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Top five coaching candidates to replace Kevin Sumlin at Arizona

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Cyrus Norcross | The Daily Wildcat

Kevin Sumlin motivates his players during the UA vs Southern Utah game on Sep 15. 

The University of Arizona finally made a change at head coach after Friday’s embarrassing 70-7 dismantling by rival Arizona State. Kevin Sumlin was fired Saturday, Dec. 12 and finished with a record of 9-20 in his three seasons with Arizona. 

The biggest question now is who replaces Sumlin? Who can bring some stability to a program that has suffered unlike any other time before the Sumlin era?

Here are my top five candidates to replace Sumlin as the head coach:

1. Brent Brennan, San Jose State head coach

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Brent Brennan should be the No. 1 target for the university to look at. A 14-29 career record as a head coach would normally be a tough sell to anyone, but Brennan currently has San Jose State sitting at 6-0 and in the Mountain West Championship Game against Boise State. 

SJSU broke through this year for the first time in his four years as head coach. Another huge appeal for Arizona to go after Brennan is his Arizona ties. His brother, Brad, was a wide receiver for the Wildcats from 1996 to 2000, and he was a graduate assistant during the 2000 season which ended up being Dick Tomey’s last as head coach. The Tomey ties run deeper also because he served as an offensive assistant under Tomey when he coached at San Jose State from 2005 to 2009. Brennan is the perfect candidate for Arizona to go after because he’s young, hungry and has the familial ties with the Arizona program that most other candidates aren’t going to have. There are also a lot of rumors out there that it’s his job to lose.

2. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy head coach

This seemed like a sure thing in 2018 until quarterback Khalil Tate tweeted that he didn’t want to run the triple-option at Arizona. Since then, Navy has somewhat struggled, but the fact remains that Niumatalolo might be wanting to leave Navy again for a change of scenery. 

He’s another disciple of Dick Tomey as well, having made that connection when Niumatalolo was at Hawaii while Tomey was coaching there. There are definitely questions surrounding if he will even want to leave Navy considering that he’s been approached by other schools before and still hasn’t made a change. 

There are also some questions about if he will run the triple-option at another school. Personally, I don’t think so, because you are forced to run the triple-option due to physical limitations the football team is forced to deal with. Coming from a service academy, it doesn’t get any better for Arizona in terms of discipline, and that’s exactly what this program needs.

RELATED: REPORT: Arizona fires Kevin Sumlin after 12th consecutive loss

3. Joe Salave’a, Oregon co-defensive coordinator

Salave’a played for Arizona from 1994 to 1997 as a defensive tackle during the Desert Swarm era. He received numerous accolades for his on-field play while he was in Tucson. He also coached Arizona’s defensive line for one season before Mike Stoops was fired in 2011. 

Former Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez didn’t retain him so he ended up on Mike Leach’s staff at Washington State as the defensive line coach and assistant head coach. He is currently serving in the same role at Oregon and has been for three years. 

The biggest question mark hanging over Salave’a is that he has never called plays as a college coach — so is he ready for a potential-jump to oversee an entire program? That question is a huge one. There are rumors out there that he could potentially be looked at as a defensive coordinator for the next head coach if the administration doesn’t feel he is all the way ready yet. He would be the ultimate Wildcat family hire and would gain back a lot of lost alumni as well.

4. Jay Norvell, Nevada head coach

Jay Norvell has been the Nevada head coach since 2017. He has an overall record of 24-22. He has also been a longtime assistant in the profession as well. He has had stops at Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona State. Nevada was his first head coaching job, and he has taken it and ran with it. 

The Wolf Pack sit at 6-2 on the year with their only losses coming to Hawaii and San Jose State. Norvell is older than most of the candidates at 57, and Arizona might want to go younger overall. By all accounts, he is known as a disciplinarian, and that is again something that will only benefit Arizona in the long run after the previous coaching staff. 

There is a lot of upside for the Norvell hire, but he lacks the Arizona ties that so many people are hoping for with this hire.

5. Kenny Dillingham, Florida State offensive coordinator

A big wildcard in the whole search, but Dillingham is a name that has weight. He went to high school in the Phoenix area and has maintained those ties for recruiting. He coached at Arizona State as an offensive assistant coach and then was hired at Memphis and served as quarterbacks’ coach and offensive coordinator the three years he was there. 

In 2019, he served as the offensive coordinator for Auburn and is now at Florida State in that same role. Dillingham is very young at only 30 years old and has coordinated some highly potent offenses already. 

In 2018, Memphis broke records for its offense and in 2019, Auburn had one of the best offenses in the SEC. The biggest issue with this hire would be that he’s an Arizona State alum. A big focus with this move for Arizona seems to be embracing the past as well as the future, and since he’s an ASU alum, could he really do that?

Dillingham has shown so far in his career that he is willing to work for his success so he would have no issues building the Arizona program up from scratch.


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UA COVID-19 Test Tracker

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Includes tests since August 2, 2021
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Updated December 5, 2021