Kevin Sumlin, Butch Jones and Other Names to Watch in Arizona's Coaching Search
- Arizona's first-year athletic director Dave Heeke has a big decision to make following the stunning firing of Rich Rodriguez days after the Wildcats' bowl game.
Arizona fired Rich Rodriguez on Tuesday night amid a very messy situation following the conclusion of a three-month long investigation into sexual harassment allegations into the coach, but sources told SI his firing was not for cause but instead due to the direction of the football program. We’ve been told by sources that it certainly didn’t help Rodriguez’s cause that he can be abrasive and tough to manage, and that several people inside the university had grown tired of him dating back to 2015, when he almost left for South Carolina. If the school could have fired him for cause, it would have. Instead, Rodriguez is expected to get in the neighborhood of $6 million as part of his separation agreement.
Whoever gets this job will take over a program that was expected to improve significantly over the next few years after finishing 7–6 in 2017. The Wildcats have a bona fide star in quarterback Khalil Tate, who will be a junior next fall. Tate’s classmate J.J. Taylor is one of the more explosive running backs on the West Coast. Dangerous slot receiver Shun Brown also returns, along with nine defensive starters, five of whom were freshmen this season. Before Arizona’s Foster Farms Bowl appearance last week, Rodriguez and his assistants spoke glowingly about the young talent in the program now, citing his 47 true freshmen (including some very good walk-ons). “They’re a really good group,” Rodriguez said last week. “They could be really special.”
One other perceived plus with this job now: The feeling in many corners that archrival Arizona State just made a really dubious hire in Herm Edwards, who had been out of college football for three decades before taking over the Sun Devils.
Athletic director Dave Heeke is still pretty new to Arizona after spending 11 years as Central Michigan’s AD, and word is he will be very deliberate in this search process. This is what someone who knows Heeke really well told me: “Fit is important to him. He will want someone he can work with and who he can communicate well with. He does not like confrontation.” Three other things worth noting also: “He gets the importance of recruiting. He is close to a lot of people but he is very close with [Nebraska AD] Bill Moos. He will not hire anyone who has anything bad in their background.”
One coach I’ve heard from multiple people Heeke really loves is former Tennessee head man Butch Jones, whom he worked with in Mount Pleasant. Jones did well at Central Michigan and Cincinnati before fizzling out in Knoxville. One thing an Arizona source told me is he’s doubtful Heeke would hire Jones now, given that he had worked under Rodriguez back at West Virginia, even though that was more than a decade ago.
Another former SEC coach looking for work who could be in play is Kevin Sumlin. He has a big reputation as a recruiter and is 86–43 in a decade as a head coach at Houston and Texas A&M. One of Sumlin’s old assistants Marcel Yates is Arizona’s defensive coordinator and has brought in a bunch of much-needed athleticism to Tucson. The question with Sumlin: Would he prefer to take a job now or sit out a year, thinking there may be a bigger opportunity waiting for him next hiring season?
Heeke came from the MAC, and Toledo’s Jason Candle is the hottest coach in that conference. The 38-year-old Mount Union product just got a new deal that will pay him at least $1.1 million annually and is extended through 2023. Candle is destined for a bigger job. Don’t be surprised if Heeke doesn’t give him a long look.
Boise State’s Bryan Harsin has spent the bulk of his coaching career on the West Coast and is an impressive 42–12. He’s an obvious candidate for any Pac-12 vacancy.
Two other old Oregon guys who also are well-regarded offensive minds and would probably serve Khalil Tate well are former Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich and Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford, who just led the biggest turnaround in college football, turning a one-win outfit into a 10-win team. Helfrich’s temperament is pretty much the opposite of Rodriguez, and that probably would be very appealing at this time, but will he come back to coaching after really taking to broadcasting this year and getting much more time with his family? (Full disclosure: Helfrich is now a colleague of mine at FOX.)
Two other wild cards are Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Army’s Jeff Monken. Given the success both have had at the academy level and the personnel in Tucson, they might be ideal fits. Monken, a one-time Arizona State graduate assistant, has quietly done a remarkable job at Army, winning 18 games the past two seasons. Niumatalolo, a Hawaii native, also has strong West Coast ties.
If Arizona wants to stay in-house, long-time NFL assistant coach Chuck Cecil, a Wildcat legend, did just spend the past season on staff as the team’s director of player personnel. He was able to get a closer look at how the college football world has evolved from his days at Arizona under Dick Tomey in the mid ’80s.
If the Wildcats go the coordinator route—and keep in mind that three of the Pac-12’s last five head coaching hires (Mario Cristobal to Oregon, Jonathan Smith to Oregon State and Justin Wilcox to Cal) were coordinators—my hunch is these three will get consideration: USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, former UCLA OC Jedd Fisch and Yates, the Wildcats’ DC.
Martin has proven he can develop players and has emerged as one of the top recruiters on the West Coast. It’s shocking that he never even got an interview for the head coaching vacancy at his alma mater Tennessee this year, especially when you consider that the Volunteers’ three finalists were coordinators and Martin ran the offense of a Power 5 champion this fall and led the Vols to the national title as a player. Even if new Vols athletic director Phil Fulmer, the guy who Martin helped win a national title as head coach, didn’t think he’d ultimately hire Martin as his head coach, giving him the experience of a formal head coaching interview certainly would come in handy in future situations like this one.
Fisch was the Bruins’ interim head coach for the final two games of the season after UCLA fired Jim Mora, getting them bowl eligible with a win over Cal before losing to Kansas State last week in the Cactus Bowl. A Pete Carroll/Jim Harbaugh protégé, he helped an offense that ranked 88th in yards per play last season finish 21st this year. The Michigan passing game also suffered significantly in his absence.
Yates, a protégé of Washington coach Chris Petersen and the interim coach in Tuscon, was hired by Rodriguez two years ago to provide a jolt in recruiting, and he has done that. The players are really in his corner, but his young undersized defense still needs a lot of development. They finished 108th in scoring defense this season. I suspect taking the interim tag off will get at least some consideration from Heeke.