If Mike Stoops’ final chapter is being written, we just found the cover photo.
Photo by Thomas Patterson/Salem Statesman Journal

The new season just started. The new season may have just ended.

Yes, the Arizona Wildcats’ seven-game season is on life support after just one game. That’s what the “must” in must-win means. And this wasn’t even a regular must-win. It was the must-win among the remaining Pac-12 games.

How much time does Mike Stoops have left?

Oregon State was the worst team in the conference. Emphasis on was. There’s an old quote that states, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Well, the Wildcats have now met the worst team in the league.

(Right now Colorado is saying, “Hold on! We’re terrible too! When we play on Nov. 12, you’re going up!”)

The season has gone from hoping for a record fourth-straight bowl game to wondering how many wins Stoops needs to keep his job.

I wasn’t expecting this. Not at all. I honestly believed the Cats would beat OSU and start the journey to six wins. Instead, the defense was dominated again, the pass-blocking progress seen against USC vanished, and the follies on special teams upstaged them all.

So the talk builds in earnest. Can Stoops’ survive producing a worse record for the second straight season when his peak was eight wins with a blowout bowl loss?

To add fuel to the fire is the impending North End Zone Project. After the program took a step backward last year (even with senior-heavy lines) the best case scenario was seven or eight wins this year, eight or nine wins next year, the NEZ brings a recruiting bump and everything comes together in 2014.

If you’re in the middle of trying to raise money for massive facilities upgrades you need to be able to sell the future. To do that you either want your program to be trending upward or you bring in a new guy so you can market his potential.

Does that shorten the fuse on the powder keg beneath Stoops?

UA athletic director Greg Byrne has one football coaching change on his resume and he didn’t wait long to make it. Following Byrne’s first football season as the AD at Mississippi State, head coach Sylvester Croom “resigned” after posting a 4-8 record just one year after ending MSU’s six year bowl drought. Croom was 21-38 in five seasons.

What about Byrne’s mentor and gene pool, Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne? The elder Byrne got his start at Oregon in the middle of Rich Brooks’ 18-year run as the Ducks’ football coach. Byrne’s only hire at Nebraska was when legendary coach Tom Osborne retired and was succeeded by his long-time assistant. Byrne was on the A&M payroll when Dennis Franchione was hired away from Alabama but R.C. Slocum had already been fired and the rumors had begun about Franchione’s hiring before Byrne arrived.

News of Franchione’s newsletter scandal broke in September of 2007 but he was allowed to coach the rest of the regular season (including a win over Texas) before “resigning.” Bill Byrne then hired Mike Sherman who is 22-21 in three-plus years with the Aggies.

So the Byrne family tree has had a primary role in the removal of a grand total of two football coaches, and neither transaction occurred before the end of the regular season. As a result it’s a safe bet that if Mike Stoops “resigns” it won’t be before all the games have been played.

That’s the way it should be. We all thought Arizona Football would be further along in year eight of the Stoops era but he took a chance on the UA and cleaned up a big mess. His only outside-the-lines crime has been jumping around a lot on camera. No academic scandals. No player revolts. No NCAA letters of inquiry.

Stoops deserves to finish the year. He has earned one last chance to fight for the right to coach the dream schedule of 2012.

If you want to have hope (and a sports team with hope is a beautiful thing) your model is the 2007 season. The Wildcats were 2-6 with losses to New Mexico and 4-8 Stanford. It looked like Stoops wasn’t going to get a chance to put together his first winning season.

Then, out of nowhere, Willie Tuitama threw for 500 yards at Washington. After a home win against UCLA and the upset of No. 2 Oregon, Stoops had five wins, survived another year and started the three-bowl streak.

Is it likely? Nobody who watched the game against Oregon State is going to bet three cents on that. Is it possible? I’m done roadmapping. Get a home win against UCLA and go from there.

If that doesn’t happen the end of the season will seem very far away.

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