A little more than three years ago, after sending Kevin Sumlin packing, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke and school president Robert C. Robbins were tasked with finding someone who was willing to take on a major rebuilding job. They eventually settled on Jedd Fisch, a journeyman college and NFL assistant who was eager to get a head coaching job.
Now, with Fisch skipping town for big money at Washington, the search for his replacement may be even harder.
Despite Arizona coming off just the fourth 10-win season in school history, the current college football landscape makes being able to carry that momentum from one coach to the next a lot more difficult. Though the NCAA transfer portal closed earlier this month, a head coaching change triggers a 30-day window for UA players to put their names in and weigh their playing options.
Arizona’s next coach will need to convince as many players on the current roster—at least 16 starters from the Alamo Bowl were scheduled to return for 2024—to give him a chance, and for holes that are created by those that don’t stick around he’ll have to fill them with players that haven’t been plucked from the portal since it opened in early December.
Heeke issued a statement Sunday night saying that he is confident the UA “will attract a new leader who will continue the positive trajectory of our nationally-ranked program.”
Who might that next coach be? Whoever it is, Arizona has to find them and hire them fast if there’s any hope of trying to field a competitive team this year.
Here’s a short list of potential candidates, and why the UA should consider them:
Texas co-defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach Johnny Nansen
Arizona went from one win to five wins after it overhauled the offense before the 2022 season, but the real surge came following a similar focus on defensive improvement ahead of 2023. The Wildcats allowed only 21.1 points per game this past season, the fewest since 2006.
Nansen’s second year as Arizona defensive coordinator enabled him to fully implement his scheme, which relied on a lot of rotation up front as well as versatility in the secondary. It didn’t hurt that the UA added an experienced veteran to the staff in Duane Akina, as well as improved players, but it was still Nansen who held it all together.
But possibly seeing what lay ahead, Nansen left the program last week for a lesser role at Texas, reuniting with longtime friend Steve Sarkisian after the two coached together at USC and Washington.
If Nansen wants to be a head coach, getting that shot with a roster he was already familiar with wouldn’t be a bad option. The players certainly wouldn’t mind, as #HireNansen was quickly trending on Twitter not long after Fisch left. Maybe he’d even convince Akina, who also left for Texas, to come back with him.
Arizona offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll
As far as UA staffers who haven’t already bolted, Carroll is by far the best option. He’s well-liked by the players, was integral in turning Jordan Morgan into a potential first-round pick and has helped the Wildcats put together a stellar homegrown line.
Like Nansen, he could probably keep a good chunk of the team together—including Noah Fifita, Tetairoa McMillan and Jonah Savaiinaea—and would make the transition to the Big 12 Conference as smooth as possible considering the circumstances.
And who knows, maybe he could convince his dad to move down from Seattle and help out on defense ...
UPDATE: Carroll is expected to join Fisch at Washington, along with most of the offensive staff.
San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan
Brennan was one of the top candidates for the UA job in 2020 but he ultimately stayed put at San Jose, signing an extension through 2025. That was coming off a 7-1 record in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, including a trip to the Arizona Bowl.
Since then Brennan has gone 19-18 with two more bowl bids, with this year’s Spartans team tying for first place in the Mountain West Conference.
A graduate assistant at Arizona under Dick Tomey, Brennan’s UA ties would appease alumni. And he’d no doubt look at the Wildcats’ facilities and resources as a huge improvement over the paltry ones he has in San Jose.
Washington State head coach Jake Dickert
Dickert is 15-16 since taking over WSU midway through the 2021 season after it fired Nick Rolovich for not complying with Washington’s COVID mandate for state employees. He went 3-3 that first year, getting the interim tag removed, and has taken the Cougars to two bowl games in three seasons.
Washington State is a program without a conference, as it and Oregon State are the only Pac-12 schools not to find a new home. Both have a scheduling alliance with the Mountain West for the next two years but isn’t eligible for that league’s championship, and presumably their bowl bids, so the Cougars are in effect an independent.
Dickert would be a solid hire who is young (40), energetic and could look at Arizona as a second chance for power-conference football after WSU was left behind.
Cal head coach Justin Wilcox
For some reason, Wilcox’s name never came up during Washington’s search to replace Kalen DeBoer, which is surprising since he was very well-regarded as the Huskies’ defensive coordinator in 2012-13 before he followed Sarkisian to USC for a few seasons.
He’s been Cal’s head coach for seven seasons, and while his 36-43 record isn’t great he’s had arguably the toughest job in the Pac-12. A combination of tough academic standards, fan disinterest and hardly any financial investment has made it very tough to win yet Wilcox has gone to three bowls.
Cal is moving to the ACC—yes, the Atlantic Coast Conference—for 2024 and in that first season has league road games in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas and trips to Boston and upstate New York in future years. That makes Arizona’s Big 12 travel look like bus trips.
UNLV head coach Barry Odom
Odom is coming off a tremendous first season at UNLV, his second head coaching gig after he spent four years at Missouri from 2016-19. The Runnin’ Rebels went 9-5, hosting the Mountain West title game and then playing in their first bowl game since 2014 and only second in the past 23 years.
The MWC Coach of the Year was mentioned as a candidate for other openings this offseason but stayed put in Sin City. With Arizona able to more than double his $1.75 million salary, and potentially willing to overpay, he might be inclined to make another move.
Texas State head coach GJ Kinne
Kinne is one of the hottest young coaches in college football, having been instantly successful at both (albeit much smaller) stops. He went 12-2 with Incarnate Word in 2023, reaching the FCS semifinals, and in his first season at Texas State won eight games and led the Bobcats to their first bowl game (a win over Rice in the First Responder Bowl).
He’s only 35, having been a coach since 2017 that included stints as offensive coordinator at Hawaii and UCF. The former quarterback at Tulsa threw for 9,462 yards and 81 touchdowns from 2009-11, and his offensive background could be enticing for Arizona’s many talented weapons.
Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez
If Stanley Berryhill thinks Arizona should give RichRod a second chance, why shouldn’t we?
While the way his tenure in Tucson ended was messy, there’s no denying Rodriguez was able to win. He took the Wildcats to bowl games in five of six seasons, reaching the Pac-12 title game in 2014, and the offenses were fun to watch.
Sure, he wasn’t a great prep recruiter, but the transfer portal makes that a lot less important if you can piece a team together each year from college football free agents. That’s what he’s done at Jacksonville State, a first-year FBS program that went 9-4 and won the New Orleans Bowl.
This wouldn’t be a long-term solution, as he’s 60, but then again is anyone nowadays?
Which of these candidates would you prefer, or do you have other (realistic) suggestions? Drop your thoughts in the comments section!