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How Arizona football coaches have fared in their debuts

How Arizona football coaches have fared in their debuts Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

(NOTE: Information from this article was previously published on Aug. 21, 2018)

How important are first impressions in sports? Look no further than the perception of new Arizona Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch, both locally and on a national scale, from when he was hired in December compared to how he’s looked at now. Quite a difference, wouldn’t you say?

Then again, Fisch has yet to coach an actual game, and that impression could mean a lot more in the long run. Though based on UA history, the outcome of that first contest doesn’t always portend.

The winningest coach in UA history, Dick Tomey, lost 15-14 at home to Iowa in his first game with the Wildcats, while his successor, John Mackovic, won his debut at San Diego State only to win just nine more games in two-plus seasons at Arizona.

(Then again, maybe Kevin Sumlin’s inauspicious debut three years ago should have been a sign of things to come.)

First impressions matter, but in sports they’re not always indicative of what to expect overall. It’s something to take into account when Fisch makes his coaching debut on Sept. 4 against in Las Vegas. A loss to the Cougars certainly won’t go over well, but considering Fisch is inheriting a 12-game losing streak and his team is a heavy underdog the result itself might not matter as much as the overall performance.

Fisch wouldn’t be the first Arizona coach to lose his first game at the school over the past 50 years. First-year Wildcats coaches are 4-4 in openers dating back to 1973, when Jim Young started out strong with a 31-0 win at Colorado State en route. Arizona has only averaged 18.3 points in coaching debuts since then, however.

Below is a breakdown of how Arizona’s first games under new coaches have gone, along with what happened after that:

1973 — Young shines instantly

Brought in from Michigan, where he’d been Bo Schembechler’s defensive coordinator, Young had a breeze of a debut in the form of a 31-0 win at Colorado State. Arizona started 5-0 and finished 8-3, sharing the Western Athletic Conference title with Arizona State (whom it lost to in the regular-season finale).

Young followed that up with back-to-back 9-2 records, putting him on the radar of bigger programs. After a rebuilding year in 1976 he left for Purdue and later Army, getting inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

1977 — Mason can’t manage

Its coach having been poached by another school, Arizona kept the coaching carousel moving by hiring Cincinnati’s Tony Mason off an 8-3 season as an independent. The Wildcats began Mason’s first season with a trip to Auburn, losing 21-10 en route to a 5-7 record.

Mason only had one winning record in his three-year run in Tucson, that coming in 1979 when Arizona went 6-5-1 with a loss to Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl that would prove to be the coach’s final game. He retired not long after.

1980 — Smith starts slow

A 9-3 record at Tulane helped get Larry Smith the Arizona job, but going from an independent program to one in the Pac-10 proved an uphill battle early. The Wildcats’ 15-13 loss to Colorado State in Smith’s debut was the first of four consecutive home defeats in a 5-6 season.

It was nothing year-over-year improvement for Arizona under Smith after that, though, maybe too much. The Wildcats had winning records in the league and overall each subsequent season, topping out at 9-3 in 1986 with an Aloha Bowl win over North Carolina.

Smith rode the wave of that last season over to Los Angeles, where he was hired by USC and coached six seasons and then another seven at Missouri. He was the last UA coach to be poached by another Division I school until this year, when in the span of about a month the Wildcats lost soccer coach Tony Amato to Florida and baseball coach Jay Johnson to LSU.

1987 — Tomey loses low-scoring affair

Defense was Tomey’s bread and butter during his 14 seasons at Arizona, so it’s no surprise the Wildcats were in a rock fight in their first game under the program’s winningest coach. A 15-14 home loss to Iowa marked the start of Tomey’s tenure, one of six games in which Arizona would hold its opponents to 17 or fewer points.

A few bounces here and there and Arizona could have had a much better record than 4-4-3 that season, tying two of its last three games.

Arizona’s best two seasons in modern history—a 10-2 record in 1993 and the 12-1 mark in 1998—came under Tomey, who was forced out after the 2000 season when the Wildcats dropped five straight following a 5-1 start.

2001 — Mackovic peaks early

Out of coaching since being fired at Texas four years earlier, Mackovic’s arrival in Tucson drew mixed reviews. A 3-0 start in 2001 won over some people but not the ones who were well aware the wins at San Diego State (23-10), Idaho (36-29) and UNLV (38-21) came against teams that would go 8-25.

Reality set in when Pac-10 play began, with Arizona dropping its next five and finishing 5-6. That was its best record under Mackovic, who went 4-8 in 2002 and then was fired after a 1-4 start to 2003 that included to LSU, Oregon and Purdue by a combined 136 points.

Mike Hankwitz coached out the string, going 1-6, and was not considered for the permanent gig. Hankwitz went on to serve as defensive coordinator at Colorado (2004-05, which included another interim HC stint), Wisconsin (2006-07) and Northwestern (2008-20) before retiring after last season.

2004 — Stoops squeaks by

Previously the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma under brother Bob, Mike Stoops inherited a near-bare cupboard from Mackovic and that showed in consecutive 3-8 records in his first two seasons with Arizona. Even his debut game showed how difficult the rebuilding project was going to be, as the Wildcats struggled with FCS foe Northern Arizona.

The 21-3 win was a four-point game entering the fourth quarter before Mike Bell scored his second rushing touchdown and Kris Heavner connected with Syndric Steptoe on a TD pass. Arizona then lost seven in a row, starting 0-5 in Pac-10 play before winning two of three including an upset of ASU.

Stoops didn’t post a winning record until 2008, doing so three years in a row, but a 1-5 start to the 2011 season saw him get canned midseason. Interim coach Tim Kish went 3-3 in place of Stoops, blowing out UCLA in his debut and also knocking off ASU in Tempe.

2012 — RichRod wins in OT

It didn’t end well, but there’s no denying Arizona had one of the best runs in program history in its first three seasons under ex-West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez. Even if the very beginning wasn’t that spectacular.

Sure, Toledo has been one of the more consistently good non-power teams this decade, and was coached by future hot commodity Matt Campbell, but needing an extra period to beat a Mid-American Conference team at home didn’t breed much confidence. The Wildcats squandered plenty of chances to win in regulation in the 24-17 victory, racking up 624 yards of offense thanks to big games from Matt Scott, Ka’Deem Carey and Austin Hill.

Promises of RichRod’s prolific offense were much more apparent the following week in a 59-38 home upset of Oklahoma State, one of six games in which Arizona would score 40 points that season including in the epic 49-48 comeback win over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.

Arizona won 26 games in RichRod’s first three season, including 10 in 2014 while claiming the Pac-12 South Division title. But that was followed by a 17-21 record in his last three years with the 2017 squad dropping four of five after a 6-2 start.

2018 — Sumlin stinks it up

Despite a .662 win percentage and six consecutive winning seasons, Texas A&M paid Sumlin a lot of money not to be its head coach anymore. Arizona thought the Aggies’ loss was its gain, swooping in and making him the first African-American football coach in school history.

Sumlin inherited a potent offense led by superstar-in-the-making in quarterback Khalil Tate, who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated during training camp. But when the Wildcats made their debut at home against BYU that attack look neutered, with Tate transformed into mostly a pocket passer.

The UA lost 28-23, its 326 yards the fewest since November 2016, and set the tone for a 5-7 campaign that culminated with an epic collapse at home to ASU. Sumlin’s 2019 team also started with a loss, at Hawaii, before winning four in a row only to lose the rest of its games that season.

An 0-5 performance in 2020, capped by the embarrassing 70-7 home loss to ASU, sealed Sumlin’s fate.