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Sour 2014 Ending Motivates Arizona Wildcats in 2015


BURBANK, California — The question was certain to come up, much to Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez’s chagrin.

“I was in a good mood, now you made me mad,” he joked at Friday’s session of Pac-12 media days at Warner Bros. Studios.

Related: Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez Tells Hilarious Story About Mike Leach at Pac-12 Media Days

Rodriguez tried to analogize his mindset to a scene from “The Lion King,” in which Rafiki the baboon hits Simba the lion over the head with a stick. When asked why, Rafiki quips: “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past,” Rodriguez explained. Still, he admitted that he spent some of the offseason “pissed off.”

The 2014 season was among the best in Arizona football history. The regular season culminated in a win over rival Arizona State, giving the Wildcats the Territorial Cup for the first time since 2011, 10 wins for the first time since ‘98 and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

What could have — maybe should have — been regarded as a testament to Arizona’s arrival as a player in the Pac-12 was overshadowed by the disappointing conclusion to the otherwise dream campaign.

The Wildcats were blown out by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, then dug a deep hole against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Their rally effort came just short, as freshman quarterback Anu Solomon failed to get out of bounds in the Boise State red zone, taking a sack that closed a 38-30 loss.

Despite returning Solomon — Arizona’s first two-year starting quarterback since Nick Foles in 2010 and ‘11 — one of the nation’s deepest wide receiving corps and standout running back Nick Wilson, as well as Heisman Trophy top 10 vote getter linebacker Scooby Wright, the Wildcats are picked to finish fourth in the deep Pac-12 South.

Related: The Pac-12's Top 10 Heisman Candidates for 2015

The lukewarm reception to the 2015 Wildcats doesn’t mean much, said Rodriguez and Arizona’s media day representatives, safety Will Parks and wide receiver David Richards. But the two, season-ending losses carry a lot more weight — literally.

Parks said the ending gave Arizona “a whole lot of motivation… to get the team right.”

For Parks individually, he rededicated himself to the weight room to such a point that strength and conditioning staff kicked him out at times for being there after hours.

“It’s a keycode to get in,” he explained. “I walked out of the weight room one night around 11 [p.m.] and the green light turned red. I was like, ‘Ohhh.’

“Somebody was like, ‘I told you to stop coming in!’” he said.

Parks’ efforts are the proverbial chaser for a bad taste that’s lingered for seven months.

Rodriguez said he adheres to a “24-hour rule,” allowing just one day of reflection on a loss before refocusing on the next week. But when the Wildcats lost on Dec. 31, “next week” wasn’t coming for more than eight months.

UTSA is the bearer of Arizona’s winter, spring and summer of frustration, as the first opponent of 2015. The Roadrunners visit Arizona Stadium on Sept. 3 in the return engagement of one of the Wildcats’ eight single-digit decisions of the 2014 season.

Arizona’s start should help improve his mood, but closing 2015 stronger than his team did last season is the only way to ensure Rodriguez a happier offseason next year.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.