How "Miss Rita's World Famous Nacho Cheese Dip" became an Arizona tradition

What better time than July 4th to celebrate the long, rich and, yes, weird marriage between college football and food? From tailgating to meals at recruits' houses, food is a part of the sport's DNA. In honor of that tradition and the kickoff of summer picnics and barbecue season, we're taking a look at just a few of the many food-related stories dotting the CFB landscape.

While a lot of great college football traditions can be traced back to Notre Dame, few taste as good as "Miss Rita's World Famous Nacho Cheese Dip."

"Miss Rita" is Rita Rodriguez, affable and outgoing wife of Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, and her nacho dip was inspired by an act of caring and kindness after a tough loss at Notre Dame in Rich Rod's first season at West Virginia in 2001.

While she watched her husband miserably contemplate a 2-4 start and a likely losing season on the airplane ride home -- "It was like he'd gotten run over by a truck," she said -- a player stopped by his coach's seat and placed a consoling hand on his shoulder.

Recalled Rita, "It was a small moment in the world, but to me it was a giant moment because this player had made Rich feel better when he needed it, and by making Rich feel better, he'd made me feel better."

Rita saw the adversity and the gesture of solidarity that confronted it, and she wanted to create a team ritual around the idea. The question was how. When she invited players over to her home, she had noticed that the overwhelmingly favorite food offering was her nacho cheese dip.

"I'm not the best cook in town," she said. "I openly admit that."

But the dip -- ground, spicy sausage, Velveeta, Ro-Tel diced chiles/tomatoes and sour cream -- proved to be the perfect comfort food for the hungry players, and an idea germinated from there. Each week, she would present a crock of dip and a bag of chips to a player or players who overcame adversity on or off the field, whether it was an injury or in academics or dealing with a personal issue.

(No, it's not an NCAA violation).

So how does it taste? Wildcats linebacker Paul Magloire said he speaks for his team when he rates it highly. When asked to judge on a one to 10 scale, he refused to be contained.

"It's like 100," Magloire said. "The week I won it was before my first start [against Oregon State] and I had one of my best games. I probably should have it before every game."

"It's a way to get to know the players better, to let them know you are paying attention and you care. As long as you feel like you are cared about, you'll be alright. It really is that simple." Rita Rodriguez

Football is a tough sport, and Rich Rodriguez and his staff are old-school tough. "Miss Rita's World Famous Nacho Cheese Dip" softened things a bit around the edges, providing a weekly moment of motherly intervention. It has been a hit at all of her husband's coaching stops.

"It's a way to get to know the players better, to let them know you are paying attention and you care," she said. "As long as you feel like you are cared about, you'll be all right. It really is that simple."

The original recipe called for hamburger, but Rita decided it needed more flavor, so she goes with either Jimmy Dean or Bob Evans hot sausage. It takes about an hour to prepare every Thursday. She takes the dip -- safely ensconced in quadruple-wrapped aluminum foil and a heat-resistant bag -- to practice, where that week's honorees receive their bounty.

It never gets old because it's meaningful. It's Rita Rodriguez putting an encouraging hand on a player's shoulder, just like a player once did for her husband. Only Rita realizes that a young man is often best comforted through his stomach.

"Everybody loves getting a little attention," she said. "It's something given in front of the team. And it tastes pretty good."