They were shocked. They were anxious. Then they were relieved.
The Arizona Wildcats have spent the past two weeks riding an emotional roller coaster.
First, their coach was fired, suddenly and unexpectedly. Then came day after day of speculation about his successor. Finally, on Sunday, Arizona hired highly respected former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
“Everything ended up playing out perfectly,” freshman linebacker Tony Fields II said Tuesday, immediately after Sumlin’s introductory news conference at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
Five Wildcats spoke on the record for the first time since Rich Rodriguez was dismissed Jan. 2 amid allegations that he created a hostile work environment and sexually harassed a former employee. That’s as good a place to start as any.
Senior tackle Layth Friekh was hanging out his friends in the Phoenix area when he first heard the news.
“My buddy gets a notification on his Apple Watch: ‘Oh, your coach just got fired.’ I was like, ‘No way, no way,’ ” Friekh said. “It shocked me. I think it shocked everybody.”
Senior receiver Shawn Poindexter was driving from Phoenix to Tucson when he received a phone call. The coach who had given the former volleyball player a chance to play football at a Power 5 Conference program was gone.
“It was tough,” Poindexter said. “He gave me an opportunity. Someone that takes a shot for you, gives you an opportunity to further your career … it was hard.”
Defensive end Justin Belknap was at home with his family in Las Vegas when he found out.
“I had no clue. I was blown away. I was shook up,” Belknap said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
That was the prevailing feeling for 11 days that felt like 11,000. Arizona installed defensive coordinator Marcel Yates as interim coach. He tried to keep the players calm. But uncertainty bred uneasiness.
“You’re trying to figure it out and make sense of everything,” Friekh said.
“It was kind of hard. We didn’t know what was going on. I think it brought us a little bit closer as a group, because we had to come together and talk about it to get through it.”
The players, scattered about the country while on winter break, communicated via group texts. They returned to campus and met on Jan. 8. Throughout, they followed social media for all the latest developments. For some, the process grew tiresome.
Receiver Tony Ellison described the discussions among his teammates as “a lot of speculation about who’s going to be the coach. This and that. A lot of blah, blah, blah. But you don’t really know until you really know.”
Poindexter said that period was “definitely stressful.”
“You don’t know who you can believe,” he said. “People just kept messaging me, sending me coaches and stuff. I’m like, ‘Whenever it’s official let me know, because I’m tired of hearing this and that.’ ”
On Friday, the Star reported that Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo had emerged as the leading candidate for the Arizona job. Some players voiced their displeasure with that prospect on Twitter, citing concerns about Niumatalolo’s triple-option offense. Poindexter said Tuesday he would have left school and taken a shot at the NFL if Arizona had gone in that direction.
Niumatalolo pulled himself from consideration Sunday morning. A few hours later, word leaked that Arizona would hire Sumlin. The players rejoiced. Belknap said the news felt like “a breath of fresh air” and gave everyone a “sense of relief.”
“The entire time I was hoping we were going to get Sumlin,” Poindexter said, “and we ended up getting Sumlin.”
Even better, Sumlin confirmed that he’s retaining Yates, whom several players — including quarterback Khalil Tate, who wasn’t available Tuesday – had championed to be head coach.
Sumlin met with the team for the first time at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday. He talked about change and consistency, about building mutual trust and respect.
Although he was the coach they wanted, the players weren’t sure what to expect.
“It was overwhelming,” Belknap said. “But in a good way.”