Arizona’s head coaching search is starting to have more twists and turns than a whodunit movie.
Late Wednesday night, 247Sports.com reported that Western Kentucky coach Mike Sanford Jr. has become a “major candidate” for the Arizona football head coaching vacancy.
Sanford, 6-7 this season in his first year as a head coach, was not mentioned before as a candidate at Arizona, but now he is considered a finalist with the coaching search reaching its eighth day after Rich Rodriguez was fired.
This latest news came after a report earlier in the evening that Troy coach Neal Brown, who reportedly was interviewed, is no longer a candidate.
FootballScoop.com reported Tuesday that candidates asked to be interviewed include Kevin Sumlin, Brown, Mark Helfrich, Jedd Fisch, Marcel Yates, Beau Baldwin and “another former coach who currently is a TV/media presence.”
That most likely is CBS college football analyst Rick Neuheisel, who does not appear to be in the mix because he’s been out of coaching since 2011, when he was fired at UCLA after going 21-29 in four years with the Bruins.
Sumlin, fired last month by Texas A&M after six seasons, has been considered one of the top candidates and a favorite among Arizona fans. With other names popping up recently, such as Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, Brown and now Sanford, it appears landing Sumlin is becoming a longshot for Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke.
What to think now that Sanford has emerged as a major candidate?
If hired, Sanford will likely keep Yates on board as the defensive coordinator and that will appease many of the young, talented defensive players who have lobbied to have their guy be the head coach.
Sanford and Yates’ background:
— He and Yates, Arizona’s interim head coach since Rodriguez’s firing, share a past with Boise State. Sanford was a quarterback with the Broncos from 2000 to 2004 when Yates was a defensive backs coach with the team in 2003 and 2004.
— Sanford later rejoined Yates at Boise State as the offensive coordinator in 2014 while Yates was the defensive coordinator. That was the season Boise State defeated Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.
— Sanford, only 35, comes from the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree. He coached under Harbaugh — a longtime family friend — at Stanford in 2007 and 2008. He also coached under Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky in 2010 and David Shaw at Stanford from 2011 to 2013. He coached under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame in 2015 and 2016 as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Sanford’s career has also crossed paths with Helfrich and Chris Petersen at Boise State. Helfrich was the quarterbacks coach there in 2000 and Petersen was the head coach when Sanford played with the Broncos and later coached there.
The Harbaugh-Sanford background: Harbaugh played quarterback for the San Diego Chargers in 1999-2000 when Mike Sanford Sr. (formerly the UNLV head coach) was the receivers coach with the Chargers. Harbaugh and Sanford Jr. reportedly often played catch during practice at training camp.
— Sanford is a gifted recruiter. While Stanford’s recruiting coordinator under Shaw, he drew a top-five class in 2012.
Sanford has football in his blood as a coach’s son and he was mentored by quality coaches within the Harbaugh and Petersen systems.
— What about Arizona legend Chuck Cecil? If Sanford is hired, will Cecil, a popular player similar to what Steve Kerr is to the hoops program, go elsewhere? Not necessarily. Cecil, a defensive analyst last season for the Wildcats, has a healthy rapport with Yates. Sanford can do the right thing and hire Cecil to be the co-defensive coordinator in charge of defensive backs, for example. Yates would not get in the way of that.
— What about Western Kentucky finishing dead last in the nation in rushing at 60.9 yards a game? How could Heisman-hopeful quarterback Khalil Tate thrive in that type of offense? Arizona ranked third nationally at 309.3 yards rushing a game. The problem with the Hilltoppers’ offense was its porous offensive line. Western Kentucky ranked No. 129, second to last, in the nation allowing 3.7 sacks a game. The Hilltoppers took a big hit by departing offensive linemen after the 2016 season, including left tackle Forrest Lamp going in the second round of the NFL draft.
— On the flipside, Western Kentucky was No. 7 nationally in passing offense with 335 yards a game. Quarterback Mike White was a 4,000-yard passer at 4,177 yards with 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Sanford is not bound to primarily a passing offense, however, which is important with Arizona having the mobile Tate.
“You should never be completely constricted to a system,” Sanford Jr. said in a story published by the Idaho Statesman when he was the offensive coordinator at Boise State. “You should have the ability in your system to add, to subtract, to pull ideas from other places. You find ways to streamline it and make it more consistent but that’s how I was brought up.”
WKU athletic director Todd Stewart reiterated Friday his support for football coach Mike Sanford after a 6-7 debut season.https://t.co/yCarHwRtgM
If Sanford is hired by Arizona, the Wildcats will get an energetic coach who eats, sleeps and breathes football because he was raised on it.
“I love the competitive part of coaching; I love game day,” Sanford said in a USA Today article after his hire at Western Kentucky last year. “I love the competitive nature of recruiting — that’s something excites me. But it’s the lasting impression that you can have on players, and I think the only way you can really do that is by showing you care. And my dad’s done that for so many years, and all of his players have always felt comfortable coming and talking to him. He’s always been a guy that the players linger around after practice and hang out with him and get to know him and he gets to know them.
“The other big thing (I’ve learned from him) is that he’s exposed his family, myself being a big part of that, to his players throughout the entirety of his career. That’s big for me. I want my kids to be interwoven into the lives of our players and I want them to see that. Just like my dad had a chance to show himself being a great father because his son was around all the time, I want the same thing for this opportunity here.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.