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September 14, 2009Mike Stoops, a former All-Big Ten safety at Iowa, rarely goes back to his alma mater.
Stoops will return this weekend, reluctantly, when he brings the Arizona Wildcats into Kinnick Stadium. Stoops said it wasn't his decision to schedule a home-and-home series with the Hawkeyes.
"It wouldn't be my first choice," Stoops said Monday at his weekly campus news conference. "I didn't say, Let's go play Iowa.' I'd rather have a home game."
It's the sternest test for Arizona (2-0), which opened the season with victories over Central Michigan and Northern Arizona in Tucson.
"We'll know a lot more about our team Saturday," Stoops said. "We'll have to play a complete game. We're going to have to be a lot better than we were the first two weeks."
Against Central Michigan and NAU, the Wildcats relied heavily on their ground game while new starting quarterback Matt Scott gained confidence.
Scott has thrown two interceptions and only one touchdown pass in his first two games, but Stoops said he sees progress. He also said backup Nick Foles, who threw a touchdown pass in his Arizona debut on Saturday night, will continue to play regularly.
"I think our quarterback (Scott) is getting more and more comfortable and confident as he plays," Stoops said. "We're solid at that position. I feel good about both those players."
Arizona's offense figures to improve with the expected return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has missed the first two games with a back injury. Stoops said he's optimistic the 6-foot-6, 265-pound junior will play on Saturday.
Arizona will likely need all its weapons against the Hawkeyes.
The Wildcats took a big step last season, when they ended a nine-year bowl drought, then the longest in the Pac-10. But they won't become an elite team until they can consistently win on the road.
Arizona is 8-17 on the road under Stoops. The Wildcats have played four nonconference road games in his tenure - at LSU, Utah, Brigham Young and New Mexico - and lost them all.
Arizona has dropped six straight nonconference road games, with its last win coming at San Diego State in 2001 in John Mackovic's debut.
Add it all up and it appears there's a lot riding on this game, although Stoops downplayed the fact that it represents a personal homecoming.
"I'm not that nostalgic," he said.
"This is way bigger than me and everything else," Stoops said. "This is about us establishing ourselves against a Big Ten team."
Still, Stoops has numerous memories of his time in Iowa City, where he followed his older brother, Bob, now the head coach at Oklahoma. Another brother, Mark Stoops, also played for the Hawkeyes; he now serves as Arizona's defensive coordinator.
Mike Stoops said Bob had considered leaving after his freshman year. But he decided to stay, and the Hawkeyes soon went from Big Ten laughingstock to a Rose Bowl team.
"I'm glad he stuck it out," Mike Stoops said. "It probably changed the course of our whole family."
Mike Stoops was named first-team All-Big Ten in 1983 and 1984. As a junior in 1983, he led the league with six interceptions in nine games.
After graduating, Mike Stoops spent six years on Hayden Fry's staff, as a graduate assistant and then as a volunteer coach working with linebackers and defensive backs. That was Mike Stoops' first taste of big-time college coaching.
Asked what he remembers about the legendary former Hawkeyes coach, Mike Stoops said, "His white pants, his sunglasses, his windbreaker."
Mike Stoops also recalled Fry's dawn-to-dark work ethic.
"He used to catch me leaving the office early, leaving my light on and the door open," Mike Stoops said with a chuckle. "I thought I was fooling him for a while. He was still there working, and I was long gone. They weren't paying me enough then."