The Arizona Wildcats are facing unprecedented circumstances this fall and spring, welcoming several new head coaches into the department. With that change comes a lot of uncertainty but also plenty of reasons for optimism.
That said, here is the biggest challenge facing these head coaches as their first seasons quickly approach.
Tommy Lloyd (men’s basketball)— the IARP uncertainty
Expectations are low in Lloyd’s first season, with one well-known columnist picking Arizona to finish ninth in the Pac-12. That would be their worst finish since the conference expanded to 12 teams. There’s no doubt the Wildcats are in the midst of a rebuild. How long that rebuild takes largely depends on how quickly the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) settles Arizona’s complex infractions case. The sooner the Wildcats receive a punishment for their reported Level I violations, the sooner Lloyd will know exactly what he’s working with at his new gig. But no one knows how long that will take and until then it will be difficult for Lloyd and his staff to recruit at the level Arizona is accustomed to since the possibility of a postseason ban or scholarship reduction always looms. That’s a big road block for anyone, let alone a first-time head coach. — Ryan Kelapire
Jedd Fisch (football) — Backing up the offseason hype with a respectable product
Fisch’s hiring was met with plenty of criticism but he has seemingly made all the right moves to electrify the fan base since then. That’s great but everything changes in September when he’ll have to do what he was actually brought to Tucson to do—win football games.
It’s hard to find anyone outside the program who believes Arizona will have a winning record this season, but they at least have to be more competitive than they were under Kevin Sumlin when blowout losses became the numbing norm. If not, all the energy Fisch has injected into the program will look like one big charade.
The Wildcats will be tested right off the bat, opening the season against two tough Group of 5 opponents in BYU and San Diego State. It might not be an overstatement to say those two games could set the tone for Fisch’s entire tenure. — Ryan Kelapire
Chip Hale (baseball) — Keeping the momentum
Arizona’s 0-2 performance at the College World Series was disappointing, but with so much young talent set to return the immediate future was very bright. Then Jay Johnson surprisingly jumped ship for LSU, bringing two of his top freshmen with him, and a program on the rise was suddenly at risk of backsliding.
Since Hale was hired on July 5 he’s had to work nonstop to plug many fingers into the dam and keep it from breaking open and washing away all the progress. So far he’s managed to convince several Wildcats to withdraw from the NCAA transfer portal, including pitchers Garrett Irvin and Quinn Flanagan and outfielders Tyler Casagrande and Blake Paugh, but there’s also the incoming freshman class and commitments in 2022 and beyond to win (back) over.
Retaining assistant Dave Lawn and adding Trip Couch from South Carolina will go a long way toward keeping the momentum, but Hale needs to bring in a younger coach to further help him adjust from coaching professionals to developing amateurs. — Brian J. Pedersen
Becca Moros (soccer) — A super short preseason
College soccer coaching changes usually happen when the season ends in November or December. The coronavirus pandemic delaying the 2020 campaign to the spring meant vacancies opened in April and May this year.
Florida hired Tony Amato away from Arizona on May 24 and the UA did not hire Moros until June 16. While Moros’ lack of experience is a concern—she has never coached at the college level and was only an assistant in the NWSL for two seasons—this was going to be a tough transition no matter who was hired simply because of the short turnaround.
Arizona’s first day of practice is Aug. 5 and their first exhibition is Aug. 10. Their regular season opener is only a week and a half after that.
The Wildcats have the pieces to be competitive in the Pac-12, including the return of leading scorer Jill Aguilera, but does Moros have enough time to field a quality product and start implementing her vision for Arizona soccer in Year 1? Or will all the change catch up to the Wildcats, who did not have a single losing season in Amato’s eight years at the helm? — Ryan Kelapire
Caitlin Lowe (softball) — Replacing a legend
Of all of these first-year head coaches, Lowe is in the best position to succeed. She returns a strong, albeit young, crop of returners who have played under her and were recruited by her. She has two established assistant coaches and a fanbase that fully supports her.
Still, Lowe is replacing the legendary Mike Candrea and, like she said during her introductory press conference, she’s always pitied the person who has to succeed him. Candrea’s presence brought a certain lore to Arizona softball.
Still, the program has a lot going for it without him—a storied tradition, state-of-the-art facilities, a passionate fanbase and an enviable proximity to all that Southern California talent. But the parity is so strong in college softball these days that that alone won’t allow Arizona softball to maintain its elite status. It has to continue recruiting the right kids and priding itself on its foundation of family and fundamentals. There’s little reason to doubt that Lowe, Candrea’s hand-picked successor, is the right leader, but she still has to prove it. — Ryan Kelapire