It is a rare and wondrous occurrence in sports when a coach shares his vision and passion so clearly that everyone around him — his fellow coaches, the players, and even the fans — become one, joined in the quest. So it is with Rich Rodriguez and the Arizona Wildcat football team.
From the first, the Arizona players have bought in to the Rodriguez system, dreaming a collective dream and working as a unit. That is how the ’Cats — a gathering of like-minded underdogs who are willing to put work and team before all else — were able to finish atop the Pac-12 South last season, far ahead of what the most optimistic Arizona fan could have imagined.
This year, the defending Pac-12 South champions are overflowing with great leadership. The Wildcats return sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon, whose freshman campaign included 3,800 yards passing, and junior linebacker Scooby Wright III, who won the Bronko Nagurski award as the nation’s top defender.
Senior defensive back Will Parks also returns as a central part of the team’s leadership. Parks is self-assured and soft-spoken. He is keenly aware of where he has been and feels blessed to be where he is now. Growing up, he lost friends to the mean streets of Philadelphia, but family kept him to the straight and narrow. “Then Coach Rod showed up,” Parks recalls. “He told me that he was going to be building something special out in Arizona and that he wanted me to be a part of it. Arizona was like a million miles away, but he made me believe and I’m glad he did.”
Parks played in all 13 games as a true freshman and became a starter during his sophomore year. Last year, he started all 14 games. During his first two years, the Wildcat defense was porous, but Arizona still won eight games each year.
Last year, the defense began to find itself, and the ’Cats made the leap to a 10-win regular season. The highlight was beating national power Oregon for the second straight year, this time in Eugene. Parks had a career-high eight tackles in that game against the Ducks. Two losses closed out the season for the Wildcats — to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Watch Parks and you’ll see leadership by example. He’s the first one in the weight room and always works his hardest, even when no one is looking. “To me, a leader is somebody who is (set upon) by a pack of wolves and, after a while, comes out as the new alpha male, leading that pack in a different direction,” he says.
Solomon knows all about leadership, too, both in expectation and execution. A team’s quarterback is, by definition, the leader of the offensive unit, and the good ones lead with both words and actions. Still, Solomon understands that all the rah-rah in the world won’t make up for a lackluster performance.
Following his redshirt year, Solomon became the first freshman in school history to start a season opener, and along with impressive passing stats he rushed for 300 yards last year. In two different games, he threw for five touchdowns. As for being a leader, Solomon smiles, “On our team, a leader is someone who listens to the coaches, cares about his teammates, and works his hardest every day to get better. We have a team full of leaders.”
Many fans might consider the highlight reel of All-American linebacker Wright to be leadership turned up to 11, but he just shrugs that off. As explosive as he is on the field, Wright is remarkably reserved.
Wright accepts the mantle of leadership; he’s part of the eight-man Players’ Council. When asked straight out if he considers himself a leader, he replies, “Yes, I do. But it’s like Coach says, the best leaders lead by example.”
Coach Rodriguez has a clear and compelling message that his players have embraced and adopted. What goal have they all gotten behind for this season? Ask any one of them and you’ll get the same response: “national championship!”