TUCSON, Ariz. – Rich Rodriguez inherited a program in disarray when he became Arizona's coach in 2011. The players were woefully out of shape, apathy had replaced the winning mindset and the downward spiral was quickening.
A massive rebuilding job, without question.
But with a dose of discipline, patience and a dynamic offensive system, the eighth-ranked Wildcats have turned the program around faster than even Rodriguez expected, earning a spot in Friday's Pac-12 Championship game against No. 3 Oregon.
"I didn't know if this would happen in year three," Rodriguez said after the Wildcats beat rival Arizona State last Friday. "But I knew it could happen, otherwise I wouldn't have come here. This is the perfect environment to build one of the best programs in the country. We aren't there yet, but we're on our way."
It's been a rapid climb.
Despite a lack of depth, particularly on defense, Rodriguez led the Wildcats to eight wins and a bowl victory in his first season. Arizona duplicated the feat last season.
Still, with everything the Wildcats had accomplished under Rodriguez, expectations for this season remained flat; Arizona was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South behind UCLA, USC and Arizona State.
Behind Rodriguez's innovative spread offense and a scrappy defense led by he's-everywhere linebacker Scooby Wright, the Wildcats have been one of the biggest surprises of the college football season.
Rallying from losses to the two Southern California schools in a span of three games, Arizona closes out the season with four straight wins, including last weekend's 42-35 victory over the rival Sun Devils.
The Wildcats' first 10-win season since 1998 earned them a second shot at Oregon, a team they beat earlier this season.
"People outside of us should be amazed," Arizona senior safety Jourdan Grandon said. "But we knew what we (were) going to do before the season."
The Wildcats can't afford to get ahead of themselves facing the dangerous Ducks for the second time this season, but the spoils that might come from winning the Pac-12 title game are hard to ignore.
After its win over the Sun Devils, Arizona moved up four spots to No. 8 in The Associated Press' Top 25. The Wildcats entered that game No. 11 in the College Football Playoff Rankings and figure to move up at least a spot or two when the penultimate rankings are released later Tuesday.
With several of the teams higher in the rankings playing tough opponents, Arizona has a legitimate shot at earning one of the coveted top four spots that determine the playoffs when the final standings are released on Sunday. Adding to it, one of the national semifinals is the Rose Bowl, a previously unattained goal in program history.
"There's a chance," Rodriguez said. "You ever seen the movie Dumb and Dumber? 'So you're telling me there's a chance.'"
The opportunity has given Arizona another: To prove it's not just a basketball school.
Basketball has reigned in Tucson since Lute Olson led the Wildcats to 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances and a national title. Sean Miller has brought the program back to the elite level after a couple of down years.
The football team has had a few good years, including a 12-1 season in 1998, yet had never been able to sustain it.
Rodriguez, who is 28-12 in three seasons, appears to have the Wildcats gaining at least a little ground on the basketball team.
"Coach Rodriguez obviously talked about wanting to be the best program in the country and the University of Arizona has done that in a lot of sports," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. "We've had success in football but we haven't always maintained that. I've always felt that with the right combination, the right support and the right infrastructure investment that needed to happen that we could be really good."
The Wildcats sure seem to be on their way.