Two years ago Arizona should have beaten Arizona State.
This year, the Wildcats didn’t even deserve to be on the same field as the Sun Devils.
The gap between the two programs has never seemed wider, which is what happens when you are on the wrong end of a 70-7 game.
What also happens after a game like that is change, and Arizona made a big one in parting with head coach Kevin Sumlin.
The game itself likely was not the catalyst for his dismissal; instead it was the proverbial nail in the coffin, a performance that reaffirmed a change needed to be made. No one is arguing with the move.
The coach’s tenure started with much promise but ended with him leading the program to just nine wins in 29 games, with a good many losses coming in blowout fashion. Some talent was brought into the program, sure, but it was not nearly enough.
Mike Stoops made the program respectable. Rich Rodriguez consistently brought bowl games and won a Pac-12 South title.
Sumlin’s time in Tucson welcomed apathy, which could really be a death knell for the program. The finish ushered in anger, though, which is exactly what is needed to get things going in the right direction.
While it may seem like the next coach will be taking over a bad situation, in some ways that could not be further from the truth. The facilities are not bad, there are some talented players and, perhaps most important of all, the expectations couldn’t be lower.
Win a game and they’ll already be an improvement. Win a few games and the support will be strong.
Win more than that and the plans for a statue will be put into motion.
For those reasons as well as many others the Arizona gig is an interesting one. The feeling is that no quality coach would ever want the job. Yeah, it’s a Pac-12 school but can one actually win in Tucson?
Stoops proved that with time a competitive team can be built, and Rodriguez showed that the Old Pueblo can be home to a team that wins more than it loses. There are challenges to be sure, many of which would not be found at other schools.
Whoever the next coach is must understand that and have a plan to rise above them. It seems Sumlin did not, which ultimately made the initial optimism over his hiring misguided.
Much of the hype around the hire was based on Sumlin being a big name who had won at previous stops. The next coach may not have that kind of resume — it’s hard to imagine a former SEC coach landing in the desert — but perhaps that’s for the best.
As is the case whenever a hire must be made, everyone has an opinion on who it should be or what qualities the person should possess.
In a press release announcing the Sumlin move, athletic director Dave Heeke provided a glimpse into the process going forward.
“Our attention now turns to finding the next head coach at the University of Arizona, while we continue to support our student-athletes, who have sacrificed so much since returning to campus this summer,” he said. “We will cast a wide net to identify and recruit a coach who shares our vision, our values and our passion for winning.”
Who might that be? Who should it be?
Some feel like the choice must be an alum, someone who played for the school at one time.
That’s ridiculous. If you limit a coaching search former Wildcats the list will be quite short. If there’s an Adia Barnes out there then of course go get them. But there isn’t. So while going this route might win the press conference it is no surefire way to win games.
Others demand that the coach not be of the “retread” variety, which ostensibly means they should not be previously-fired coaches from other, better schools.
That makes sense in theory and is an especially appealing line of thought following the Sumlin debacle. However, eliminating such a broad group of coaches, all with different backgrounds and stories, would seem to dramatically shrink the pool of candidates.
There is also a belief that the best choice would be some sort of up-and-comer, either a coordinator looking for their first head coaching gig or a coach from a smaller school or conference who would jump at the chance to take a step up and establish themselves in a Power 5 conference.
The concern with a coach like that is until they are proven winners at this level there is no guarantee they can hack it. And, if they are successful at Arizona they may jump ship for a bigger job when an opportunity presents itself.
Arizona should be so lucky.
Unless someone like Urban Meyer decides they’re up for a challenge and a pay cut, the coach will not have a flawless resume. But that does not mean quality options are not out there and it’s very possible Arizona will land one of them. As long as they are provided with resources and patience, a turnaround should be on the horizon.
Whoever the choice is will have their work cut out for them, but it’s not an impossible situation. One could do worse than Arizona because Arizona can’t get much worse.