Arizona Football

Can Arizona Wildcats’ New Coach Kevin Sumlin Continue First-Game Winning Trend?

Kevin Sumlin addressing the media after UA’s first full day of practice. (Anthony Gimino photo)

The Kevin Sumlin era begins on Saturday. He will be just the sixth full-time coach since 1980 (the Wildcats have had three interim coaches in that time). The five previous coaches are 2-3 in their debuts, but the last three all got wins in their first game on the Arizona sidelines.

How they fared.

Larry Smith – 1980
Smith had a rough start to his Wildcat career, falling 15-13 at home to Colorado State. The season was up and down. After dropping the game to the Rams, they won two straight road games, beating Cal and Iowa (by a 5-3 score). They would also upset No 2 UCLA and were 5-5 heading into the ASU game, but fell 44-7.

Dick Tomey – 1987
Oddly enough, Tomey also gave up 15 points and lost in his debut. Iowa came to Tucson and spoiled Tomey’s debut 15-14. It was a strange season that saw the Wildcats go 4-4-3. Also strange was the fact that Arizona did not repeat a result all season, with every win, loss or tie streak being a single game.

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John Mackovic – 2001
Mackovic may have had a terrible Wildcat coaching career, but his debut was a good one. The Wildcats went to San Diego and beat San Diego State 23-10. Down 10-0, Arizona scored the next 27 points. A safety off a punt put Arizona on the board and the Wildcats took the lead for good when Brandon Nash returned a fumble 58-yards for the score. Arizona won their next two games, but lost five in a row, before taking two of their last three games.

Mike Stoops – 2004
Stoops also won his first game, before going on a losing streak. Arizona scored 14 fourth quarter points to beat NAU 21-3. Mike Bell scored a pair of touchdowns, and Kris Heavner found Syndric Steptoe for the final score. Things went downhill from there as the Wildcats lost their next seven games, before finally edging Washington 23-13. They also beat ASU to finish 3-8.

Rich Rodriguez – 2012
Like Stoops, Rodriguez won his first game and it was a close one. The Wildcats needed overtime to beat Toledo (though to be fair, they won 9 games that year, including 8 straight after falling in Tucson). Arizona led 3-0, but found themselves down 14-10 at the half. Arizona had a chance to win the game in regulation but missed a short field goal as time expired. Matt Scott gave Arizona the win in overtime when he found Terrance Miller on a 10-yard touchdown pass. The Cats started the season 3-0 and went on to win five of their last seven, including a win on the New Mexico Bowl. Rodriguez was the first Arizona coach to qualify for a bowl in his inaugural season.

I know you are curious about the interim coaches.

Mike Hankwitz – 2003
Arizona lost 13-10 to No. 19 TCU in overtime to fall to 1-4 and Mackovic was out. In stepped Mike Hankwitz. In his debut the Wildcats fell to No. 14 Washington State 30-7 on the road. Hankwitz would go 1-6, with the lone win coming against Washington.

Tim Kish – 2011
The Wildcats opened the season at 1-5 and had lost 10 of 11 games dating back to 2010. That prompted then AD Greg Byrne to fire Stoops and promote Kish.  In his first game as interim head coach, the Wildcats defeated UCLA, 48–12. It was exactly 355 days after their last win over an FBS opponent, which also came against UCLA.

Marcel Yates – 2018
Yates was named interim coach after the dismissal of Rodriguez after the 2018 season and held the position until Sumlin was hired.

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