The former Wildcats' head coach became only the second coach in program history to lead his squad to three straight bowl appearances and even had his team competing for a Rose Bowl or two before ultimately falling short.
Just a year prior, Stoops had his program standing at 7-1 and right in the mix of the Pac-10 race. UA was ranked ninth in the country and had appeared on the radar of national powerhouses as a team to keep an eye on. With a blowout loss to Stanford in its next game, the team looked to have lost any momentum it had built up and the season went spiraling out of control thereafter.
The way the Wildcats ended their 2010 season combined with the brutal beginning to the 2011 schedule left UA fans without much confidence heading into the campaign, but no one imagined that squad falling as flat as it did.
The problems extend further beyond last year though. There were trends developing and habits forming that caused Arizona's ultimate shortcomings. Unluckily for Stoops and his staff, the effects of those issues all seemingly came to the surface simultaneously.
It's hard to pinpoint one or two things that set Stoops back after the three-year run of success he led because the issues potentially stemmed from several different issues that occurred over the span of a few years. What exactly those issues were are hard to tell from an outsiders' perspective, but from that view, there are a few questionable occurrences that could have caused Stoops' downfall.
Freshmen on special teams
Freshmen are commonly known to redshirt in their first year in order to become better prepared for the transition from high school to collegiate competition. For Stoops though, many of these highly touted newcomers were stripped of their redshirts. This isn't necessarily uncommon, but the situations these first-year players were thrust into were questionable at the very least.
Numerous true-freshmen (Adam Hall, Marquis Flowers, Robert Golden, Devin Ross, Terrell Turner, David Douglas and Terrence Miller to name several) were forced into action right away, but not at their natural positions. Instead, they were used on special teams (mostly in coverage) and were not able to utilize an extra year to develop their respective games, nor were they able to obtain substantial on-field experience in the offensive system.
Obviously there may be a few slight advantages in playing special teams in a player's first season of college, but who knows what a year of development while saving some eligibility in the process would have done for these individuals.
Even highly-touted running back Ka'Deem Carey experienced it at times this year. By the end of the season, Carey turned into a huge part of the team's offensive attack, but was used sparingly early on outside of a kick returning role.
So, the real question is, why did it take so long to get such a talented player involved on offense in an area where UA struggled mightily throughout the year? It was obvious to anyone with eyesight that Carey should have been used more often early, yet he was a side-note for the first half of the season.
Usage of talent / personnel
Dane Krogstad was a hard working linebacker that was never short on effort, so he did earn his place as a contributor on the defensive side of the ball. But when you have linebackers like Xavier Kelley and Adrian McCovy hardly sniffing the field despite the lack of speed on the UA defense, it's going to draw some questions.
Both Kelley and McCovy finally saw the field later in their college careers and were key parts of strong defenses in the late-2000's, but their lack of time as underclassmen was a bit head-scratching.
That's just one example of several interesting personnel decisions made by Stoops and his staff. Another instance would be how well certain players performed in practice and scrimmage but would never see the field in the actual games.
Receivers such as David Roberts and Gino Crump would contribute big in practice sessions as well as scrimmages and would appear to be some of the best players on the field in spurts. For whatever reason though, it didn't translate into playing time until much later. There were times where the indication was that certain players (who ended up playing significant roles) would hardly make an impact when the games mattered despite looking the part in practice.
Take linebacker Bilal Muhammad. The seldom-used walk-on was a surprise player in the offseason, but it took until game 11 of the season for him to play. His performance ended up being one of the biggest reasons the Wildcats defeated Arizona State in the Territorial Cup. So, again, why did it take so long to get a player like Muhammad on the field at a position that was relatively weak all season?
Perhaps one of the most glaring pieces of evidence regarding inconsistent usage of personnel was how little Rob Gronkowski was utilized in the passing game. By now, the whole football world knows Gronkowski, who reached 20 career touchdown receptions faster than any tight end in the history of the NFL this season. At Arizona, one can argue that he wasn't on the field often enough.
In 22 games at Arizona, Gronkowski caught 75 passes. That's only a little more than three receptions per game despite being, easily, the most reliable target the team had by the end of his sophomore season. He was thrown to more often by the end of season two, but he was another player that the offense could have benefited from had the offense been tweaked to include him a lot more.
One former player (who will be left anonymous) claimed that Stoops was influenced easily by entities outside of the football program in regards to playing time for his student-athletes. While people close to Stoops are right to voice their opinion and give their input, there isn't a coach in this country that should be forced to answer to anyone outside of the athletic department when it comes to his team. But it seems that Stoops may have been one to conform to people around him, even though they don't have any official role in the football program.
