It’s impossible to miss her big smile and bright blonde hair bouncing through the football facility. If you know anything about Arizona football, then you know who Coach Rich Rodriguez is. But if you know the ins and outs of the team, you know “Miss Rita” Rodriguez.
Rita grew up playing sports and has loved football for as long as she can remember. She attended Fairmont State College for three years and then met Rich. She transferred to West Virginia University, where she cheered and he played football, and they’ve been a team ever since.
Throughout Rich’s career, Rita has been his never-ending encouragement. When he was coaching at Glenville, W.Va., State College the budget was small and they relied on volunteer help. Rita did her share. The field didn’t have an emblem on it and she wanted to fix it.
“So then I went out and got spray paint and put a big block ‘G’ on the field. And I decided to video the games so that that the players would have a video at the end of the year. For me it was all about making it fun to be where we were,” she said.
And one of the best ways Miss Rita makes football season fun is her nacho dip. Each week, two days before the game, she picks two players who have earned the coveted reward. She said there is so much going on in the players’ lives and that they handle adversity so well.
“Superstars always get noticed, and they deserve it. But I wanted everyone to get noticed, not just for football.”
So each week, she cooks up her mix of ground sausage and cheese and recognizes two players who deserve the dip.
This tradition began years back when she watched a WVU player put his hand on Rich’s shoulder to comfort him after a tough loss. The moment touched her.
“It was so sweet that he cared about Rich and that meant the world to me. I want them to see that I care about them,” she said. “What people don’t know is that they [the players] make our life better. They’re such joys to work with. And when you see the players grow, change, and become successful, it’s so rewarding to us.”
With tears in her eyes she explains that she wants to give out an award so they know that playing football isn’t the only thing that’s important.
“We want them to be good people, we want them to be successful, and I just wanted them to know as a mother that little acts that they do and hard work they’re doing, not just in football, but in any aspect of their life, we notice.”
And it’s easy to see that she does take on the role as the team mother. She makes an effort to let the players know that she is there whenever they may need her. They call her ‘Miss Rita’.
Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon says that Miss Rita’s love for sports and the team shows every day.
“Just in case your mom can’t make it, she’s always that mom right there to support you and encourage you to do your best.”
He swears by her nachos.
“Before every game she’s right there with me on the sidelines and I’ll give her a hug saying ‘if I mess this up I’m sorry’ and just joke around with her,” Anu said. “At the end of every game that we lost, she was always there encouraging me. Even though I felt that I didn’t do as well as I expected, she was always there being positive.”
She says it’s important to have the mother role represented within the world of football. She is never afraid to give her opinion to Rich about something, whether he wants to hear it or not.
“That’s my responsibility to chime in on anything he’s doing, just to give him another ear. To me, I give him another way to look at a situation. It can do two things. It can either really change his mind because he wants to do it a different way, or it reconfirms what he’s doing in the first place and that makes him feel better about it.”
Communication is a big part of their success both on and off the field. She says that the football lifestyle is easy for them because they both love football and love changing people’s lives.
“I think what makes it work is that we believe in what we’re doing. When you believe in what you’re doing and you love what you’re doing, it’s easy,” she said. “If you can find what makes you excited and what you’re passionate about and you believe in yourself, it’s amazing what you can do.”
Kylan Butler, a former player under Rich Rodriguez and a current offensive graduate assistant, says she has been a huge benefit for him and his family.
“That’s one thing that I have learned from her and the coaching staff here is that you have to keep your family involved because you spend so many hours away from them,” he said.
She cherishes game days because she can immerse herself in football. Since Arizona typically has night games, she wakes up and starts watching other games. She likes to tune in and see how the teams Arizona plays are doing and then heads down to the stadium a few hours early with Coach Rich Rod.
“On home games I’ll ride the team bus over with Rich because I like to see the players and that they’re focused. I like to let them know again that I’m there,” she said.
She tells her husband good luck, heads down to the field before the game, and then up to her seat to get ready, filled with nerves.
“When we’re playing a really good team I feel less stress. It’s an opportunity to beat someone really good, and that’s exciting. But when you’re playing a team that you should beat, that’s harder because you know you have to win that game. I feel way more pressure for the games that you need to win, that you can’t afford to lose.”
She is eager for the upcoming season.
“We’re excited to see if we can get better. That’s what you want every year is to just continue to get better,” she said. “You just want everybody to be successful.”
And when asked what is the most important thing they’ve gained from being here at Arizona, she made it simple.
“A second chance. Arizona gave us another chance for Rich to prove what a great coach he is and for the opportunity to affect people’s lives and an opportunity to enjoy the sport that we love. We love Arizona and we love the fact that they gave us a chance to continue doing what we love.”
Katie Bickell is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.