At 56 and 59, respectively, Chuck Cecil and Ricky Hunley are two of the oldest members of Arizona’s new coaching staff. Both finished their playing careers long before any of the current Wildcats were born.
Yet it’s fair to say that no coaches will be more important to the UA’s chances of resurgence than Cecil and Hunley, who in addition to their roles on the defensive staff also serve as a bridge to program’s glory days.
Cecil, who will coach Arizona’s safeties, walked on to the team in 1983 as a 145-pound defensive back and by his senior year in 1987 held the Pac-10 record for interceptions in a career. Hunley, the new defensive line coach, played linebacker for the Wildcats from 1980-83 and was a two-time All-American who still holds the school’s career tackles mark.
Both are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Both also ended up playing for multiple head coaches at Arizona, with Hunley getting recruited by Tony Mason only to be coached by Larry Smith and Cecil starting his career during Smith’s tenure and finishing it under school wins leader Dick Tomey.
And both knew some day they’d be back at their alma mater.
“I actually had that conversation with my wife when I was defensive coordinator for the Titans in Tennessee,” Cecil said. “We’d been there nine years. I told her one night, I said, ‘you realize at some point I’m going back to the University of Arizona?’ She looked at me like I was crazy. I just said no, we have to go back. You use the term fairy tale, my five years here was nothing short of that. It’s something I have to pay back. Hopefully I can help to make some fairy tales come true for some of the guys here.”
Hunley said his return to the UA was “a long time coming,” with his drive in from California after getting hired similar to when he first visited Tucson more than 40 years ago on a recruiting trip from Virginia.
“I had those same feelings in my gut,” said Hunley, who said many former teammates and UA alumni have reached out to praise his return. “It’s been a blast, everybody’s been so supportive. I think they feel like they got hired. They feel like they achieved the same goal I have by coming back here.”
Cecil had been at Arizona since 2018, serving as a defensive analyst—as well as the interim defensive coordinator for the final three games in 2019—while Hunley’s last college coaching gig was with Memphis’ defensive line in 2015. Since then, he said, he’s spent time coaching in the Italian Football League while also doing consulting work with coaches in Africa and South America and training athletes in the Southern California area.
When Jedd Fisch was hired less than a month ago he stressed the importance of having some coaches with a connection to the UA. Cecil and Hunley certainly fit that description, and that might best be described in how each handled December’s embarrassing 70-7 home loss to ASU.
“I’ve been in some low places in my life, but clearly I think everybody … knows how I feel, or don’t feel about Tempe Normal,” Cecil said. “I’m still a little shook up over it. It’s something that reminds me, virtually on a daily basis, it motivates me.”
Hunley said he refused to turn off the game when it was live, despite urging from friends and other alumni he talked with while the disaster was unfolding. Since then he’s re-watched highlights of the game on YouTube, which caused his wife to do a double take.
“Anytime you lose to that school up north it’s gutwrenching,” Hunley said.
Arizona has lost four straight Territorial Cup games. Hunley was 2-2 against the Sun Devils, while Cecil’s five-year career saw the Wildcats go 4-0-1 including the classic 1986 game in which he returned an interception 105 yards for a touchdown.
Both Cecil and Hunley knew Fisch prior to his hiring, with Fisch serving as a graduate assistant at Florida when Hunley was the Gators’ defensive line coach in 2001.
That passion for the UA—and hatred of the Sun Devils—figures to translate into their coaching styles. Both Cecil and Hunley repeatedly used the phrase “run to the ball” when describing what they expect their players to do.
“The game of football is not a 60-minute game, it’s a game of seconds,” Hunley said. “Every play only last three to five seconds for a lineman, anyway. If you can’t give me everything you’ve got for 5 seconds, like you’re hair’s on fire, then we’ve got a problem. You need be standing here on the sideline next to me. If you’re on the field and not making plays you’re not being productive. You’re not helping move the meter in the right direction. You’re either helping us or hurting us.”
Hunley said he noticed that lack of hustle—“any change in speed is a loaf,” he said—when watching Arizona in recent years.
“Things were flat,” Hunley said. “Players were not laying it all out on the field. The Wildcat Way has always been you get athletes that can run to the football and want to run and finish. When you turn the tape on and you watch it on TV and you see one guy making a tackle, one guy making the tackle or missing a tackle and then the other eight, seven or 10 are watching. That’s not a good formula. Those things can be tweaked and those things can be fixed because players want to please.
“The potential is there to be much better. These guys here, they’re hungry. They want to change, they want to get better.”