Firing the current coach is the easy part. Now comes the real work.
Now that Kevin Sumlin is out, the task at hand for the Arizona Wildcats—particularly athletic director Dave Heeke—is to find a replacement that can revitalize a program that has become a national embarrassment.
Arizona’s 12-game losing streak is the second-longest active skid in FBS, behind only Kansas’ 13-game drought. The Wildcats haven’t won since Oct. 5, 2019 and have lost six consecutive home games for the first time in school history.
Sumlin’s 9-20 record was worse than the 10-18 mark produced by John Mackovic, who succeeded all-time wins leader Dick Tomey in 2001 but was let go midway through the 2003 season. The Mackovic era was widely considered the low point for the program, at least during the Pac-10/12 era, prompting the school to go young with its next coach in hiring Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
Will Arizona go in a similar direction this time? Here are some of the top candidates for Sumlin’s replacement, in no particular order
San Jose State coach Brent Brennan
Brennan, 47, is in his fourth season at San Jose State, his first head coaching job. His record is 14-29, but that’s incredibly deceiving, as his current Spartans team is 6-0 and will play Boise State for the Mountain West title next week.
San Jose has gone unbeaten despite having to hold its preseason camp at Humboldt State University, five hours to the north, and its 27-23 “home” win over Nevada on Friday was played in Las Vegas because Santa Clara County has prohibited contact sports as part of its COVID-19 restrictions. The Spartans’ quarterback, Nick Starkel, is a graduate transfer who started five games for Sumlin at Texas A&M in 2017.
Brennan has ties to the UA, having served as a graduate assistant on Tomey’s final team in 2000. The former UCLA wide receiver also spent six years on Oregon State’s staff before getting the San Jose job.
Nevada coach Jay Norvell
Had San Jose State not rallied from down 13 at halftime it would have been Norvell’s Nevada team that was preparing for the MWC title game. Still, the Wolf Pack are 6-2 this season and the 57-year-old Norvell is 24-22 in four seasons in Reno.
Prior to Nevada, Norvell was ASU’s passing game coordinator in 2016, and before that he coached at Texas, Oklahoma, UCLA and Nebraska. From 2008-14 he was Oklahoma’s co- or assistant offensive coordinator, working with school career passing leader Landry Jones and running back Samajie Perine, who as a freshman in 2014 ran for an FBS-record 427 yards against Kansas.
Norvell is a disciple of the Hayden Fry coaching tree, having played defensive back and linebacker for the longtime Iowa coach from 1982-85. Another branch from that tree: Mike Stoops.
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian
For most Arizona fans, the last they may have heard of Sark was when he was fired by USC midway through the 2015 season, not long after reportedly showing up to work intoxicated. Since then he’s become one of many reclamation projects of Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
Now 46, Sarkisian is at the helm of a Crimson Tide offense that is averaging 49.5 points per game. He was the de facto head coach last week for ‘Bama with Saban sidelined by a positive COVID test, and his offense gained 650 yards in a 55-17 win at defending national champion LSU.
Sark has also spent two seasons as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator since leaving USC, but his roots are out west. He’s a California native who was an assistant with USC and the Oakland Raiders before getting the Washington head coaching job in 2009, going 34-29 in five seasons there before his year and a half at the helm of the Trojans.
Louisiana-Lafayette coach Billy Napier
Napier, 41, is a hot commodity on the coaching market after leading ULL to a 9-1 record this season and a spot in next week’s Sun Belt championship game against unbeaten Coastal Carolina. He’s already been connected to one power-conference opening, at South Carolina, but on Dec. 5 he withdrew from consideration.
Might the concept of playing in the Pac-12 South, where the competition isn’t nearly as fierce, compared to the SEC East and in a state shared by Clemson, be more appealing? Prior to going 27-11 with the Ragin’ Cajuns, Napier was ASU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during Todd Graham’s final season in 2017.
ASU co-defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce
If Arizona were to turn to a former player to run its program, one of the first ex-Wildcats to take a look at is up the road in enemy territory. Pierce, who played for the UA from 1999-2000, is ASU’s co-defensive coordinator.
Yeah, the same defense that just forced seven turnovers against Arizona in that 70-7 beatdown on Friday night.
The 42-year-old Pierce, who began his coaching career at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High School, was Herm Edwards’ linebackers coach in 2018-19 before getting elevated to co-DC alongside former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. He’s considered by many to be Herm’s heir apparent with the Sun Devils, and it’s not a secret his relationship with the UA has soured over the years, so the chances of him crossing back over the rivalry line is unlikely.
Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a
If there’s an ex-UA player that would both be universally accepted by Wildcat Nation and would want the job, it’s Salave’a. A three-year starter during the Desert Swarm era, Salave’a played at Arizona from 1993-97 and was twice named to the all-conference team, and after spending nine seasons in the NFL he got his first coaching job from his former head coach.
