TUCSON - They fired John Mackovic for this? Kidding. Just kidding. It’s just that Arizona’s hiring of Mike Stoops has caused such a racket, I wasn’t sure which team would show up Saturday night. The Wildcats or the Oklahoma Sooners.
Turns out Arizona fans should forget about Rose Bowls for a while. Or any bowl, for that matter. The Wildcats beat Division I-AA Northern Arizona University 21-3, but don’t be fooled by the score.
It was a four-point game early in the fourth quarter, and if not for a bogus unsportsmanlike conduct call on NAU, Stoops may have began his coaching career with a loss.
Oh, did we mention that Mackovic’s Wildcats destroyed the Lumberjacks, 37-3, in Arizona’s 2002 season opener?
We’re not comparing coaches, mind you. Just making a point.
Stoops may be worth the fuss — and the $650,000 Arizona is paying him — but he’s coaching many of the same players who finished 2-10 last season. Only one Stoops recruit, cornerback Antoine Cason, played extensively Saturday.
As the Cardinals’ Dennis Green is learning, you can’t coach up what you don’t have.
If Stoops has yet to revitalize the product, though, he has revived the spirit. Arizona played hard, hit hard and looked like a team that will spring an upset sometime this season.
"I thought our kids showed a lot of toughness and courage, and those are things we really wanted to see," Stoops said.
The Wildcats who played under Mackovic’s militaristic reign treasured not only the victory but their get-out-ofjail-free card.
"It’s definitely fun again," said junior free safety Darrell Brooks. "We know we have a lot of things we can do better, but we will get better."
While the game was not the coming-out party UA fans envisioned, it won’t dim their enthusiasm for the new administration.
Stoops is a rock star in Tucson.
UA has sold 28,000 season tickets, a 17.3 percent increase over last year.
At Fan Appreciation Day two weeks ago, the line for Stoops’ autograph stretched from the 20-yard line to the opposite end zone.
Everyone has a Stoops story, but perhaps the Tucson Citizen, the afternoon newspaper here, put it best in a story that appeared on the front page of Saturday’s paper.
Not the front page of the sports section, by the way. The front page, next to stories about Hurricane Frances and Medicare premiums.
Stoopsmania continues to build steam.
Imagine how popular the guy will be when he wins a couple of games.
Raising Arizona will take time. The Wildcats have the worst talent in the Pac-10. But Stoops already is thinking big. He recently told reporters that he hopes to win a national title within three years.
Laugh if you want. But they believe here in the Old Pueblo, and a better attitude can only improve the team’s altitude.
Just before kickoff Saturday a hard rain fell in and around the stadium.
The poet would say it was one final cleansing of the Mackovic era.
I don’t know about that. But as a frequent traveler down I-10, I can tell you that the city of Tucson hasn’t been this excited since Lute Olson’s arrival 21 years ago.
Olson is still the king. But in Stoops, he has an heir to the throne.