Shortly after his team fell to the Utah Utes, Arizona’s sixth straight defeat and one that officially eliminated the team from bowl contention, Kevin Sumlin said something that likely resonates with most Wildcats fans.
The second-year coach was asked if he ever envisioned missing the postseason each of his first two seasons in Tucson.
“No, never,” he said. Asked why he thinks it’s happened, Sumlin noted there were multiple reasons.
“It’s my job to right the ship,” he added.
It is, but for how much longer?
Back in January 2018, when Sumlin was hired, he arrived with lofty expectations. After all, he was inheriting a team that reached a bowl game the previous season and returned an electrifying QB. The defense was bringing back some talent, too, and there was a level of excitement generally not reserved for Arizona football.
Nearly two full seasons later the team has lost 16 of its 25 games played, and while last year four of the seven defeats were by one score or less, this season has featured six of seven being by a double-digit margin. The Wildcats don’t look like they have quit on the season, yet they have been largely non-competitive for the better part of two months.
Add in the firing of a trio of defensive coaches, some fighting on the sideline and a clumsy handling of the quarterback position and you have ample reason to say “that’s enough.”
Given the lack of fans going to games in Tucson, many already have. An angry fan base is not ideal, but an apathetic one is the worst thing a program can have.
Arizona’s failure looks even worse when juxtaposed with its rivals, who have done little more than be average over the last two seasons under second-year coach Herm Edwards.
Oh, to be average.
This is how far the Wildcats have fallen, folks. The question is what they need to do to get back up and moving in a positive direction.
For many, the answer is as simple as moving on from Sumlin. That may be easier said than done given the money he is still owed as well as the perception should Arizona fire its second coach in three years.
Yet, there is no such thing as the wrong time to make the right move, and if the determination is that Sumlin is not the guy then the sooner the decision is made, the better.
The last thing you want is for the coaching search to begin late in the process, with the eventual hire not starting until sometime in January and immediately having to play catch up.
It’s also possible that Sumlin just needs a bit more time and the right defensive coordinator hire. At least offensively Arizona appears to have some solid pieces in place, and if the other side of the ball can improve then so too will the Wildcats.
Patience is a tough thing to ask for in times like this, especially since if Sumlin really isn’t the right man for the job then all keeping him does is waste time and possibly dig the program’s hole even deeper.
It will be interesting to see what kind of Wildcat team shows up Saturday. They have said all the right things about this being their bowl game, wanting to win for the seniors and pining to reclaim the Territorial Cup. They’ve talked a good game during the losing streak, though you’d have to believe they care about this one.
Assuming the team is sufficiently motivated, will it make a difference? Not as much as a more healthy offensive line would, but sure.
The truth is of the losses during this awful skid, only one or two — Oregon State and Stanford — were games the team could have or even should have won. That they would lose to Washington, USC, Oregon and Utah was a surprise to nobody.
That’s not an excuse for barely being competitive; it is important context.
Is Arizona better than its record? No. Better than its statistical rankings? Hardly.
As is often the case in rivalry games, it may be wise to throw all that out before kickoff. Besides, this year’s game is against a team that is not leaps and bounds better than they are, even if it may feel that way.
Despite the double-digit spread, the Sun Devils, who were on a four-game losing streak of their own before upsetting Oregon, are beatable. Two of Arizona’s four wins came against teams that beat the Sun Devils, for whatever that’s worth.
This game is winnable.
While a victory over the Sun Devils would feel great (really, really great), the result of the game should have no baring on any decision regarding Sumlin’s fate. Whether the plan is to keep him or relieve him of his duties, that plan should already be in place.
Win or lose, a rivalry game should not be the deciding factor in whether or not a coach keeps their job.
A win over the Sun Devils would let the departing Wildcats finish their college careers on a high note and it would bring a kind of satisfaction that only the Territorial Cup can serve.
But could it bring with it a third season for Sumlin?
If his job needs to be saved, it is already lost.