In the early part of his tenure, Stoops was able to bring in a solid core of coordinators to help lead his squad. Over time, however, the staff seemed to get younger and less experienced.
The biggest hire Stoops' made was offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes. When the former Texas Tech assistant arrived on campus, several other TTU assistants followed. Dykes transformed the entire offense and, in turn, it completely changed the team – for the better - as a whole.
Dykes was so successful at UA that he parlayed that gig into a head coaching job at Louisiana Tech after just two seasons, but it was Dykes' departure that seemed to break up the chemistry within the staff.
Instead of hiring or choosing a coordinator for each side of the ball, Stoops went the route of co-coordinator for each. While that has been successful in the past at other programs, it seemed to do nothing but make life more complicated for the coaches and their players.
Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell had no experience in the world of offensive play-calling, yet was given the keys to a well-oiled machine. Littrell was solid early, but appeared to have lost his touch half-way through the first season and that extended all the way through the end of the 2011 campaign. While the numbers were impressive, by the end of the year, many fans were calling Littrell predictable and wondered if Stoops should have sought out someone with a little more experience to call plays.
A rumored rift between Stoops and certain assistants led to their departure to other programs. Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh left for West Virginia while defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo and co-defensive coordinator / secondary coach Greg Brown left for Colorado.
Stoops appeared to obtain a couple of steals when he nabbed former BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae and Texas defensive backs' coach Duane Akina, but that quickly changed. Anae did his part, stayed on staff and helped bring along a very young unit quite nicely in 2011, but Akina's tenure lasted less time than Kim Kardashian's marriage. Akina and Stoops never met eye-to-eye and Akina decided to go back to the Longhorns.
Instead of pursuing an experienced, viable assistant, Stoops decided to go with 25-year old grad assistant Ryan Walters, who may develop into a very good coach one day, but it was evident that he was a bit overwhelmed as Arizona finished with its worst passing defense in recent memory.
Did Stoops rely on the so-called "buddy system" to hire assistants? Did he just get tired of butting heads with more experienced coaches and pick guys that would toe the company line? Or did he legitimately feel that these assistants had what it took to take UA to the next level? No matter the reason, the outcome is all that mattered and once the coach staff started to crumble, the team quickly followed.
By now, every college football fan in America is very familiar with Stoops' sideline antics. It would be unfair to single Stoops out simply for his emotional sideline outbursts, but it would be a disservice to those around him to completely dismiss them.
At the beginning of Stoops' tenure, his sideline demeanor was welcomed by the fans. They were crying for a coach with fire and emotion and Stoops brought that, but after a few years there were people all the way from your basic fans to national media members that began to take note of Stoops' behavior on the sideline.
Stoops simmered down quite a bit during the bowl years. It appeared he had turned the corner. It was evident just by looking at him that there was a calmness about him that most fans hadn't seen from him as a head coach. Then once the struggles hit in 2010, the animated Stoops re-appeared on the sidelines.
Obviously, Stoops was getting flustered by his team's struggles and he was letting his emotions get the best of him on the sidelines. He would often direct his anger at his assistants and, at times, even his players. While his players often sang his praises in interviews, Stoops didn't make himself look the greatest on the sideline, especially on the national stage.
One interesting story that fans are unaware of is surrounding the recruitment of quarterback Cam Newton. This is the same Cam Newton that won the 2010 Heisman Trophy, led Auburn to a BCS title and is currently making a lot of critics eat crow in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers.
Newton was never a serious consideration for UA but was on the Wildcats radar for a brief period during his recruitment. What says a lot about the philosophy of Stoops and his staff was what they intended on doing with Newton had he chose Arizona.
Keep in mind, Netwton's chances of playing quarterback early were slim-to-none given the success of Nick Foles' sophomore season, but he was still a target UA would pursue. The Wildcats recruited him as a quarterback, but the rumored plan was to switch Newton to tight end once he signed.
Yes, the plan was to switch a player that ultimately won the most prestigious award in college football, won a national title and was the first overall selection in the NFL Draft from quarterback to tight end. At the end of the day, it really means nothing because Newton never seriously considered choosing Arizona, but that brief tale sort of sums up the mishaps that occurred under Stoops at UA.
Stoops still has plenty of potential as a coach that he has yet to reach and who knows if or when he will ever reach it, but his last two seasons as Wildcats' head coach proved that he still has plenty to learn. He should be applauded for turning the Arizona football program around, but at the end of his tenure, the only thing holding Stoops back seemed to be himself.