Arizona fans concerned about rumors of head coach Rich Rodriguez’s flirtations with Virginia Tech, and Wildcat decision-makers looking to get proactive in what will be an especially active coach-hiring season, I have a suggestion: Tune into tonight’s Bowling Green-Ohio game. 6 p.m. MT. ESPN2.
You’ll want to keep a close eye on the team in brown, orange and white, and familiarize yourself with its head coach, Dino Babers.
If Rodriguez’s days in Tucson are numbered — and, understand, it’s a big if based solely on conjecture at this point — Dino Babers should be at the top of athletic director Greg Byrne’s list.
Babers is one of the profession’s rising stars. He oversees a prolific offensive style, cultivated under Baylor’s Art Briles, that’s as successful on the field as it is entertaining for spectators.
Babers’ offensive philosophy would transition seamlessly into Arizona’s current style, if not provide a new spin. Consider Babers-coached quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Johnson.
At Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo won the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Payton Award, and developed into a highly coveted NFL draft prospect.
Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson, who is in action tonight, is recording Heisman-caliber numbers in Babers’ system.
With quarterback Anu Solomon, a bevy of explosive wide receivers and talented running back Nick Wilson, the Arizona offense is readymade to thrive in a Baylor-style scheme.
In three-plus seasons at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, Babers’ record is 33-15; not bad, though not necessarily eye-popping. However, at both stops, Year 2 saw dramatic improvement from Year 1.
Eastern Illinois finished 7-5 in 2012 with an opening-round loss in the FCS Playoffs. In 2013, the Panthers finished 12-2 and ranked in the top 4 of the subdivision.
Babers’ first season at Bowling Green earned the Falcons a berth in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game for a second consecutive year, though they finished the season a pedestrian 8-6.
This season, Bowling Green is 6-2 and aiming for a perfect conference record. The Falcons’ sole losses are at Tennessee in Week 1, where they remained close with the SEC’s Volunteers until the fourth quarter, and Week 3 against Memphis.
The 44-41 final is the closest margin with which any opponent of the undefeated Tigers has been this season.
And, while Babers is in just his fourth year of head coaching, he’s hardly a newcomer to the game. Babers had plenty of time to craft his coaching identity, spending two decades as an assistant at a variety of stops before getting his opportunity at Eastern Illinois.
One of those stops? Arizona, from 1995 through 2000.
Babers coordinated one of the best Wildcat offenses prior to Rodriguez’s in 2012 when, in 1998, he oversaw the successful, two-quarterback system with Ortege Jenkins and Keith Smith.
Jenkins and Smith worked well in tandem with Trung Canidate, Arizona’s best running back since record-setting Art Luppino and the top Wildcat ball-carrier prior to Ka’Deem Carey.
The ’98 Wildcats won 12 games, still the benchmark for success at Arizona. And, under then-head coach Dick Tomey, Arizona was known for its overpowering defensive play.
In a conference call earlier this season, after his Falcons blitzed the Big Ten’s Maryland, Dino Babers credited Tomey as one of his primary coaching influences.
Following Tomey’s firing after disappointing 1999 and 2000 campaigns, then-athletic director Jim Livengood made a grievous error that set the Arizona football program back a decade with his hiring of retread John Mackovic.
By tabbing Mackovic, Livengood spurned Arizona’s past. The first-ever Wildcat Hall-of-Famer, Ricky Hunley, expressed interest in the job. Perhaps Hunley wouldn’t have succeeded; he had no head-coaching prior and none since, spending most of his coaching career as a defensive assistant in the NFL. However, he couldn’t have fared any worse than Mackovic.
Byrne has proven to be a more competent athletic director. His hire of Rodriguez in November 2011 was a success, which explains Rodriguez’s name coming up in association with such gigs as Virginia Tech.
Should Rodriguez exit — and, again, big if — Byrne can make a hire that both honors Arizona’s past while moving it toward future success.