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Originally published August 23, 2009 at 6:25 PM | Page modified August 23, 2009 at 6:28 PM

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Pac-10 preview: Mike Stoops getting Arizona back to respectability

No wonder Mike Stoops is a little chapped. He fights and claws and sweats and builds and finally gets the Arizona football program to a bowl game for the first time in a decade, which it wins convincingly over a respected BYU program.

Seattle Times college football reporter

Arizona Wildcats

Last year: 8-5 (5-4 in Pac-10, T-2nd).

Coach: Mike Stoops (25-34, sixth year).

Leading lights: RB Nic Grigsby, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Delashaun Dean, CB Devin Ross, P Keenyn Crier.

The schedule: It's very much backloaded and road-heavy, with games the last four weekends at Cal, ASU and USC, plus one in Tucson against Oregon.

The series

Tuesday: USC

Wednesday: UCLA

Thursday: California

Friday: Stanford

Saturday: Oregon State

Sunday: Oregon

> Today: Arizona

Tuesday: Arizona State

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No wonder Mike Stoops is a little chapped. He fights and claws and sweats and builds and finally gets the Arizona football program to a bowl game for the first time in a decade, which it wins convincingly over a respected BYU program.

And the media covering the Pac-10 pick the Wildcats eighth for 2009. True, it means nothing, but it's also a show of skepticism, a marker that tells Stoops that people perceive 'Zona to be a second-class outfit.

"I was a little shocked," Stoops told me in an introspective chat recently, "because I think we have a really good team."

Maybe the mention of eighth place roils up in Stoops every painful step of a five-year process, every little crisis, every near-miss on the field. It's a difficult journey that no doubt bears some lessons for two people nearby trying to rebuild — Steve Sarkisian at Washington and Paul Wulff at Washington State.

"I think you almost fight yourself through the process," Stoops said.

Some players don't accept the change, he said, or they fret that the new coach doesn't like them because he didn't recruit them.

"That's such an ugly perception," Stoops said. "It's the craziest notion in the world. It's almost like a stepchild."

Almost by definition, the mental state of such programs is fragile.

"It's so beaten down, mentally, physically and spiritually," Stoops said. "Your self-worth is not very good."

And when there are the inevitable setbacks, there are brush fires that start up in the locker room — "little voices," said Stoops, "until you get so many good kids that they outnumber some of the kids in there. It's somewhat of an ugly process."

Stoops was the hotshot young assistant from Oklahoma, hellbent for respectability. He admits he could have been more patient, more understanding.

"I would probably have come in with more reasonable expectations," he said. "Not to compromise your standards, but to understand what they're going through. Change takes time. They're trying."

I asked him if there was a low point. Stoops laughed wryly and said, "There's so many of them I can't even remember."

There was the 20-17 loss to Arizona State in 2007 that denied the Wildcats a bowl game when "everything went against us. I was so frustrated. The pressure was enormous. I just didn't handle it very well."

There was the bitter Washington game in 2005, when Isaiah Stanback pitched his memorable Hail Mary pass to ignite the Huskies.

"He threw it farther than Kordell Stewart [for Colorado at Michigan in 1994]," Stoops said. "I've never seen anybody throw it 70 yards. You talk about deflating."

But the bad old days should be behind the Wildcats, who do seem undersold in preseason reckoning. This is a team with 14 starters returning.

The quarterback spot, vacated by Willie Tuitama, probably explains the low pick. Tuitama will be replaced by either 6-foot-3, quick-on-his-feet sophomore Matt Scott, or 6-5 Michigan State transfer Nick Foles, who may have made it a dead heat with a strong showing in a scrimmage Saturday.

Key to the Arizona offense is 6-6, 270-pound New Yorker Rob Gronkowski at tight end, expected back this week after a back problem.

"When you meet a guy like Robbie, you think he's cloned," said Arizona safety Cam Hall. Recalling a spring-practice collision between Gronkowski and linebacker Sterling Lewis, Hall said, "It sounded like a train wreck. Robbie was still running, and Sterling was hanging onto his legs, waiting for some help."

The Wildcats have 1,678 yards worth of rushing back in Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin, and Stoops says the defense will be composed of "the best 11 players we've ever put on the field."

Doesn't sound like an eighth-place team. And by now, Stoops ought to recognize one.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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