This weekend Zach Barnett and I traveled to Arizona to see how football is played in the great state of Arizona.
We arrived early in the day Thursday. After a quick lunch on Mill Ave. (more on this area later) we went to Oregon's team hotel to meet with their coaches. Two key takeaways from that meeting - first, it's a long day of waiting before heading to the stadium for a 6 p.m. ESPN game; and second, Oregon's coaches have a lot of confidence in this year's team. A third note that only Opps guys will appreciate - when I asked what one of the coaches what time they were going to step on the field, he pulled out a laminated business card size sheet that showed his group on the field at 3:59. Not 4 p.m., 3:59. Hawk doesn't mess around.
We headed back to campus to check out the pre-game festivities. The pre-game scene outside of the stadium was a little lighter than anticipated, but given that this was a 6pm game on a "school day"...
The vibe on the field before the game was awesome. Todd Graham and his staff have several huge speakers set up on the field blaring music certain to get their players excited. Every player was bouncing around, big smiles and clearly ready to roll.
Down on the Oregon side I witnessed something that I thought was pretty cool. As the players finished up pre-game action on the field and headed to the locker room with Chip Kelly, all of the assistants got together to shake hands, encourage each other to have a great game and to just take a minute to enjoy the moment. This is what these guys work for. Enjoy it, remember it, embrace it, because too soon the season will be behind you.
Five minutes before the game I looked up and the stadium was still less than half full...five minutes into the game the place was packed and loud (unfortunately those arriving five minutes late had missed the first 17 touchdowns). The student section was loud. Question for the Pac-12: Why are so many student sections located behind the home team's bench? Crazy.
On the field, injuries slowed Arizona State after losing their best defensive player on the first play of the game. Slow and Oregon don't mix well. Oregon is fast and when their quarterback is making good decisions on the read they are tough to stop. Chip Kelly, Mark Helfrich, Nick Aliotti and the rest of the staff have their guys playing at a high level.
After the game we stopped by Mill Ave. once again to enjoy post-game ASU style. Did. Not. Disappoint.
Friday we went in to see the Arizona State coaches. We spoke separately with AD Steve Patterson and Todd Graham who both said about the same thing, "Didn't play our best but the program is getting better. Need to continue to add depth and talent, but we're still in this battle for the south." Todd Graham left me with this nugget, "I sure hope we get another crack at them in 5 weeks."
ASU's team room has a fresh design
Friday afternoon Mike from Overtime Software and I headed down to Tucson. Upon entering the football offices we were promptly greeted by Rich Rod. Rich is one of the head coaches I most enjoy visiting with. When he speaks with you he's completely engaged with you. He remembers every time you have met and is truly interested in you. He's the exact same way with his staff and his players. This group is bought in to what Rich is doing.
LSU and Texas A&M kicked off at 9am local time, which at first seemed so odd but then seemed so wonderful. West coast life ain't so bad. Mike and I were fairly engaged with the game at the hotel's pool bar (yes, that's Pac-12 living) and from time to time might have raised our voices at the TV. Pretty sure most of the others at the pool thought we were crazy; one even said, you guys must be from the South. Yes, yes we are.
We arrived on "The Mall" at Arizona around 2pm and found a delightful atmosphere. A nicely defined and orchestrated tailgate scene was enjoyed for several hours. I had the pleasure of meeting countless high school coaches from the area and enjoyed talking ball with them. Each had very positive feedback regarding the direction that both Arizona and Arizona State's programs are headed. Overall, we encountered nothing hospitality and saw a vibrant scene.
We joined the Arizona staff on their sideline for the game. I took turns standing by Jeff Casteel (and David Lockwood) as they called the defense and watching Rich Rod and his guys call the offense. Most of this staff has been together for quite some time and this is truly a sideline that is all on the same page. They move fast and make changes on the fly but I rarely saw any sort of communication issues between the staff or the players. I like how these guys work as a staff.
After the game I had the pleasure of meeting several of the coaches families on the field. Arizona is very much a family atmosphere both within the program and university wide.
University Blvd./Main Gate Square was enjoyable after the game with fans from several Pac-12 programs in attendance. We liked the crowd upstairs at Gentle Ben's.
Both Arizona and ASU appear headed to have their programs headed in the right direction. When Rich Rod was hired I immediately thought it was a great hire by Greg Byrne and my visits there since have reinforced that belief. Upon hearing of Todd Graham's hiring at ASU I didn't honestly know how that would work out but after this visit and spending time with he and his staff and the AD I feel very confident that this program is in good hands and is headed in a good direction. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch these two teams play football for a long time. Football in this state is on the rise. One thing to watch for...if either (or both) of these teams can improve their ability to pull the right recruits from Texas and/or Southern California look out. I like the future of football in the Pac-12.
Last note, I cracked a smile when late in the game I turned around and noticed where Arizona had UW's band. Take a look at this picture...way, way up top in far, far right corner. Nice.