Arizona Football

One name should rise above rest in Arizona coaching search

Ken Niumatalolo on the set of College Football GameDay. Photo from Navy Athletics.

There is plenty of speculation about the Arizona coaching search. Will the Wildcats hire an alum? An up-and-comer? A hot assistant? Reach into the NFL coaching ranks?

In service to simplicity, I offer just one name.

Ken Niumatalolo.

Nobody asked me, but the longtime Navy coach is my choice.

You want a coach who will consider Tucson a destination, not a stepping stone? Niumatalolo is your guy.

You want a guy who knows how to do more with less, which I believe should be the defining quality of an Arizona football coach? Niumatalolo is your guy.

You want a guy who has Dick Tomey’s life wisdom as part of his coaching DNA? Niumatalolo is definitely your guy.

That’s not to say I couldn’t get behind other coaches. I could. No doubt.

Joe Salave’a? Would love to see the former Wildcat and current Oregon co-defensive coordinator get his first head coaching gig.

Brent Brennan? The San Jose State coach is coming off a great season and checks many of the right boxes.

Steve Sarkisian? The Alabama offensive coordinator has gone through the Nick Saban coaching rehabilitation program and might be ready to build something of his own.

But we’re not here to talk about other coaches or fantasy picks. We’re here because Niumatalolo is the right choice for right now — just like he was three years ago. So stay with me here.

Let’s go back in time a bit.

Sources have said that Arizona three years ago offered the job to Niumatalolo (or, if you prefer another version of the events, he was “under strong consideration”) after firing Rich Rodriguez. Niumatalolo departed his interview in Tucson and headed home, ready to make the agonizing decision to leave a place he loved (Navy) and accept the UA job. He just needed to sleep on it and tell his team the next morning.

Then, you might remember, there was this little storm on social media.

With Niumatalolo’s name in the UA rumor mill, there was backlash over the kind of offense he would run at Arizona because he uses the disciplined triple-option attack that is favored, out of necessity, by the service academies. Niumatalolo, upon returning home, saw the unreasonable reaction and had second thoughts.

He declined the overtures from Arizona, which then courted Kevin Sumlin, who had a bigger name but was such a worse fit. Everyone sees that now.

I get it. Niumatalolo might not instigate a stampede to the ticket office on Day 1.

Let’s be clear: The best short-term business decision for Arizona probably is to take a chance on the rising star and local name recognition of Salave’a, who may or may not be ready for the head coaching spotlight. Either way, he wins the press conference before they even hold a press conference.

But I know enough and have seen enough about Niumatalolo — tough, disciplined, passionate, well-spoken, classy, clean — that I’d bet, if he’s given half a chance, he would win the hearts and minds of Arizona football fans.

And plenty of games.

All while NOT running the triple-option in Tucson.

Give him some credit, folks. The former Hawaii quarterback, who played for Tomey, has run a modern pro-style offense, mixed with a running quarterback, before. He can adapt to the time and place.

And Arizona is a unique place at a critical time. This place is different. It just is. A coach must recruit with the “be a part of our family” approach and, given the fan apathy that swelled under Sumlin, be able to engage and energize the community.

Want to know a little bit about what you’d be getting with Niumatalolo? Watch his speech at the Dick Tomey Celebration of Life in May 2019. He starts at the 37:20 mark.

I think you’ll like him.

Do I have questions? Of course.

If the job goes to Niumatalolo — or Brennan or whoever — the composition of the coaching staff is going to be as vital as the head coach himself. Niumatalolo certainly can reinvigorate Arizona’s recruiting of Polynesian athletes, but what about Arizona, California and Texas? But he’s so well-respected in the coaching community, I trust he’ll get the staff right.

He’s not coming off a great season, but don’t be shortsighted.

Navy won 11 games in 2019, has been ranked in the AP poll in four of the previous five seasons, and finished in the rankings twice in that span. At Navy, folks. At Navy. He’s proven that he can coach.

If you want to argue that this would not be the sexiest pick, fine. You’re not wrong. But if Arizona wants to take a swing at a guy who might be a consistent winner (and more), restore pride in the program, and make you want to root for a good guy who will stick around for the next 15 years or so, then let’s get this done.

Athletic director Dave Heeke — who clearly has esteem and comfort with Niumatalolo — gets a second chance.

Make it happen. Hire Ken Niumatalolo.

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