It took Rich Rodriguez 51 seconds to compose himself. Fifty-one seconds before he began speaking about the son whose accomplishments have provided a welcome respite for a trying season.
“As tough a year as it’s been for us, (I’m) a proud dad,” he said Tuesday about struggling to answer a question about Rhett a day earlier.
Thanksgiving weekend will be a memorable one for the Arizona coach and his family. On Friday, he will attempt to salvage a 2-9 season in a home game against rival Arizona State for the Territorial Cup. On Saturday, he will be at University of Phoenix Stadium watching Rhett, the quarterback for the Tucson Catalina Foothills team playing in the Arizona 4A state championship against Scottsdale Saguaro.
Two days of the two things Rhett knows best. A coupling he says he wouldn’t have any other way.
“Football and family, that’s what we always did,” he said. “I never pictured my life anything but that.”
Rhett, 18, has helped engineer an impressive comeback story in the southern Arizona high school football scene, leading a Falcons team that was 0-10 four years ago to one playing for the title after he accounted for seven touchdowns in an upset of Gilbert Higley Friday. The program is 35-12 with him as its starter.
His success this season has come as a member of Rich Rodriguez’s 2017 recruiting class and he will join his father on the Wildcats football team next season.
“I see him work,” Rodriguez said at his Monday news conference. “They play Friday. By Sunday, he’s watching 10 hours of film. I come home 9:30, 10 o’clock at night, he’s watching film. He wants me to watch some film with him. He’s had a great senior year, his team is doing great, but I’m probably more proud of him for who he is. As a student, as a person.
“People make assumptions. You have this, you’re a coach’s kid you have that … but there’s also a certain amount of pressure that inherently goes with ‘coach’s kids,’ particularly at this level, that’s not always the easiest either when you’re a teenager, and he handles it unbelievably.”
Rhett has fond memories of tagging along on his father’s football journey. He was born when Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator at Tulane and grew up during his dad’s wild coaching ride, through the wildly successful years at West Virginia to the trials of Michigan to the ups and downs of Arizona.
He loved the access. It was important to Rodriguez’s wife, Rita, that the children – daughter Raquel is a Wildcats cheerleader – spend time with their father despite a head coach’s demanding schedule. It was not unusual to spot Rhett in the locker room, at press conferences, during workouts.
Until he started playing high school football, Rhett often stuck around after Arizona practices to work on things like footwork and reads with his father.
When he was 5, he started sketching plays, trying to convince his dad that his double-reverse pass option would work.
“It just seems like yesterday I was playing catch in the backyard with him,” Rhett said. “It’s weird to think I’m a recruit now.”
All that football through osmosis paid off. Catalina Foothills coach Jeff Scurran has raved about his quarterback’s game-management skills.
“To watch my son’s growth from 150 pounds,” Rodriguez said, “to a skinny freshman quarterback for the varsity to a grown man now – grown man – making checks, competing his tail off. All that stuff has been one true obviously big bright spot for me this fall.”
This season has been a tough one for Arizona’s coach, just two years removed from 2014’s 10-4 record, Pac-12 South crown and Top 20 poll finish.
The Wildcats have struggled to a 2-9 record and have posted zero victories in the Pac-12. The program hasn’t gone winless in league play in a full season since 1957, when it was 0-4 in the Border Conference.
It has been difficult for Rhett to watch at times. He remembers when his father’s first Michigan team struggled to a 3-9 record but he was 10 and not fully grasping his father’s disappointment and the outside criticism.
He’s more in tune to it now.
“The pain and anger my dad gets and the frustration he feels, it’s kind of tough, because we’re so close,” he said. “It’s hard me for me to see him after a game feeling that way.”