Anthony Gimino: Better for Wildcats to have Gronked and lost?

Anthony Gimino: Better for Wildcats to have Gronked and lost?
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

PHOENIX -- Rob Gronkowski was asked to dance. He was asked to read a line from a Gronk-themed erotic novel. He was asked to pose for selfies. He was asked about his party bus.

He was asked -- twice -- to sing his old college fight song.

"Bear Down, Arizona," he warbled at Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday. "Bear Down, red and blue ..."

He didn't finish.

Much like his career with the Wildcats, it was incomplete.

While sandwiched in the mosh pit around Gronkowski for the full Media Day hour, it was easy for my brain to begin to glaze over from all the sugary nonsense and wander back to the days before Gronkowski became one of the NFL's biggest stars, before he became a pop culture icon ... wandering all the way back to the day in August 2007 when Gronkowski stepped off the bus for his first Arizona practice at what was then an off-campus facility used for fall camp.

Even then, he was magnificent.

"We had a swimming race the other day, and it's the first time I had seen him without his shirt on," then-UA assistant Dana Dimel said that day. "I mean, the guy could be a male model and make millions of dollars. He doesn't need to be playing football. What a body on an 18-year-old guy. It's crazy.

"Everybody in the country dies to have a guy who looks like that. Nobody has tight ends who look like that kid does."

Still true.

Gronkowski was often brilliant in a too-brief Arizona career in which he did a lot -- 75 catches for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns in 22 games -- but it never seemed as if he was targeted enough, and there was still more to be done after his sophomore season in 2008. There was talk of a 100-catch season, national awards, the works.

And then ... the back injury.

Gronk eventually succumbed to surgery in September 2009, wiping out all of his junior year. He entered the NFL Draft after that season, leaving Arizona fans somewhat jilted at the altar, pondering a life with Gronkowski that never was.

What if Gronk had played in 2009?

The forever discussion of Arizona football will be how much of a factor Gronkowski would have made in an 8-4 regular season in which the best tight end in school history would have intersected with the best quarterback in school history, Nick Foles.

Would Gronkowski be wearing a Rose Bowl ring while trying to get his first Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots?

Would Mike Stoops still be Arizona's coach?

The dominoes didn't have to fall much differently in 2009 for the Wildcats to be Pac-10 champs. It's a common topic among UA fans: "Could Gronkowski have turned the 44-41 double-overtime home loss to Oregon into a win?"

All it might have taken is one more first down on a late drive in regulation for a two-score lead.


Change the result of that game, and the Cats and Ducks each finish at 7-2 in the league, with Arizona holding the tiebreaker.

If Stoops would have taken Arizona to its first Rose Bowl, he would have been untouchable, armed with firing immunity for five years, even if the program took the crash-and-burn path it ultimately did. But maybe everything would have been different. Perhaps a Gronk-fueled league title would have revived Stoops' recruiting efforts, would have hastened the building of the new football facilities that Rich Rodriguez is now using to his advantage.

We'll never know.

All we know is that Stoops was out halfway through the 2011 season.

All we know is that Gronkowski, coming off back surgery, had 42 catches, 10 for touchdowns, as a rookie with the Patriots in 2010. He would have shredded the Pac-10 if he had returned to school.

All we know is that Arizona didn't get the full Gronk, the Gronk in all his glory, the Gronk who really could have caught 100 passes in 2009 or 2010 (or both).

He belongs to the rest of the world now.

He has his own cereal -- Gronk Flakes. He's social media candy, posing for selfies with a porn star, chugging beer bongs, dancing shirtless, posing shirtless with kittens. He starred in a dating show. He popped in for a funny turn on "Whose Line is it Anyway." He posed nude on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.

He has brought back the end-zone spike to the NFL.

He's fun.

Gronkowski represented the Arizona Wildcats just fine on Tuesday, talking about the good times he had, the football he learned, the friends he made. "I just learned so much about life," he said. "It all started at the University of Arizona."

When healthy, no one in the NFL can stop him.

Taking his shooting-star production -- 54 touchdowns in 65 NFL games -- over linebacker Lance Briggs' extended level of excellence (seven consecutive Pro Bowls from 2005 to 2011), Gronkowski is the best NFL player ever produced by Arizona.

At 25 years old, he'll be playing in his second Super Bowl this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.

But his incomplete college career didn't make the association with Arizona and Gronkowski as strong as it could have been. And it didn't help when Stoops wouldn't offer a scholarship to the youngest Gronkowski brother, Glenn, who ended up as a fullback at Kansas State. It just so happened that Glenn caught a 62-yard touchdown pass this season in a 31-30 victory over Oklahoma, burning a Sooners defense coordinated by none other than Stoops himself.

So, even Stoops is probably wondering, "What if?"

No question, Arizona and Gronkowski was a winning combination. Everything has worked out fine. He's on top of the world right now, and the Wildcats program is in winning shape.

Still, it nags at you: There will always be a bit of melancholy about Gronkowski's short time in Tucson and what might have been.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.