The two pillars of Arizona’s football program, Chuck Cecil and Ricky Hunley, met for lunch Wednesday in Huntington Beach, California.
“We ate at Houston’s; Chuck brought his family,” said Hunley. “As you can imagine, we talked about Wildcat football. That’s what we always talk about. Today, Chuck and I were in agreement — both of us need to be back at Arizona. We both want to be there.”
Hunley was Arizona’s first consensus All-American, in 1982. Cecil was the second, five years later. The Wildcat Hall of Famers, who were at the scene of epic victories over No. 1 USC, undefeated Notre Dame and Rose Bowl-bound Arizona State, went on to coach for a combined 24 years in the NFL.
“We have been treated like outsiders,” said Hunley. “They wouldn’t even introduce recruits to Chuck this year.”
Hunley, who also coached at USC, Florida and Missouri, applied to be Arizona’s defensive line coach in 2015. He was not granted a formal interview by Rich Rodriguez. Cecil became one of the school’s defensive analysts seven months ago.
“Low man on the totem pole,” said Hunley. “RichRod didn’t even tell Chuck if he was going to bring him back next season.”
When Arizona fired Rodriguez on Tuesday night, Hunley fielded a dozen calls from former Wildcats. There was neither resentment nor rejoicing. It was simply and clearly time for a change.
The man who led a double life, unfaithful to his wife while operating Arizona’s football program with a dictatorial bearing, is accused by a former administrative assistant of sexual harassment and operating a hostile work environment.
For six years, RichRod surrounded himself with sycophants and yes men. Few were bold enough to challenge him; after he failed in an attempt to be the head coach at South Carolina in December 2015, he refused to answer questions about his desire to leave the UA.
It was sometimes as if he was in exile in Tucson, the last place on the football planet he wanted to be.
The school’s new president, Robert C. Robbins, and its new athletic director, Dave Heeke, indicated they had decided to fire RichRod a week ago. They will pay him about $6.28 million to go away, after which they will cleanse the program of RichRod’s often pouty, uncivil and mean-spirited behavior.
Maybe Arizona football can be enjoyable again.
Maybe this time the school will hire a coach who embraces the past and the Tucson football community and not just himself.
“It’s a people thing, not an X and O thing,” former Arizona coach Dick Tomey said. “The game’s not complicated, the people are. You’ve got to get the most out of people by coaching hard and loving them.
“The next coach should put more emphasis on hugging ’em and loving ’em and making ’em understand if you coach with sincerity, they’ll love you for it.”
When Arizona’s football program was at its highest points, from 1980-2000, the late Larry Smith installed a list of five goals on the wall outside of his McKale Center office.
No. 1 was “Have Fun.”
There was a shortage of fun in RichRod’s six seasons. There was, instead, rancor and discord. You didn’t have to go far to experience the tension.
During August training camp, the Pac-12 Networks always spends a day in Tucson, spotlighting the Wildcats. On that day in 2015, the defending Pac-12 South champions allowed local media members to spend the first 20 minutes of a normally closed workout at the Kindall/Sancet practice facility.
I was standing near what used to be a dugout when RichRod began shouting at a manager/maintenance worker. The shouting turned into something so X-rated and crude that I was stunned RichRod had not noticed there were many outsiders within earshot.
He was enraged that the “HARD EDGE” sign carved into the grass, on a berm near the first-base line, looked shaggy and had not been watered to a greener shade.
I asked a team official if this was the coach’s typical behavior.
“We walk on eggshells,” he said.
I began to hear those “eggshell” stories with frequency, experiencing them in the interview areas at Autzen Stadium, Stanford Stadium and after almost every UA loss, especially those on the road.
After a humbling 49-3 loss at Washington’s Husky Stadium on Halloween night 2015, I sat with Star sports editor Ryan Finley in a small interview room about 30 yards from the UA dressing area.
RichRod’s voice boomed down the corridor, threatening to fire someone if the buses weren’t quickly loaded. The expletives made me shake my head, especially because UA athletic director Greg Byrne and RichRod’s wife, Rita, were standing at the back of the room. You could almost feel the rage.
When RichRod entered the room, Rita tapped him on the arm and said, “Take a deep breath.”
After a quick interview session, RichRod returned to the corridor and resumed the expletive-filled tirade.
For six seasons, those at the UA, including Byrne, enabled RichRod to continue such behavior. Perhaps the tipping point came at Sun Devil Stadium in November, when Arizona blew a lead and lost the Territorial Cup.
RichRod’s oafish responses to reporters’ questions came as Heeke stood in the interview room. Six weeks later, the school fired RichRod.
You wonder what took it so long.
“The football job at Arizona has been lacking people who have passion for the school and the program,” Hunley said. “For whatever reason, any kind of UA connection seemed to be avoided. It’s time to go back like a lot of other schools and take care of your own and be proud of what you’ve built.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean Cecil or Hunley expect to be Arizona’s next head coach, but it would be a sharp disappointment if one or both of those men, or other ex-Wildcats like Oregon assistant coach Joe Salave’a or Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator David Fipp, aren’t fully examined during the process of replacing RichRod and his staff.
“I don’t think they have to hire someone who has been a head coach,” Tomey said. “You just have to hire the right person. The right person is out there, they’ve just got to find him.”
The last time the Wildcats had “the right person” it was Tomey himself, in 2000. The school fired him anyway.
Maybe this time they’ll get it right.