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Greg Hansen: In the short term, Arizona Wildcats’ decision to hire Kevin Sumlin is a home run

January 15, 2018

When he visited Tucson for the first time, 26-year-old Kevin Sumlin was two years removed from a full-time job as an underwriter for the American United Life Insurance Co.

He had quit his well-paying job in Indianapolis because he wanted to be a football coach, a big-time football coach, something that reminded him of his days as a Purdue linebacker when the Boilermakers stunned No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Notre Dame in the first month of the 1984 season.

What Sumlin saw that late October weekend, 1990, was college football as good as it has ever been in Tucson.

Arizona drew 55,520 fans that night, beating Washington State 42-34, as Sumlin, a graduate assistant receivers coach, helped Cougars freshman quarterback Drew Bledsoe through a bumpy 3-8 season.

Tucsonans couldn’t get enough of the Wildcats, who had gone on the road to beat USC and UCLA, an October sweep in Los Angeles that stirred unprecedented passion for UA football.

The Wildcats averaged 54,074 fans at home in 1990, then a school record, and with future NFL players like Michael Bates, John Fina, Josh Miller and Darryll Lewis on the roster, the Rose Bowl no longer seemed like some silly dream.

Yada, yada, yada, Arizona has fired four football coaches in 18 years, average attendance at the stadium was a sad 42,632 last season, and the school openly talks about reducing capacity so that there aren’t so many embarrassing empty seats.

The Rose Bowl? Yeah, right.

The young Kevin Sumlin is now 53 — a grown man, as Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy would say.

More to the point, he has won 86 games in 10 seasons as a head coach. Do you know how good that is? In its football history, Arizona’s best-ever 10-year total is 71 wins, and that happened so long ago, 1981-90, that some of the college kids who played on those teams are grandfathers.

Sumlin’s tires have been kicked and his bumper has been dented, but six months ago if you had told any of those 42,632 who sat at Arizona Stadium that they could trade overbearing and detached Rich Rodriguez for the Texas A&M coach they would have laughed in your face.

“Right. What’s the catch? “

There is no catch. Arizona had to pay RichRod $6.28 million to go away, but that’s not your problem.

With Sumlin as its presumptive football coach, Arizona gets to start over. It’s always the most feel-good part of a football off-season in Tucson, trading up, washing out a John Mackovic and bringing in the young hotshot from Oklahoma, Mike Stoops.

Each time there is a coaching change at a Power 5 conference school, the theme is the same: The new coach will recruit better. He’ll (a) make an impact in Phoenix and (b) open up new recruiting markets in Texas and (c) change the UA’s reputation in SoCal.

Those are also many of the things Texas A&M fans said — and believe — after Sumlin was fired on Nov. 26 and replaced eight days later by Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher.

Hiring Sumlin is a risk. If you don’t work out at a big-money SEC school, is it realistic to think you can make it go at mid-level Pac-12 program? Arizona infamously failed in its attempts to reconstruct the careers of fired Texas and Michigan coaches.

But in the short term, with quarterback Khalil Tate seemingly a perfect fit for Sumlin’s offensive schemes, what coach would be better? Not one of those up-and-comers from Troy or Western Kentucky.

Either way, hiring a football coach is among the most cleansing acts in college sports. Starting over is so much fun.

There was one thing A&M athletic director Scott Woodward said that should encourage UA fans and those in the athletic department: “Kevin led our program with dignity and character.”

Dignity and character weren’t always a part of Rich Rodriguez’s program.

When UA athletic director Dave Heeke conducted interviews in concert with the DHL International search firm, the first few hours weren’t spent talking about winning percentages and game plans. Discussions about Title IX, gender-equity and the candidate’s moral code came first.

At an athletic department under investigation by the FBI and NCAA — a school that enabled Rodriguez to bully his players, staff and those in an extended audience — it had to look for more than a winner. It had to first identify a man of character and integrity.

It would have been a more romantic story if Heeke had been able to hire, say, former UA offensive/defensive coordinator Duane Akina, and announce that Akina was bringing a Wildcat legend like Chuck Cecil or Joe Salave’a to run the defense.

But in the end, Kevin Sumlin becomes Wildcat No. 1.

Who isn’t jacked up? Who doesn’t think the Run for the Roses begins anew?

At the conclusion of the 2002 season, a football disaster in which UA players met secretly with President Peter Likins, complaining about treatment by Mackovic, the Wildcats lost the Territorial Cup at home to finish last in the Pac-10.

It was the final game future NFL Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs played at Arizona, and a few minutes after the painful loss I asked him how he would remember his UA career.

“No matter what happens,” he said, “I’ll always be a Wildcat.”

On Sunday, after news circulated that Sumlin would be hired by Arizona, Briggs tweeted: “All right. Kevin Sumlin. Welcome to Arizona football. Excited about our future. Bear Down.”

Starting over is so much fun.

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