Of all the criticisms Rich Rodriguez faced during his tenure as the Arizona Wildcats’ head coach, one of the biggest ones was his inability to make former players feel welcome.
If anything, it went to the extreme other direction in purposely keeping them away from the program.
Some of that thawed in the last year with Chuck Cecil being put on staff, but there was still a disdain for RichRod among the alums. The final example of that was Antonio Pierce landing a job at ASU under Herm Edwards when there were several opportunities to bring him back to Tucson.
But all of that appears to be gone with the hiring of Kevin Sumlin.
Many former players were at Tuesday’s introductory press conference including: Bobby Wade, Ricky Hunley, Lance Briggs, Kelvin Eafon, Kelvin Hunter, Chuck Cecil, Brandon Sanders, Eddie Wilson, Jim Young, and Rod Lewis. And Sumlin was quick to welcome them into what is now his program.
“I appreciate the former players that are here (at the introductory press conference),” Sumlin said. “Some of you guys know me, some of you guys don’t — most of you don’t — but I just want you to know you’re always welcome in this program because this is your program.”
“I’ve said this everywhere I’ve been,” continued Sumlin. “No one knows more or should know more than former players because you guys played here, you guys sacrificed and did a lot of things. You guys care, and it’s a different level of care because of the sacrifice and effort you put in.
“You’re always part of this program and you’re always going to be part of this program.”
A quick message to football @UALetterwinners. You’re always welcome in this program. This is your program. We need you involved if we’re going to reach the heights we are striving to achieve. #BearDown pic.twitter.com/DGin94hR1u— Kevin Sumlin (@CoachSumlin) January 17, 2018
A lot of talk during the coaching search centered around bringing an alum in, but truth of the matter is that Arizona does not have an alum that is ready to take over as head coach of a college football program. And that’s okay, especially when you end up with someone that has already energized the fanbase like the Sumlin hiring has.
Sumlin went to Purdue. Has that hindered his coaching at Houston and Texas A&M? Nope. But he still knows that he needs to embrace the people that came before him at the school he’s coaching.
That included talking to former Arizona coach Dick Tomey on Monday.
“I’ve known him for a long time,” Sumlin said of his relationship with the winningest coach in Arizona history. “I know that he’s involved here in the community, he’s got great love for the university, and we talked for a little bit. We talked a lot about former player engagement.
“I just want to get a lay of the land, because from a consistency standpoint of this university being a nationally recognized powerhouse football team, really I think Tomey was that time period,” added Sumlin. “At A&M, we had a locker in the coaches locker room for R.C. Slocum because it’s the same kind of thing and I wanted him to be honest with me if he came to practice to tell me what he saw because he cares.
“I think from a community and former player engagement, that’s important for me too,” Sumlin continued about having Tomey involved moving forward. “So I’m looking forward to him coming back and being around and helping in that way because his success here is historical and he cares greatly about the program right now and that kind of passion and knowledge we need in this building.”
And as an added bonus, Sumlin knew his school’s mascot unlike his counterpart up north.
“I’m excited to be here, I’m excited to be a Wildcat,” he said, “and I’m excited to say Bear Down.”
It will be interesting to see if Cecil stays on staff, if people like Hunley and Briggs are brought on in some capacity, or if Sumlin targets a guy like Joe Salave’a to return to Tucson and be the new defensive line coach. But it’s clear that former and current players have been energized by the new direction Arizona football is going in.