These are unsettling times for the University of Arizona football program.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin just hired a new defensive line coach and new outside linebackers coach, the latest steps to stabilizing a coaching staff that has been upended by a rash of departures. Three assistants were let go before the season was even over — including the defensive coordinator who was fired with four games yet to play on the 2019 schedule.
But critics are wondering if this is just an exercise in futility, kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Those three assistants let go in mid-season included the defensive coordinator who was fired with four games yet to play on the 2019 schedule — a bold move borne out of desperation.
Sumlin fired defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing on Oct. 27. Less than four weeks later, he dismissed Iona Uiagalelei, his defensive line coach, with two games left on the schedule.
Uiagalelei, in his second season with the Cats, was a gamble hire in the first place since he had no prior D-I college experience. And Sumlin was desperate to make some changes since the Cats had lost five in a row at that point.
As it turned out, the changes did little to stop the bleeding. The Cats lost their final seven games — including a 14-24 loss to hated rival Arizona State, making it two rivalry losses in a row.
The dismissal of Yates was unexpected since he came to Tucson from Texas A&M – where he was on staff at Sumlin’s previous stop, making it an especially difficult decision to pull the trigger.
If the Wildcats were winning, Sumlin’s coaching hires wouldn’t be generating as much attention. But he’s going into his third season at the helm of the program with two losing seasons (5-7, 4-8) to show for his efforts.
The defense has gone from bad to worse. His 2018 team allowed 32.5 points per opponent, while this year’s squad gave up 35.7. This year’s team ranked 88th in rushing defense (459 yards/game) and 118th in total team defense. That means there were just 12 teams in the country with a worse team defense.
Paul Rhoads has stepped in to take over the high-profile job of defensive coordinator after Chuck Cecil, who had been on staff as a defensive analyst, held down the position for the remainder of the season. Rhoads, the former Iowa State head coach, was added to the staff just before Christmas and brings more than 30 years experience to the job.
More recently, Sumlin filled the defensive line position with Stan Eggen and is bringing in Andy Buh to be the outside linebackers coach. Eggen is a 40-year coaching veteran, with stops at several Power 5 programs that included Alabama. Buh adds 20 years of experience to the roster, most recently as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Rutgers.
The future success of the Arizona program rests, in large part, with the changes Sumlin is making to his defense. His third year (on a five-year contract) is going to be pivotal to re-igniting the interest of the fan base, and to begin filling all those empty seats that have begun appearing at home games.
His continued future with the program is also riding on the hiring decisions he’s making right now.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)