The Arizona Wildcats’ head coaching search is moving at a swift but diligent pace, trying to find the right person to resurrect a program that is riding a 12-game losing streak and hasn’t had a winning season since 2017.
UA athletic director Dave Heeke declined to offer a timetable for when a hire will be made but said the Wildcats have had ongoing conversations with “numerous” individuals since Sunday. He added that Arizona has “not offered a job to anyone and we’ve had no final discussions with anyone.”
Despite the program’s recent struggles, Heeke believes it is an attractive job for many reasons.
“We’ve improved the overall assets around our football program—the facilities, the Lowell-Stevens Center, the Davis Indoor Sports Center, our outdoor practice facility, the commitment to our football program with staffing size, and the commitment to compensation to be very, very competitive that needed quite frankly to be addressed,” he said Friday in a 40-minute press conference.
“Those are those are things that we have in place here that make us a very attractive job and I hear that from the people that I’m talking to around the country. When people come in and out of Tucson now, they are really wowed by what we have and there is the structure there to be successful going forward for a very highly competitive football program.
“Plus, we've got great people here. We've got passionate fans. It’s a tremendous market. It’s a large enough market, but it’s a great college town. It’s a great place to come to school for young people. You can recruit here. They leave with positive experiences. We have a passionate alumni base, obviously. We have great media coverage that really highlight our programs. Those are all incredibly positive aspects of this. This can be a winning program.”
Heeke said Arizona is using a search firm to assist with the process, but stressed that “they are not the process, nor do they dictate it.”
Here is what he is looking for in the next head coach of Arizona football:
A relentless recruiter, especially in the state of Arizona
Arizona’s 2019 and 2020 classes finished 11th in the Pac-12 under Kevin Sumlin. The 2021 class, which lost a few commitments in the wake of his firing, now ranks 11th too.
Several factors go into building a successful program, but it all starts with having enough talent to compete with your peers.
The Wildcats, clearly, have fallen short in that department.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of programs,” Heeke said. “We need a head coach and a body of assistant coaches who are relentless recruiters. They do it the right way. They can share the passion, they can share the greatness of this place, the opportunity to come here and go to school and have a world class education. But recruiting is the lifeblood. They must be relentless in recruiting. We must have a great plan recruiting. Our footprint, our connections, we start in this state of Arizona, the relationships we have.”
The Wildcats have struggled to make inroads in the state of Arizona, landing just nine in-state recruits over the last four cycles even though it’s one of the best talent beds in the country. Arizona has even seen several highly-ranked recruits slip away from Tucson to other Pac-12 schools.
Some coaches in Tucson have been frustrated and dismayed by Arizona’s lack of aggression in the area.
“We need a head coach with that mentality, that we will start right here in our backyard and have great relationships,” Heeke said. “I’m passionate about high school football coaches and their role in the overall grand scheme of recruiting and that’s all levels. My best friends in the world are high school football coaches. My brother is a high school football coach. I know how important it is for that connection to the state institutions, to the head coaches and the coaching staffs of those state institutions are. And that will be a priority as we continue to go forward.”
Someone who can reinstate a tough brand of football
Arizona’s best teams have paired fearsome, hard-nosed defenses with a ground-and-pound running game. When Heeke met virtually with hundreds of players from those squads, they emphasized the need to bring in a coach who can restore some of that edge.
It seemed to resound with him.
“We need someone who will embrace what has made Arizona football great,” Heeke said. “That’s passion, that’s toughness. That is believing in our history and our tradition and some of the great people who have been here before. It’s a little bit different of a place. You know, you have to really believe in it here and our players have shared that with me, and I agree with that, so it’s been great conversations.”
Not necessarily someone with direct UA ties
While Heeke wants someone who will embrace Arizona’s past, he didn’t necessarily say they had to have been part of it. He was asked if the new head coach needs to have UA ties and this was his response:
“I think it’s critical that a person understand our values, that they understand our history, they understand our tradition. I believe there are people that can develop a plan, incorporate an assistant coaches group, have a philosophy that is similar to those that have been here before that have seen success. So I believe that’s important, so yes there needs to be some recognition of the power that exists here and tapping into that power of our past that will be important going forward.”
A people person
Heeke said the next head coach needs to embrace the community, fans, alumni and former players, as well as be seen and accessible. The program is entering a critical period after seeing interest and ticket sales dwindle over the last few years, partly because of a lack of personal connection with the program.
“Our alums, they want to know their head football coach,” Heeke said. “They want to be able to kind of grab onto their coattails. They want to know that they’ve shook the hand of the leader of Wildcat football.
“As I like to say, we need to walk in the front door. We need to engage at speaking events, the Rotary Club, whatever it is. And stick around for a little while afterwards and shake a few hands and engage with our people, look them in the eye, and then walk out the front door with them. That’s what a head football coach here in Tucson and for the University of Arizona needs to do. They need to have that type of mentality, that type of passion.”
Someone who can build a positive culture
While winning football games and selling tickets is a must for any college athletic department to survive, Heeke harped on the need to hire a coach who can instill a strong culture on the field, in the classroom and around the community.
“This is about a leader of men, a leader of a football program, committed to using football to build better young people,” he said. “To utilizing the game of football to produce great leaders in the future. That’s what’s important, those fundamental principles of doing it the right way, believing in the players, helping them grow and building a great culture here for our football program.”
He added: “There’s not one skill set of, ‘Hey, perfect defensive coordinator, perfect offensive coordinator, great recruiter.’ You have to have a little bit of all of that or you have to have a program to surround yourself with people that can bring all of that together. But passion, connection, love for your players, love for this program, being in it for the right reasons, meaningful experiences with those young men who are in our program, this is college athletics. This is big time in their lives. And the best programs have that connectedness, they have that culture, they have that togetherness, that respect for the program and that I believe builds winning programs. So that’s the focus this year this time. That could have been different in the past or with different circumstances.”