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How Arizona football coaches have fared in their debuts

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Kevin Sumlin looking to be fourth straight to win opener

arizona-wildcats-football-coaches-openers-kevin-sumlin-2018-byu Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

First impressions matter, but in sports they’re not always indicative of what to expect overall. Just ask new Arizona Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin, who lost his first game at Texas A&M in 2011 only to finish with an 11-2 record that included a victory over eventual nation champion Alabama.

It’s something to take into account when Sumlin makes his Arizona debut on Sept. 1 against BYU. A home loss to the Cougars certainly won’t go over well, but if that were to happen the negative overreactions—and there will be plenty—will be premature.

He wouldn’t be the first Arizona coach to lose his first game at the school over the past 50 years. First-year Wildcats coaches are 4-4 in openers dating back to 1969, when Bob Weber’s debut produced a 23-7 loss at Wyoming.

The winningest coach in school history, Dick Tomey, dropped a 15-14 home decision to Iowa in his Arizona debut in Iowa. And the ill-fated John Mackovic era, arguably the darkest period of Wildcats football in the last half-century, began with a 23-10 win at San Diego State.

Mackovic’s win began a streak of three consecutive coaching debuts that Arizona has won, albeit none were particularly impressive. That SDSU team the Wildcats beat went 3-8 while Mike Stoops’ debut in 2004 was a listless 21-3 win over FCS school Northern Arizona and Rich Rodriguez’s first game in 2012 required overtime to beat Toledo.

Points have been at a premium for Arizona in coaching openers. The Wildcats’ average scoring total in the past eight debuts has been 17.9 points, the high coming in a 31-0 win at Colorado State in Jim Young’s premiere 1973.

Below is a breakdown of how Arizona’s first games under new coaches have gone, along with what happened after that:

1969 — Weber falls flat after promotion

Bob Weber had served as offensive coordinator under previous coach Darrell Mudra, who left to coach Western Illinois—a Division II school at the time, to give you an idea of how the Arizona job was viewed. Weber’s first game in charge produced a lone touchdown in a 23-7 loss at Wyoming, part of an 0-4 start to a 3-7 campaign.

Weber went 16-26 in his four years with the Wildcats, never posting a winning record, and was the first Arizona coach to be fired since Ed Doherty was canned in 1958.

1973 — Young shines instantly

Brought in from Michigan, where he’d been Bo Schembechler’s defensive coordinator, Jim Young had a breeze of a debut in the form of a 31-0 win at Colorado State. Arizona started 5-0 and finished 8-3, sharing the Western Athletic Conference title with Arizona State (whom it lost to in the regular-season finale).

Young followed that up with back-to-back 9-2 records, putting him on the radar of bigger programs. After a rebuilding year in 1976 he left for Purdue and later Army, getting inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

1977 — Mason can’t manage

Its coach having been poached by another school, Arizona kept the coaching carousel moving by hiring Cincinnati’s Tony Mason off an 8-3 season as an independent. The Wildcats began Mason’s first season with a trip to Auburn, losing 21-10 en route to a 5-7 record.

Mason only had one winning record in his three-year run in Tucson, that coming in 1979 when Arizona went 6-5-1 with a loss to Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl that would prove to be the coach’s final game. He retired not long after.

1980 — Smith starts slow

A 9-3 record at Tulane helped get Larry Smith the Arizona job, but going from an independent program to one in the Pac-10 proved an uphill battle early. The Wildcats’ 15-13 loss to Colorado State in Smith’s debut was the first of four consecutive home defeats in a 5-6 season.

It was nothing year-over-year improvement for Arizona under Smith after that, though, maybe too much. The Wildcats had winning records in the league and overall each subsequent season, topping out at 9-3 in 1986 with an Aloha Bowl win over North Carolina.

Smith rode the wave of that last season over to Los Angeles, where he was hired by USC and coached six seasons and then another seven at Missouri.

1987 — Tomey loses low-scoring affair

Defense was Dick Tomey’s bread and butter during his 14 seasons at Arizona, so it’s no surprise the Wildcats were in a rock fight in their first game under the program’s winningest coach. A 15-14 home loss to Iowa marked the start of Tomey’s tenure, one of six games in which Arizona would hold its opponents to 17 or fewer points.

A few bounces here and there and Arizona could have had a much better record than 4-4-3 that season, tying two of its last three games.

Arizona’s best two seasons in modern history—a 10-2 record in 1993 and the 12-1 mark in 1998—came under Tomey, who was forced out after the 2000 season when the Wildcats dropped five straight following a 5-1 start.

2001 — Mackovic peaks early

Out of coaching since being fired at Texas four years earlier, John Mackovic’s arrival in Tucson drew mixed reviews. A 3-0 start in 2001 won over some people but not the ones who were well aware the wins at San Diego State (23-10), Idaho (36-29) and UNLV (38-21) came against teams that would go 8-25.

Reality set in when Pac-10 play began, with Arizona dropping its next five and finishing 5-6. That was its best record under Mackovic, who went 4-8 in 2002 and then was fired after a 1-4 start to 2003 that included to LSU, Oregon and Purdue by a combined 136 points.

Mike Hankwitz coached out the string, going 1-6.

2004 — Stoops squeaks by

Previously the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma under brother Bob, Mike Stoops inherited a near-bare cupboard from Mackovic and that showed in consecutive 3-8 records in his first two seasons with Arizona. Even his debut game showed how difficult the rebuilding project was going to be, as the Wildcats struggled with FCS foe Northern Arizona.

The 21-3 win was a four-point game entering the fourth quarter before Mike Bell scored his second rushing touchdown and Kris Heavner connected with Syndric Steptoe on a TD pass. Arizona then lost seven in a row, starting 0-5 in conference play before winning two of three including an upset of ASU.

Stoops didn’t post a winning record until 2008, doing so three years in a row, but a 1-5 start to the 2011 season saw him get canned midseason. Interim coach Tim Kish went 3-3 in place of Stoops, blowing out UCLA in his debut and also knocking off ASU in Tempe.

2012 — RichRod wins in OT

It didn’t end well, but there’s no denying Arizona had one of the best runs in program history in its first three seasons under ex-West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez. Even if the very beginning wasn’t that spectacular.

Sure, Toledo has been one of the more consistently good non-power teams this decade, and was coached by future hot commodity Matt Campbell, but needing an extra period to beat a Mid-American Conference team at home didn’t breed much confidence. The Wildcats squandered plenty of chances to win in regulation in the 24-17 victory, racking up 624 yards of offense thanks to big games from Matt Scott, Ka’Deem Carey and Austin Hill.

Promises of RichRod’s prolific offense were much more apparent the following week in a 59-38 home upset of Oklahoma State, one of six games in which Arizona would score 40 points that season including in the epic 49-48 comeback win over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.

Arizona won 26 games in RichRod’s first three season, including 10 in 2014 while claiming the Pac-12 South Division title. But that was followed by a 17-21 record in his last three years with the 2017 squad dropping four of five after a 6-2 start.