The 45-year-old Salave’a served as the defensive line coach under Tomey at San Jose State in 2008-09, then was Arizona’s DL coach in 2011. Not retained by Rich Rodriguez, Salave’a was hired by Mike Leach at Washington State where he was the assistant head coach/DL coach from 2012-16 before working in the same role the past four years at Oregon.
A member of the Polynesian Hall of Fame, Salave’a would both harken back to the glory days under Tomey but likely would also tap back into a recruiting area that Arizona heavily benefitted from in the 1980s and 1990s.
Case in point: among the players Salave’a has recruited to Oregon are offensive lineman Penei Sewell, a projected 2021 first-round NFL draft pick, and stud defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Cal special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle
If ex-UA players isn’t the move, how about former Arizona assistants?
The 44-year-old Ragle was coaching high school in Scottsdale when RichRod hired him to his first Arizona staff in 2012, starting off as direction of football operations and then elevating him to special teams coordinator and tight ends coach from 2013-16. Ragle then took the same job at Cal under Justin Wilcox in 2017 and continues to coach the Golden Bears’ specialists.
Ragle spent all but one season between 2000-11 at Phoenix-area high schools, and assuming he still has connections in that market—he helped Arizona land Jalen Harris and Cam Denson, among others—that could go a long way toward the program being able to hang onto in-state talent.
USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell
There are plenty of older UA fans who are still mad about USC stealing Larry Smith away in 1986, though that did allow the Wildcats to bring in Tomey. How about returning the favor by taking away the guy in charge of the Trojans’ potent offense?
Harrell, 35, has brought a wide-open attack to USC in his two seasons on staff. Before that he was offensive coordinator at North Texas and also spent time as the wide receivers coach at Washington State, working his Mike Leach, who was his college coach at Texas Tech where Harrell was a record-setting quarterback from 2005-08.
If Arizona doesn’t hire him this offseason, someone else might. Harrell was linked to the Utah State opening that went to Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, and he was mentioned as a candidate to replace Anderson before that school opted to go with ex-Tennessee/Cincinnati/Central Michigan coach Butch Jones—who would have been in the running for Arizona had he still be available.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo
In an alternate universe, one where Khalil Tate doesn’t take to Twitter to voice his disdain for the triple option, Niumatalolo might be finishing up his third season at Arizona with vastly different results than those of Sumlin. Instead, the longtime Navy coach just got shut out by Army in the fog on Saturday.
That dropped the Midshipmen to 3-7 this season, a year after going 11-2. The 55-year-old Niumatalolo has won 101 games in 13 seasons at the service academy, overcoming a severe recruiting disadvantage by using a run-based offense that is hard to game plan against.
If paired with an power-conference defensive coordinator, perhaps current UA DC Paul Rhoads, using a gimmick offense might be just what Arizona needs to rebrand its program. And Niumatalolo’s Polynesian and Mormon roots could also pan out in recruiting.
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin
For our “pipe dream” entry on this list we present Harsin, who since succeeding Chris Petersen at Boise State has kept that program among the best in the nation outside the power conferences. The 2020 Broncos are 5-1 and will play for another Mountain West title next week.
Harsin, 44, is 69-18 with Boise since 2014. His first team beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl, and this will be only the second season with the Broncos that Harsin hasn’t won at least 10 games.
But here’s where the fantasy goes away. Based on his success, Harsin could have already left Boise on several occasions yet has remained on the blue turf. His $1.85 million salary has something to do with that, as does knowing he’s the big fish in a small pond.
Going to Arizona is a step up for most coaches in non-power jobs, but Harsin may be the exception. Then again, leaving Boise would lessen playing in conditions like this:
Current weather situation pic.twitter.com/kwZAJTX1dy— Davis Potter (@DavisEPotter) December 13, 2020
Former Colorado/UCLA/Washington coach Rick Neuheisel
Only one name so far on this list is a head coaching retread, but considering Arizona’s hiring history this century, we have to include at least one more. So why not go with the guy who may or may not have the goal of being in charge of every Pac-12 school.
It’s been nine years since the 59-year-old Neuheisel was a college coach, going 21-29 at UCLA from 2008-11. He also coached Washington from 1999-2002, going 33-16, and was 33-14 at Colorado from 1995-98 when the Buffaloes were in the Big 12.
What’s he been doing since UCLA sent him packing? A little bit of coaching and a lot of TV, spending time with both CBS and the Pac-12 Network, and in 2019 he was head coach of the Arizona Hotshots team in the short-lived American Alliance of Football, going 5-3 on a team that included former UA players Scooby Wright, Shaquille Richardson, Lene Maiva and Nick Folk.