Monday, December 14, 2020
Some might say that they knew immediately, when, in Kevin Sumlin’s first game as Arizona football coach, his Wildcats played like dookie. Sloppy and listless, unable to take advantage of late-game opportunities, and having to deal with a suddenly mercurial quarterback who quite obviously had seen his own picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the Wildcats lost to a barely average visiting BYU team. (BYU would go on to lose home games that season to Utah State and—gulp!—Northern Illinois.)
The loss to BYU was bad enough—putting the Cats in a hole from which they would struggle to emerge the rest of the season—but what troubled some was Sumlin’s reaction to it. Or, more correctly, his lack thereof. Sumlin shrugged like a monk learning dinner would be crackers with no salt.
The next week, Houston smacked Arizona around like it was a bad kid at a Catholic boarding school. Again with the shrug. Suddenly, the season that had had eternally optimistic Wildcat fans engaging in serious debates of 8-4 vs. 9-3, looked bleak.
Arizona, bolstered by a huge upset of powerful Oregon, eventually got back to .500, standing at 5-5 with two games left. But through it all, Shruglin stayed the same. Was he sullen or just pensive? Did he not like to talk or did he have nothing worthwhile to say? Fans hungry for a winner tend to feel that there’s a very fine line between keeping an even keel and not giving a crap.
The Cats took a 40-point whuppin’ from Washington State, but the season was still salvageable. All they had to do was beat visiting ASU in the regular-season finale and all would be good. That win would mean that they had beaten ASU, that they would go to a bowl game, and, most importantly, that they had beaten ASU.
Arizona went into the fourth quarter that day with a whopping 19-point lead and then it all fell apart. Aided by a couple bad turnovers in the wrong part of the field, ASU stormed back to win, 41-40. That’s when I knew. The turnovers were bad (and so was the missed field goal attempt at the gun that would have given the Cats the win), but it was painfully obvious that, in that fourth quarter that determined the fate of the season, Sumlin had been out-coached. Not by ASU Coach Herm Edwards; Sumlin had out-coached himself.
Games like that aren’t won; they’re lost.
Not everyone was convinced of the wrongness of Kevin Sumlin, but more jumped on board when the Cats lost the 2019 season opener to so-so Hawaii. Arizona then reeled off four straight wins heading into October of 2019…AND HAVEN’T WON A GAME SINCE!
The prevailing wisdom was that the havoc wrought by the novel coronavirus would serve to protect coaches from getting fired in 2020. But nothing could protect Sumlin after the Cats suffered their worst loss since Harry Truman was president. On national TV. To ASU. At home.
If there were any Sumlin holdovers heading into the ASU game, they were gone by game’s end. Let’s just say that it wasn’t a Sumlin-chanted evening. After the 70-7 beatdown, dozens of former Wildcat players took to social media to express their outrage and disgust. UA Athletic Director Dave Heeke made the call the next day, surprising absolutely no one.
Looking back, Sumlin just never seemed right. He was too detached, too aloof, too unwilling to put himself out in the community. Plus, there’s the small matter of his teams going 9-20.
It now falls to Heeke to make things right. If Greg Byrne’s hiring of women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes was a home run, Heeke’s hiring of Sumlin was a fumble, a missed lay-up and a strikeout, all rolled in one. Usually, when a football coach gets the boot before the end of the season, it’s in October or November. This year, we’re about 10 days away from Christmas.
Heeke is under enormous pressure, but even with the current trajectory of the program and a severely disheartened fan base, the right coach is out there. Under four different coaches (Larry Smith, Dick Tomey, Mike Stoops and Rich Rodriguez), Arizona has shown flashes of brilliance, climbing into the Top 10 in the country while challenging for conference championships and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
It’s improbable, but not impossible. One thing’s for certain: it can’t be worse than the past three years.