Schu Strings: The Mackovic Situation

The most memorable one-day soap opera in the modern history of Arizona athletics came complete with a twist at the end when football coach John Mackovic averted an anticipated resignation in favor of public apology. He called the recent events an obstacle that could lead to a great opportunity.

John Mackovic has experienced peaks and valleys at Wake Forest, Illinois, Texas and with the Kansas City Chiefs, but nothing of this magnitude. Tuesday night, a reported 55 players met with UA President Peter Likins to discuss their discomfort with the progress of Wildcat football, and allegedly disparaging comments Mackovic made.

Once the embers were set in motion, the information fire burned out of control, until it peaked at Mackovic's press conference, a full 45 minutes past schedule. What Wildcat fans witnessed was the side of Mackovic they had never seen before. With tears welling at times, Mackovic publicly apologized for comments he made following the Wisconsin game, and comments made to players that ultimately festered into this week's showdown. This is the professorial John Mackovic. The man who is regarded as stoic and aloof. Not the collection of emotions under display in the bowels of McKale Center.

This is where Arizona football was headed, and the writing was on the wall for sometime. It's just that nobody wanted to say much publicly.

Well, now it's all in the open, a fairly consistent stream of uncomplimentary remarks to players, and not just to tight end Justin Lavasseur about his family. Feeling no other alternative, the players who revolted—and really, that's what this is, something akin to the Arizona football version of Mutiny on the Bounty—felt the meeting with Likins was their best option.

They were right. This was festering under the surface for some time, and it had to come to a head sooner or later. But now that it's out in the open, there's every opportunity, as Mackovic said, to turn things around. This is a grandiose version of the two adversaries who beat one another to a pulp in the high school parking lot, only to later bond. While I'm not certain how much bonding will take place, at least the grievances have been aired. Everybody knows where everybody stands, and now it's time to suck it up, improve the lines of communication and get to the business at hand, which is to work toward making Arizona football a player in the Pac-10 Conference and on a national scene. That is going to take time.

I believe Likins and Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livengood performed very well in this difficult situation. Likins acted as player mediator, then relayed the discourse to Livengood, who sat with Mackovic for 90 minutes later that night. It appears to be an effective two-pronged approach that acted as a bridge toward some sort of middle ground.

Some will, and have, taken shots at the players in this incident, hearkening back to the glory coaching days of Vince Lombardi. Hell, Vince called his players things Mackovic couldn't even invent, and they didn't cry like babies for outside help.

News flash No. 1. The days of Lombardi-esque rule are a thing of the past. Have been for close to three decades now. Sure, there are those who linger, most notably Bobby Knight, but he's a dinosaur, an exception that proves the rule. Players nowadays don't need to be coddled, but they don't like being dressed down either. Which leads to…

…News flash No. 2. You can take a lot more crap if the team is winning. When you lose, forget it. Much has been made of the relatively rapid resurgence of programs like Cal, ASU and Oregon State. None of those are at the point of being consistent winners, but certainly it appears they're headed in the right direction. But I would argue the conference's most dramatic shift has taken place in Tucson. In the year and a half under Mackovic, Arizona has gone from the definition of solid consistency to bottom feeding debacle.

Maybe it had to happen. Perhaps the foundation had to be scrapped in order to build anew. Whether it was necessary or not, it is. Whether it can be turned around remains to be seen. We'll find out soon enough whether Mackovic is the man for the job.

Let's move away from the emotional aspect of this week's situation and take a long hard look at the product on the field.

Arizona is bad on offense. Arizona is bad on defense. Arizona is bad on special teams. Arizona is bad fundamentally. Arizona plays with no desire.

Against Cal and ASU, it may be too late to make up for the talent deficiencies. The UA simply isn't as good physically as California and Arizona State at this juncture, and I think winning those games remains a long shot. Possible certainly, for Cal and ASU are middle of the road teams in a generally so-so conference, but they're still better than Arizona.

That said, the most important factor for the season that remains is playing tough. If the UA shows desire, and doesn't fold if it gets down early, as has been the case against Oregon State and UCLA, then that's a step in the right direction.

Long term? It's my belief Arizona has to hover around .500 and be competitive on a consistent basis next year. Asking more might be unrealistic given the corps that returns. If it gets blasted like it did this season, Mackovic is done. If 2003 is a season of visual improvement, then 2004 needs to be a breakthrough year.

Breakthrough as in competing for the Pac-10 title. Breakthrough as in 9-2, 8-3 at worst. And that needs to set the platter for big years in 2005 and 2006.

Usually, theater in the sports arena is reserved for the big screen, but Arizona football has the opportunity to give the fans a thrill, and if Mackovic can get it done, then it will indeed be an obstacle overcome. Besides, what's there to lose? Right now, the only way to look is up.

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