March 2, 2021



Arizona’s coaching search: The model for success, unique challenges and (short) list of candidates

The third coaching search in nine years is underway in Tucson.

That fact alone – it’s a tough job – says so much about the current endeavor.

Rich Rodriguez was a good hire who won a division title but went bust after six years.

Kevin Sumlin was terminated over the weekend after three seasons, a 12-game losing streak and the 70-7 loss to Arizona State.

How should the Wildcats approach the process of identifying their fourth head coach since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12?

The Hotline began mulling this issue months ago, on the expectation that no turnaround was forthcoming and a change was inevitable.

Here’s our view, in four easy steps:

Step One: Know your timing.

This isn’t a quick fix – the process of elevating the program to a competitive position in the top half of the South division will take years.

The current roster lacks talent. The recent recruiting classes (2019-20) were second rate, and the current recruiting class ranks ninth in the conference.

Also, the division is improving.

USC is always talented. Utah is always good. Colorado, UCLA and Arizona State are, to varying degrees, on upward trajectories.

The programs with rich traditions and large recruiting bases – those programs can be rebuilt quickly. But Arizona has neither.

The Wildcats should seek a coach based on the expectation that success won’t appear for three or four years.

To rebuild and sustain, they must hire someone who’s willing to be a Tucson lifer. Or at least a half-lifer.

Step Two: Know thyself

Arizona is one of the most difficult coaching jobs in the Pac-12.

There is little tradition to dangle in front of recruits.

The facilities have improved but don’t separate the Wildcats from their peers.

Basketball is king, community support wavers, and the salary pool for coordinators and assistants is on the low end within the conference.

Meanwhile, the local talent base is thin, the elite in-state prospects aren’t interested, and the primary recruiting pipeline (Southern California) is fiercely competitive.

It’s not quite as difficult to win consistently in Tucson as it is in Pullman or Corvallis.

But for the foundational elements (resources, recruiting, tradition), Arizona football is closer to Washington State and Oregon State than to, for example, Arizona State, Utah and UCLA.

To succeed, Arizona’s head coach has to be willing to grind.

He has to embrace the setbacks, thrive in the daily struggle and never lose enthusiasm or hope.

Everything is difficult. Every day is a challenge.

The Wildcats should keep that in mind as they seek a new coach.

Step three: Know your history

Since joining the conference in 1978, Arizona has been ranked in the AP top-25 postseason poll a grand total of six times.

Five of those came under defensive-minded head coaches Larry Smith (one) and Dick Tomey (four).

The best-known Arizona teams of them all? The Desert Swarm units of 1992-93.

The four Wildcats in the College Football Hall of Fame? All defensive players: linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ricky Hunley, safety Chuck Cecil and tackle Rob Waldrop.

Number of players named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year: eight.

Number of players named Offensive Player of the Year: one.

Here’s what Arizona doesn’t produce very often: elite quarterbacks.

Also: all-conference offensive linemen.

The model for success here is Dick Tomey football.

It’s tough, defensive-minded, run-it-on-third-and-seven, first-team-to-17-wins football.

It leans into program history and places linebackers and defensive backs at the foundation of recruiting.

Sure, that’s a different approach. College football is 50 passes and 40 points per game.

But Arizona needs to be different. It needs to distinguish itself on the recruiting trail.

Different can work, if done properly… if the style meshes with the program’s natural recruiting pool.

Stanford turned its ability to recruit offensive linemen and tight ends into years of success as the ground-and-pound specialist.

Washington State leaned on its ability to recruit receivers into years of winning under Mike Leach’s Air Raid.

Arizona has a history – a tradition – of producing elite linebackers and defensive backs.

The Wildcats should keep that in mind as they seek a new coach.

Step Four: Know thy candidates.

Oh, and we forgot to add one thing to the above equation:

The Wildcats aren’t in position to pay top dollar, or even average dollar.

They almost certainly will be offering an entry-level salary at the Power Five pay scale – somewhere in the $ 2.5 million-to- $ 3 million per year range.

That, in itself, limits the candidate pool.

Speaking of candidates, here we go…

1. Brent Brennan. The current San Jose State head coach – what a turnaround – comes from the offensive side and played receiver at UCLA. But Brennan has deep ties: He was a graduate assistant under Tomey in Tucson and coached for Tomey at San Jose State; his brother, Brad, played for Tomey; and Brennan spoke movingly about Tomey’s influence at the late coach’s memorial. What’s more, Brennan would help train players coalesce around the program. He’s a relentless recruiter, immensely likable and, like Tomey, a grinder’s grinder.