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.