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Coaching changes have forced Arizona Wildcats defense to confront realities of big-time college football
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Coaching changes have forced Arizona Wildcats defense to confront realities of big-time college football

Defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei, at right, was fired two days before Arizona’s loss to Utah. It marked the third in-season dismissal of an Arizona coach this year.

College football is a business — a big one at that. But that business involves people, most of whom are between 18 and 22 years old.

Those young men build close, personal relationships with their position coaches. They spend more time with them than just about anyone.

So while a coaching change might seem like a simple transaction from afar, it can be a trying experience for the young people who are most affected by it.

The Arizona Wildcats’ defense has experienced more than its fair share of change lately. Three coaches have been let go this season, most recently defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei.

UA coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed Uiagalelei last week in the run-up to the team’s home finale against Utah. Sumlin explained in a brief statement that the change was made “in the best interest of our football program at this time.”

The players try to take those developments in stride. But it’s not easy.

“It hurt me. I ain’t gonna lie to you,” defensive tackle Trevon Mason said this week amid preparations for Saturday’s season finale at Arizona State. “I never had a father. I look at my coach like a father figure. So it really hurt. I was close to Coach Iona.”

Other defensive linemen expressed similar sentiments. They were shocked by the news. But should they have been?

‘Many obstacles’

One of the unfortunate realities of the business of college football is that coaching turnover is rampant.

Just look at the case of UA defensive tackle Finton Connolly. The fifth-year senior spent his redshirt year under Bill Kirelawich. Connolly spent the next two seasons under Vince Amey. Connolly played for Uiagalelei until last week. Connolly will finish his career under Greg Patrick.

Additionally, Connolly has played for two head coaches: Rich Rodriguez and Sumlin.

“It’s definitely a business,” Connolly said. “I’ve experienced a lot of changes here in my time at the U of A … a lot of change and a lot of growth.”

Connolly’s father refers to him as “a survivor.” They both know these aren’t life-or-death situations for Finton; his dad, Sean, deals with those daily as an assistant chief for the Phoenix Police Department.

But it’s still challenging, especially for student-athletes whose lives are stressful enough as it is.

“I’ve pushed through many obstacles in my (time) with the program here,” Connolly said. “You build a relationship with a guy for a few years, and he understands your skill set, you understand his coaching philosophy. And then it changes and there’s a new guy, and you just have to adapt to his coaching philosophy and build a whole new relationship with another coach.”

Connolly makes it sound somewhat matter-of-fact. But he said it took a long time after Uiagalelei arrived in early 2018 to show him that he could play and to earn his trust.

Connolly primarily worked as a backup last season before becoming a most-of-the-time starter this year. His relationship developed with Uiagalelei to the point that the coach offered him strong words of encouragement on the brink of his senior season.

“He said, ‘I want to help you be great and be the best football player you can be this year,’” Connolly recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m ready, let’s go, let’s do it.’

“He was a great teacher. He really helped me understand the game a lot better.”

It would be a stretch to say Connolly thrived under Uiagalelei, but the big defensive tackle definitely improved. The overall performance of the defensive line was subpar, however, and that was one of the factors that led to Uiagalelei’s dismissal. Whether his involvement in a sideline altercation with another coach on Nov. 16 at Oregon had anything to do with it remains unclear. Sumlin declined to elaborate on his statement when asked about Uiagalelei’s firing after last week’s game against Utah.

Regardless of the timing, Uiagalelei’s performance as a coach and recruiter put his job in jeopardy. He’s hardly unique in that regard, at Arizona or anywhere.

The longest-tenured on-field assistant on the staff is inside receivers coach Theron Aych, who’s about to conclude his third season. No UA senior has had the same position coach for the duration of his time here. Many have had at least three. The current defensive linemen, linebackers and safeties have had two this year.

“It feels like a business, and that’s what it is,” said junior linebacker Colin Schooler, who has played for four coaches in three seasons. “That’s the reality of things.

“I feel bad for the coaches that got let go when they did. They have families, and they gotta take care of them. I know moving’s hard, but I wish nothing but the best of luck to them.”

‘Nothing is guaranteed’

If there any upside in any of this for the players? Maybe. They’re getting a harsh lesson in the realities of life.

People lose and change jobs all the time. Friends move away. College is supposed to be about learning. In a way, being exposed to the upheaval that is commonplace within college coaching staffs is valuable preparation for the real world.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” said defensive tackle Mykee Irving, a redshirt freshman. “You gotta … just keep working.”

That’s what the players do. They keep going. They have no other choice.

Whereas defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing were let go on a Sunday, Uiagalelei officially was fired on a Thursday — two days before the Utah game. Talk about a sudden change.

Patrick, a staff analyst, was promoted to the defensive line job. The linemen knew him — they refer to him as “G-Fresh” — but they hadn’t worked with him, at least not in the same way they worked with Uiagalelei.

So in the span of about 48 hours, they had to adapt. Sumlin and the other coaches urged them not to worry about the staff changes and advised them to concentrate on their responsibilities.

“Once they told me,” Irving said, “I was like, ‘OK, we got a new coach. So just focus in, pick his brain as much as you can.”

By the time the Territorial Cup kicks off, the defensive line at least will have had a full week of practice to get used to Patrick.

“It’s different, but he knows what he’s doing,” third-year defensive end Jalen Harris said. “He’s been around football. He’s been around Coach Sumlin. If Coach Sumlin trusts him, then we trust him too.”

More likely than not, however, the D-line will be playing for a different coach the next time the Wildcats hit the practice field in spring. Players such as Mason will be better prepared for the next change.

Mason, in his first season at Arizona, never experienced a midseason firing in junior college, let alone three. He was thankful to have the support of his mother and aunt.

“They talked me through everything,” Mason said. “I was on the phone with them dang near every day after that happened.”

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