Off the hot seat, Stoops enters 2009 confident

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

TUCSON, Ariz. -- A year ago, when Arizona coach Mike Stoops met with reporters before spring practices, just about every question hinted at a simple, uncomfortable subtext.

Win or else.

His seat was hotter than Tucson asphalt in July.

While the fortunes of a college football coach can change with a single bounce of the oblong spheroid, Stoops was greeted with back slaps (which were absent any sharpened hardware) when he sauntered onto the Wildcats' practice field Wednesday afternoon and opened 2009 spring practices.

The sense is that Arizona, coming off its first bowl victory since 1998, is on the uptick.

And that means Stoops, after some fits and starts as a first-time head coach, enters his sixth year with newfound confidence and security.

And, notably, a contract extension.

"I don't think there is any self-doubt about what we can do," he said. "We got through that hurdle, which was the most important part. It becomes, 'Can we do this?' And to be able to do it under the pressure we were under, I think, was very gratifying for them. Now we can almost play free."

It was hard to tell if Stoops was talking about himself or his program.

Fact is, it doesn't matter. For the most part, they are one and the same. The Wildcats' players, all collected by Stoops, labored last year knowing their measure was being taken simultaneously with their coach's.

Either they all were good enough. Or they were not.

"I know the pressure here to succeed was pretty apparent," senior defensive tackle Earl Mitchell said.

With 15 starters back from an 8-5 team, the word around the program is that reaching a bowl game is no longer the singular goal.

A national ranking? Why not?

And what about competing for a Rose Bowl berth?

That may elicit grins in some quarters, but Stoops didn't need to be prodded to observe that was a major absence on the program's résumé.

"We don't want to be a seven- or eight-win team," he said.

From the outside, the Wildcats seem to have huge questions. Sure, a lot of guys are back, but a lot of production also walked out the door: record-setting pass-catch combination Willie Tuitama and Mike Thomas are gone, as is leading tackler Ronnie Palmer, not to mention kicker Jason Bondzio, whose 97 points in 2008 ranked second in the Pac-10.

But the general feeling, as the breakthrough of 2008 is put to bed and the program starts to consider the future, is that expectations in 2009 should be higher.

"We have as much talent as we've ever had coming back," Stoops said.

And Stoops believes he's a better coach than he was during his first few seasons, when broadcast production crews seemed to assign a cameraman the singular duty of capturing Stoops' sideline histrionics.

"I think we feel freer as a program," Stoops said. "I think I feel better, more relaxed. Sure. That experience has hopefully made me a better coach [so I can] handle our team better. There are a lot of things I wish I could have done better, but that's just part of the process and evolving as a head football coach."

Has Arizona turned a corner and is it now headed into the top half of the Pac-10?

We'll see.

"We hope these next five years aren't as hard as the first five years," Stoops said.