As Kevin Cummings headed off the field for the last time in an Oregon State uniform, his head coach Mike Riley pulled him aside and offered some sage advice.
“You have professional aspirations,” Riley told Cummings, “but if that stuff doesn’t work out or when that stuff is done, you need to get on that field and start coaching.”
OSU had just upset Boise State in the 2013 Hawaii Bowl, a game that Cummings watched from the sideline after suffering a wrist injury earlier in the fall.
Cummings spent the last weeks of that season serving as a player-coach, an upperclassman on the sideline offering insight to his younger teammates.
It’s fitting that Cummings would begin to mull over a future coaching career on the Aloha Stadium turf, the same grounds where Dick Tomey served as head coach for a decade before taking over at Arizona.
When Cummings made his way back to the sideline for good in 2014, it was Tomey disciple Brent Brennan who took the LA native under his wing, first at OSU as a graduate assistant and then at San Jose State as wide receivers coach.
Cummings surely would have followed his coaching mentor to Tucson if Brennan had gotten the Arizona job last month. Instead, the Wildcats opted for Jedd Fisch, but Cummings wound up in Tucson anyhow, hired to be the program’s new receivers coach.
Though Cummings joins Arizona with no prior direct relation to the school, Tomey’s philosophy—passed down through Brennan—provides the 30-year-old an underlying connection with Wildcats history.
“Coach Brennan, a lot of the stuff that he preaches as far as his motto: ‘the team, the team, team,’ a lot of that comes from Coach Tomey,” Cummings said. “All that stuff came from Coach Tomey.”
At SJSU, Cummings spent a fall camp taking lessons from Tomey, who was there to help Brennan’s young staff learn the ropes of coaching. Tomey’s teachings rubbed off on Brennan, Cummings and the rest of the Spartans coaches. They took SJSU from Mountain West bottom feeder to conference champions in just three seasons.
Now Cummings is on board of another rebuilding project at Arizona. First order of business? Convince players who left after last season to stick around.
At that, Cummings has already succeeded. Of the five Wildcats receivers who put their names in the NCAA transfer portal, four have since changed their mind and returned.
“We didn’t really talk about what reasons they left,” Cummings said. “We didn’t feel as though that was important. Everybody has different reasons. We were just focused on the now. We were focused on being pros here at the University of Arizona.”
The Arizona coaching staff has promised to develop personal relationships with players and recruits, going so far as to turn that priority into a retweetable hashtag: #ItsPersonal.
No one on the staff is better suited to develop tight player relationships than Cummings, who is as young as they come among full-time power conference coaches.
“I think my ability to relate to these guys and show them what they see, they’re all watching NFL stuff, right? They’re all watching different things that they see on TV, and a lot of those guys I know,” Cummings said. “So I can talk to them and pick their brains and see how they’re doing, and I can teach that to these guys out here.”
Not only can Cummings speak the same on-the-field language as the players he’s coaching, he can also relate to where many of them grew up.
Cummings was born and raised in LA and attended Crespi Carmelite High School in the San Fernando Valley. His dad is a well-connected running backs coach at Pomona-Pitzer College with previous stops at Crespi and Santa Monica High School.
Cummings expanded his recruiting map as an assistant at OSU and SJSU. There, he gained familiarity with the talent-rich Bay Area and also recruited off-the-beaten-path regions like California’s Inland Empire and Central Valley.
Cummings referenced Arizona receiver and Sacramento native Tayvian Cunningham as the type of underrated player he’ll be seeking out on the recruiting trail.
“At San Jose we had some guys that were under recruited who started for us, who were All-Conference players for us,” Cummings said. “We’re gonna search far and wide to make sure we find a guy that fits what we’re trying to do. There’s no limits to that.”