Stoops brings new swagger to Arizona

Mike Stoops' voice boomed over the meeting room, startling sleepy reporters at Pac-10 Media Day and announcing that a little Big 12 swagger was invading the mellow conference.

No matter that Arizona's new coach owed his ear-shattering volume merely to his underestimation of the microphone's sensitivity. No matter that the Wildcats don't figure to swagger much this season after they bury I-AA Northern Arizona on Saturday.

Stoops, Oklahoma's former co-defensive coordinator under his brother, Bob, is a tough guy coming into a finesse league, but he's likely to get whipped seven to 10 times this year.

He isn't in Norman any more.

He's taken over at a basketball school with a football program ravaged by John Mackovic's disastrous tenure, which featured four Pac-10 victories over the past three years.

Arizona went 12-1 in 1998, but hasn't posted a winning record since.

It didn't take long for Stoops to realize why; just one glance at his players made that clear. It wasn't just the lack of Roy Williamses or Tommie Harrises. Many looked like they thought a bench press or a power clean were things done at a laundry mat.

While he didn't pull a Niedermeyer and call them worthless and weak, that was clearly the import when he said the Wildcats were "drastically physically underdeveloped."

"They didn't quite know how to work at a rate that would allow for success," he said. "They got what they put into it last year. They didn't put a whole lot into it and they didn't get a whole lot out."

So step one was obvious after introductions last January. He told them to get ready to write a dissertation on hard work. Many shook hands with Mr. Fatigue for the first time, but attendance this summer was nearly perfect, unlike recent years.

Though the first few days of winter, Stoops frowned back at a number of chagrined looks.

"At first we did," he said, "but we made the transition quickly. There was no resistance. They knew this was the way it had to be done if we wanted to win. There are no magic formulas."

It would take one for the Wildcats to finish with a winning record, but there are reasons for hope, beginning with 18 returning starters, most in the conference.

Of course, those veteran players were part of the worst scoring offense and defense in the conference. Stoops' face twists into a knot when he looks at the 460 yards and 36 points per game the defense surrendered.

The kicking game? It converted on 2 of 13 field goals last year, so don't take a Wildcats kicker to Las Vegas.

The good news is the first four games are at home, where a fan base recharged by Stoops' arrival has purchased 6,000 more season tickets than a year ago.

The bad news is that Utah, Wisconsin and Washington State are the next three visitors.

Said tailback Mike Bell, Arizona's best player: "Just being around (Stoops) is making us a better team."

Stoops seems energized by the challenge, going as far to adopt a persistent royal "we" that places him rhetorically into Arizona's past as well as projecting for the future. For example:

"We had success in the late-90s," he said, though he was at Kansas State at the time and probably couldn't locate Tucson on a map. "I knew we could win and draw the fan base to be successful. But we didn't put a very good product on the field the last four years. But that's our fault. That's why I'm there."

While it was just a matter of time before he was offered a Division I-A job (next Stoops up is Wildcats defensive coordinator Mark), Stoops is aware that some negative scuttlebutt circulated about him each time he was mentioned previously as a candidate.
Some whispered that he was a party guy who enjoyed hanging out over a few beers too much to dedicate himself to the time demands of a head coach.

Stoops, who was charged with DUI in 1996 while Kansas State's co-defensive coordinator, rejects such talk as old news.

"Any guy who is single for an extended period of time, they get the wrong impression of you," he explained. "Since I've gotten married and had two kids, my life is perfectly content."

He's also been hitting the recruiting trail hard, garnering 15 oral commitments, most in the Pac-10. His recruiting has been so touted in local newspapers that Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter -- with just one commitment -- took time out of a press conference to defend his efforts.

Stoops said he talks to brother Bob every couple of days, and neither of the former All-Big Ten defensive backs at Iowa has an interest in playing the other.

Stoops, a defensive specialists in a conference where most coaches came from the offensive side of the ball, wants to build the same type of contender in Tucson, though it's hard to imagine that sort of frenzy will ever come to the desert.

"It's not quite that bad here," he said. "That's a cult following in Oklahoma."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.