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May 19, 2013

Arizona football continues to create offseason buzz

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz.--Plenty of athletic programs have an identity thanks to one sport or another. Few will mistake the likes of LSU, Alabama and Auburn as anything but football schools.

For places like Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona, basketball reigns supreme.

But it is May and the Wildcats have found a way to sustain some significant conversation about a football program that has been known to lose the fans' interest in the middle of some seasons.

There is still a long way to go before anyone considers Tucson a football-crazed community, but the buzz has only grown since last season's promising eight-win campaign in the first year of the Rich Rodriguez era.

The $75-million Lowell Stevens football facility will be complete by August, giving the program its first football-only home and moving the operations and coaches' offices out of a basketball arena. New uniforms were unveiled earlier this month. Athletic director Greg Byrne announced a future series with BYU that will include a contest at University of Phoenix Stadium and is working on moving next season's game at UNLV to the home of the Arizona Cardinals, too.

Arizona has its sights set on eventually becoming major players in the college football picture, and to get there you first have to get people talking. With a social media-savvy athletic director leading the way, UA also has made it a point to involve its marketing department heavily.

While at the Arizona coaches' road tour stop at Fort Huachuca, Byrne told the small group of reporters that "enthusiasm is contagious."

"As we know in today's media world, it's 24/7," Byrne said. "If people aren't talking about us, they're talking about something else. So we want to make sure that people are engaged in talking about our athletic department, our student-athletes, our coaches, our programs.

"So when we are competing again in the fall, it's been something that's been on their mind throughout the year and throughout the summer."

While it is tough to please everybody, any feedback is good feedback in Byrne's eyes.

The younger generation may fall in love with the new uniforms, but there have been "opinions all over the yard on it," Byrne said. With the new FieldTurf CoolPlay artificial surface set to be installed soon at Arizona Stadium, Byrne said he has heard some displeasure over the change from natural grass, as well.

"I say this in jest, but I've had a few folks come up to me and say, 'I don't like that you're going to turf,'" he recalled. "And I said, 'Well, are you playing on it?' And I say it good-natured, and that's the way I mean it to be."

And let's face it, all successful businesses ruffle some feathers every now and then. Coaches don't take fan polls on which plays to run for the same reason athletic departments don't seek unanimous approval for every move; people are hired in those positions of power for a reason.

Arizona is still playing catch-up to the elite in the sport - and, ultimately, that will be decided by winning games - but Rodriguez said every program around the country is trying to create a buzz and bridge the gap.

"We have to realize that we have some tradition," Rodriguez said. "I think we have a beautiful program to sell, but sometimes people don't know about it. So we've got to do what we can to market it. Whether it's the new uniforms or the style of play or the buzz going around the U of A or Tucson, we're going to do that to help our program."

Before we all know it, Arizona football will have a new home. The program is hoping it is only the start of a new chapter.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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