, and re-engage player enthusiasm after a 7-6 season.

"Hell, I was going to do a slip and slide, but we couldn’t get that organized in time," Rodriguez said. (He's serious about this. It wouldn't be the first time.)

After a winter as one of the most talked about names in head coaching free agency, Rodriguez is back for a fifth season in Tucson.

Rumors tied him to Virginia Tech, but confirmed reports placed him as a finalist for the South Carolina job as an oddly placed bye week ended the Wildcats' regular season a week early.

Just in case you ever end up as an athletic director in the Power 5, Arizona A.D. Greg Byrne has some advice on how to manage such matters.

"Constant contact. That's the most important thing," he said. "I’ll ask coaches directly what’s going on. It’s important to have that kind of a relationship."

Second: transparency. Control your message, internally and externally.

"So much of what you read during that time is actually people trying to position themselves in all sorts of ways. Agents, coaches, schools. When I make a hire -- and I’m in the process of doing this right now for women's basketball -- every person I talk to, I say, ‘If I hear that according to sources, you’ve interviewed or according to sources, you’re now the leading candidate, I assume you don’t want the job. And if you want to try me, try me.'"

Byrne used social media to address Arizona fans at the height of speculation. The Wildcats couldn't control what was going on in Columbia, but they could build their own messaging. Byrne took an unscheduled flight home after the Arizona men's basketball team won a game in Gonzaga and went public.

"Part of that was to say, 'Hey, I'm working on this,'" he said.

Byrne and Rodriguez spoke on Dec. 5 after the coach left Columbia, and both tweeted to break their own news before Will Muschamp's hire later that evening.

"I understand at times that people have curiosities," Byrne said. "Look at the last two coaches at South Carolina for example, Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz. Those are two pretty good coaches. And as the A.D., you have to put your emotion aside and look at the big picture. Rich knew the entire time we wanted him to be our coach."

Once Rodriguez was back in the fold, the coach reset his program.

The Wildcats had finished 2015 110th in Defensive S&P+ (and 123rd in passing), averaging 35.8 points allowed per game.

Longtime defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich were let go. Both dated back to Rodriguez's West Virginia staffs.

"There’s a tendency to say well, you change coaches, you bring new ones in, so that’s why you were bad on defense," Rodriguez said.

"Those guys are good coaches. They didn’t forget to coach. But as the head coach I’ve got the responsibility of trying to fix the problem, and it wasn’t just the actual ‘coaching,’ per se, it was the recruiting, it was a lot of things.

"So I just decided that instead of going piece by piece, I’m going to blow the whole thing up and start over again. And that was hard because of the loyalty and respect and the fact we’d won a whole lot of games together."

Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and San Jose State secondary coach Donte Williams were brought on as much for their recruiting ability as their coaching acumen. Rodriguez wanted to upgrade Arizona's ability to engage with talent earlier in the recruiting process. Yates was well-recommended by Southern California high school coaches, the Wildcats' biggest focus outside of Arizona.

"I wasn’t looking so much for a scheme than a personality, a guy who was confident enough in his scheme to be open enough for new ideas and new parameters," Rodriguez said.

Arizona is still looking for a Rose Bowl. And in turn, it's still looking to expand football into the kind of "year-round brand" seen in the Big Ten and SEC, per Rodriguez. But the Wildcats are 33-20 under RichRod; he's provided them a slow-building consistency absent for decades.

In return, the Tucson culture has provided him an open slate for experimentation.

"My offseason has been: 'Why are we doing this?' It can be a drill, an exercise, anything. I ask, and then coaches have to explain it to me. If it doesn’t make sense, we have to start evaluating why we’re doing. As coaches, and I’ve been guilty of it too, whether it’s a drill or scheme or play, you do it because you’ve always done it. You’re not thinking outside of the box. ‘Does this make sense?’"

So what made the most sense was to ditch that spring game, a practice he and other coaches couldn't rationalize. Instead, he closes practice standing 15 rows up, holding a microphone while a fan named Steve, a 40-something man with a gray goatee in head-to-toe Wildcats gear, picks red-zone plays off a giant piece of poster board.

"Alright Steve, let's see if it works. It's on you if they don't make it, but I don't think they'll give you my job if it works," Rodriguez deadpans.

Steve picks a play, and RichRod calls a number. The scout team throws a fade to the left side. Incomplete.

"PENALTY!" Rodriguez yells.

Steve gets to pick again. Same formation this time, but an inside zone read. Touchdown.

"See? Easy, isn't it, Steve?" Rodriguez says.