Arizona Football

Who was Arizona’s best football head coaching hire?


In the Arizona Daily Star’s first story after Bob Weber was forced to resign in 1972, the rumored candidates to replace the embattled Arizona football coach were listed as Jim Young, Dan Reeves, Don Coryell and Don McCafferty.

Reeves, only 29, was the offensive backs coach with the Dallas Cowboys at the time. Coryell was the head coach at San Diego State. McCafferty was just fired as head coach with the Baltimore Colts.

Reeves went on to coach in four Super Bowls as head coach of the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons. Coryell coached in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers for 14 years. McCafferty was hired in 1972 by the Detroit Lions to be head coach. He died midway through his first season there in 1973 because of a heart attack.

Jim Young made football at Arizona relevant in the early 1970s (Tucson Citizen archive photo)

Young, 37 at that time, was a Bo Schembechler disciple, working under the legendary coach at Miami of Ohio before becoming the defensive coordinator at Michigan on Schembechler’s staff from 1969 until his hire by Arizona athletic director Dave Strack in 1972.

Strack was a basketball coach at Michigan before becoming an administrator in the Wolverines’ athletic department when Schembechler and Young coached together at Ann Arbor, Mich.

Strack came to Tucson in January 1972 to become Arizona’s athletic director. Strack made two historic hires at Arizona in his first year, both following him from Ann Arbor. Fred Snowden, a Michigan basketball assistant, was hired as the first African-American head basketball coach at a major college and Young came on board to be the football coach.

Arizona has hired coaches who went on to spectacular careers: J.F. “Pop” McKale (81-32-6 from 1914 to 1930), Tex Oliver (32-11-4 from 1933 to 1937), Miles Casteel (46-26-3 from 1939 to 1948), College Football Hall of Famer Darrell Mudra, Larry Smith (48-28-3 from 1980 to 1986) and Dick Tomey (95-65-4 from 1987 to 2000).

Arizona Daily Star clipping from Jim Young’s first press conference at Arizona on Dec. 11, 1972.

The most significant hire of them all? Young, who was 31-13 in only four years as Arizona’s head coach before leaving for Purdue. His background included coaching Michigan in the 1970 Rose Bowl after Schembechler suffered a heart attack in the week leading up to the game.

Young’s tenure at Arizona coincided with the period before the program made the bold leap from the WAC to what was the Pac-10. His success with the Wildcats — 8-3 in 1973, 9-2 in 1974 and 9-2 in 1975 before going 5-6 in 1976 — showed Arizona’s administration that the program could make the move to a more prestigious and challenging conference.

Arizona and ASU announced on Jan. 6, 1977, that they were joining the Pac-10 effective the 1978-79 season. Hard to believe that move would be made at that time if Young’s years were mediocre and fans were apathetic. He is the coach that put Arizona in a position to make the national college football scene.

Young, who is 82 and resides in Tucson, was hired on Dec. 11, 1972, culminating a two-week search. After Reeves, Coryell and McCafferty fell off as potential candidates, the finalists were Young, Purdue assistant Tony Mason (also a former Michigan assistant who later became Arizona’s coach when Young left to Purdue) and Northwestern coach Alex Agase.

Young’s first two hires for his staff at Arizona were Larry Smith and Mike Hankwitz, who were on Schembechler’s staff at Michigan. Hankwitz was Arizona’s interim coach when John Mackovic — also hired as part of Young’s first staff — was fired as head coach in 2003.

What about Young’s recruiting ability?

Schembechler told the Star after Young’s hire that he “recruited the best class we’ve had at Michigan.”

A head coach with recruiting a strength is not a constant in the Pac-10/12 years for Arizona. Smith, Tomey, Mackovic, Mike Stoops and Rich Rodriguez were hired for tactical reasons or for name value, not for their recruiting prowess.

Arizona never advanced to the Rose Bowl under these coaches. A coincidence?

Add it all up and Young is Arizona’s best football coaching hire with his recruiting ability, football knowledge gained under Schembechler and his high rate of success in his brief time at Arizona. That success made the program believe in itself for greener pastures in the Pac-10.

Will the next coach take Arizona to its highest level more than 40 years after Young gave the program the opportunity to do so?


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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.

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