Arizona fires Stoops as head coach

Published 12:55 am Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Associated Press

Arizona coach Mike Stoops had been lauded for turning the program around, leading the Wildcats to three straight bowls after a decade of mediocrity.

But even as Arizona was making its run to last year’s Alamo Bowl, there were signs that the program had taken a step back.

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Combined with a lackluster start to this season, athletic director Greg Byrne had seen enough.

Byrne announced Monday that Arizona had fired Stoops halfway through his eighth season, ending a run that had quickly deteriorated in the desert.

“I was concerned about the direction of the program and where we were going, and felt that needed to be addressed,” Byrne said. “We felt this would give everybody a fresh start for the remainder of the season.”

Stoops joins New Mexico’s Mike Locksley as the only coaches of major college football programs to be fired since this season started.

Defensive coordinator Tim Kish will serve as the interim head coach the rest of the season while the school searches for a new coach.

Known for his emotional sideline behavior, Stoops was the co-defensive coordinator on his brother Bob’s staff at Oklahoma when he was hired as Arizona’s head coach in 2004.

After five seasons of building the program, Stoops seemed to have the Wildcats back among the top teams in the Pac-10, leading them to a pair of eight-win seasons and trips to the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl and the Holiday Bowl the next year.

Arizona seemed poised to become one of the nation’s elite teams by cracking the top 10 and opening 7-1 last season, igniting hope that the Wildcats could end their run as the only Pac-10 school to not play in the Rose Bowl.

Then things started to fall apart.

The Wildcats lost their last five games, including a 36-10 blowout by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl that came on the heels of a 35-0 rout by Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl the year before.

Arizona opened up this season, the first as the reconfigured Pac-12, with a win over FCS Northern Arizona, then went into a slide, losing five straight.

The latest was the big blow for Stoops; unable to stop Oregon State’s offense, the Wildcats (1-5, 0-4 Pac-12) lost to the previously winless Beavers 37-27 for their 10th straight loss to an FBS school.

Stoops, 49, had 41-50 record at Arizona, including 27-38 in conference games.

“When I took this job, I was hoping to be the first coach to lead this program to a Rose Bowl,” Stoops said in a statement issued by his agent, Neil Cornrich. “Although we fell short of that goal, we made significant progress, and our organization continues to strive for excellence.”

Stoops’ contract ran through 2013 under an extension granted in 2008, and Byrne said the buyout for the remainder of it will be about $1.4 million.

A national search for his replacement will be conducted while the team is run by Kish, but Byrne said any decisions aren’t expected to come until after the regular season. Arizona doesn’t play again until Oct. 20 against UCLA.

University President Dr. Eugene Sander said by firing Stoops now, it would avoid speculation about the coach’s future that would have dogged the team the remainder of the season had he stayed on.

Sander also said he consulted with the Arizona Board of Regents, and its chairman Fred DuVal “is fully in agreement with this decision.”

“Decisions like this are never easy to make,” Sander said. “There’s always a great deal of heartache that goes along with these things, however I do believe that on behalf of university of Arizona football, this decision is absolutely necessary at this time.”

The Wildcats feature one of the best quarterbacks in the country in senior Nick Foles, a projected first-round pick in the NFL draft, and group of talented receivers.

But Arizona had to rebuild its entire offensive line and has struggled to get much of anything going on the ground.

The Wildcats also were hit hard by injuries, even before the season started, and struggled defensively, particularly during a brutal stretch of three consecutive games against teams ranked in the top 10 at the time — Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon.

Arizona followed with another big offensive game against Southern California, but couldn’t stop the Trojans for its fourth straight loss.

Things then bottomed out with the loss in Corvallis on Saturday, leading to Byrne to tell Stoops on Monday that he had been let go.

“It gives us a head start on the process of finding our new football coach,” Byrne said. “I believe strongly that you are, when you have an existing head coach, you need to be committed to that coach, at this point we decided this was an opportunity to start moving forward for the future.”

While the decision to fire Stoops was tough, figuring out his interim replacement wasn’t.

A 36-year veteran of coaching, Kish had been with Arizona for eight seasons and previously served as defensive coordinator for eight years with two Big Ten schools. The 57-year-old coach had been co-defensive coordinator with Stoops’ brother Mark before assuming solo duties at the 2010 Alamo Bowl.

“(He has) the longest stability with our staff, he had the longest tenure with our staff, made sense for a lot of aspects,” Byrne said. “He’s a good man, cares about the kids; he has strong integrity, is involved in everything we’re doing from recruiting and coaching, terminology across the board, (so we) felt he would give us the best stability for the remainder of the season.”