I attended the University of Arizona from 2002 to 2006, meaning I was there for the end of the John Mackovic era and the beginning of Mike Stoops’ tenure.
In those four seasons, the Wildcats won a total of 12 games.
That’s three fewer wins than national champion Clemson finished with last season. The high point was 2002, when the Cats won four games.
So, looking at it another way, Arizona won eight games over the final three seasons of my time in Tucson.
No matter what lens you see things through, there’s no getting around the fact that it was one of the worst stretches in program history. While that is certainly not the standard with which any of us should view Arizona football, it is that experience that has helped shape the way I view the program.
It’s part of the reason I could not help but roll my eyes when I came upon this tweet:
Job Security Ratings for Pac-12 Coaches in 2019 per @dennisdoddcbs— SportsPac12 (@SportsPac12) July 10, 2019
0 = Untouchable
1 = Safe
2 = All Good
3 = Pressure is On
4 = Improve Now
I understand no one was happy with how Kevin Sumlin’s first season in the Old Pueblo went, but really? The “Pressure is On” because the team won a disappointing five games in his debut season?
Don’t get me wrong, this will not be a defense of Sumlin. Nor am I writing to tell you he will ultimately become the greatest coach in school history and lead the program to its first Rose Bowl.
At the same time, are we really prepared to say the hype he arrived with has already dissipated, that perhaps he wasn’t the right man for the job, after just one season?
It’s true that everything seemed to be in place for 2018 to be special, and yet it was anything but. Some of that can be blamed on injuries, though Sumlin and his staff are not beyond reproach (cough...ASU loss...cough).
Furthermore, hailed as a great recruiter, Sumlin’s 2019 class ranks in the bottom-third of the Pac-12 and the 2020 haul is gaining momentum but still not where anyone would like for it to be. There is room for him to improve, especially as he learns to navigate a non-SEC or Texas coaching gig and begins to fill the roster with his kind of players.
It’s just that, short of a player mutiny or some other off-the-field incident, I have a tough time putting a coach on any kind of hot seat after just one season, especially when four of the team’s seven losses last season came by a combined 11 points.
The Wildcats got blown out in a few games, but they were hardly a train wreck and or any kind of embarrassment — at least by UA football standards. In 18 post-Dick Tomey seasons, Arizona has won more than five games nine times, while finishing with fewer than five victories six times.
And yet, through all that mediocrity and bad football, coaches have generally had some time to prove if they could do it.
Mackovic lasted five games into his third season (player uprisings don’t help), while Stoops was let go midway through his eighth campaign. Rich Rodriguez coached six full seasons.
Focusing on just Stoops and RichRod (I think we’d all like to forget Mackovic’s tenure), it took Stoops until his third season to win six games and his fifth before finally reaching bowl eligibility.
Rodriguez fared better, winning eight games each of his first two seasons before topping out at 10 in his third. As it was, RichRod took the Cats to five bowl games in six seasons, a feat that has been accomplished just one other time in school history.
Although Sumlin was not taking over the kind of mess Stoops did, and the cupboard wasn’t as bare as the one RichRod inherited, his arrival late in the process and inheriting a roster constructed differently than the kind he’d prefer did not help matters.
Why should we expect his second season to be better? Well, more time with the players can’t be a bad thing, and the roster has some pretty intriguing pieces. A bowl game should be the expectation, and with better fortune, be it with injuries or a couple of bounces, there’s a chance the Cats could end up as one of the conference’s real surprises.
Also, for what it’s worth, the last time Sumlin had a five-win season, in 2010 with Houston, he followed it up with a 12-win effort in 2011.
So there’s that.
The 2011 season led to Sumlin getting the job at A&M which, thinking about it, might be part of peoples’ concern — and angst — with him.
Just as was the case with Rodriguez, there is likely a prevailing fear that if Sumlin is able to get things going in Tucson, he will leave for the first “big” job that comes after him.
Maybe it’s true. Rodriguez did have that dalliance with South Carolina a season after guiding Arizona to the Pac-12 South title, and if Sumlin is to have real success in Tucson he is likely to receive interest from other programs.
I for one welcome that possibility.
Does that mean Arizona will be a stepping-stone job for Sumlin? Does he even want it to be?
No one was going to come calling after a five-win season, and the phone will not ring until he consistently gets the Cats to bowl games and contends for a conference title.
Perhaps he won’t get there. But like the coaches who came before him, Sumlin deserves some time to try.