As Arizona is preparing for the upcoming season, it is fighting a real battle beyond the playing field — indifference about the program.
Kevin Sumlin is not only challenged by achieving a winning season of at least seven victories, he and athletic director Dave Heeke have the tremendous task of making fans passionate about Arizona football again.
The “Back the ‘A'” campaign the university has produced tries to address the matter, hopeful fans rally behind the image of the program. Presently, that image is not sparking much of an interest among some Arizona fans such as this one when asked what he is looking forward to the most this season:
“Not sure if I am really looking forward to it. Last year was so disappointing that I lost some passion with not only football but basketball. The athletic department is a mess and sad to see. Hopefully they improve and make it fun to watch again.” — David Wagner
Arizona’s program is not one of consistency, which has kept its hopes of a Rose Bowl berth elusive.
The two best coaches in program history — Larry Smith and Dick Tomey — were not kept around after achieving high levels of success. Smith departed for USC in 1986 after coaching Arizona to its first bowl victory that year because Arizona did not allow multi-year contracts and Tomey was inexplicably forced to resign two years after coaching the Wildcats to a 12-1 record and No. 4 ranking.
Two coaches in the last 40 years were damaging to the program. Tony Mason’s three years as head coach from 1977 to 1979 later resulted in a two-year probation for various alleged NCAA violations. John Mackovic‘s less than three seasons from 2001 to 2003 put Arizona football in a deep hole that Mike Stoops tried to rescue. He got Arizona to a few bowls but he could never take the Wildcats to stable ground.
Rich Rodriguez failed miserably after coaching Arizona to the 2014 Pac-12 South title. The Wildcats’ defense became one of the worst in the nation. The program went 17-21 from 2015 until he was let go after the 2017 season.
With all the ebbs and flows, with the ebbs running deeper than the flows, it is understandable why Arizona fans have become impassionate about the football program.
Tucson fans are of the fair-weather variety who are in a wait-and-see mode about Sumlin and his operation because of the foul-ups of the past. Until Sumlin can achieve high success like Smith and Tomey — and stay in Tucson for a long period of time — the mindset of Arizona fans will not change.
Arizona safety and El Paso native Tristan Cooper (@__KingCoop__) responds to the mass shooting that took place in his hometown.
“You would never think something like that would happen in your city, but when it does, it’s eye-opening.” pic.twitter.com/KYvTlhQ7mh
“I didn’t even know what happened. I called them (his family), and I just sent all my prayers to them. You would never think something like that would happen in your city, and when it does, it’s eye-opening. … That’s the one mall everybody goes to, so that’s the thing. A bunch of things start going through your head … Something like that, you really can’t prepare for. My head was spinning.” — Arizona senior safety Tristan Cooper about the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso that left 22 dead and more than two dozen more people injured.
By the numbers
From the Arizona media relations department: Since 2016, the Wildcats have allowed just 67 sacks over three seasons, the fewest in the Pac-12 over that stretch. Offensive lineman Cody Creason has been a member of the unit charged with protecting the Wildcats’ quarterback throughout that stretch, and has helped the team finished third in the conference in fewest sacks allowed in each of the last two seasons.
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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.