When the Arizona Wildcats’ season comes to an end, the 34-year coaching career for Rick LaRose will draw to a close. It is a career that has produced many highs, including being the only coach in NCAA history to win men’s (1992) and women’s (1996) national titles.
This news came as a bit of a surprise, considering that just last weekend I witnessed LaRose working the range at the Sage Valley Junior Invitational in South Carolina. However, Arizona has had a tough go recently. The Wildcats have finished outside the top 20 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings in each of the past seven years, dipping as low as No. 64 last year. That being said, LaRose has taken his squad to the NCAA Championship in 23 of the past 25 seasons – the two misses in 2008 and 2010.
Arizona is a lock for postseason play this year, but it will be a tough task to make it to the national championship.
So where does Arizona go now?
Arizona director of athletics Greg Byrne said this in a news release announcing LaRose’s retirement from golf and transition into a part-time special assistant to Byrne: “For nearly four decades, (LaRose) has built Arizona into one of the elite names in all of college golf.”
Byrne is correct. Arizona is a big name in college golf. But that’s all it is right now: a name. The situation at Arizona is similar to that of Notre Dame football. The Wildcats, like the Fighting Irish in football, have not been mentioned with the elite programs for several years. And in this win-now society, Arizona has its work cut out.
If Arizona wishes to get back to where LaRose once had the program, it needs a name coach, what I like to call a sexy hire. Not a lot of coaches fit that mold, but they are out there. When Golfweek published a 2007 story on the salaries of college golf coaches, Arizona was listed as paying $80,000 per year. That number likely must double if it wishes to make a big splash in the powerful Pac-12 Conference pond. If the athletic department is willing to write a contract that gets into that $150,000-plus neighborhood, the Wildcats might have a shot at landing a well-known coach quickly.
Who are the top candidates?
First of all, you have to be realistic about whom you go after. Would Arizona like to have SMU’s Josh Gregory, the winning coach of the past two NCAA Championships at Augusta State? Of course, but that’s not going to happen. Washington’s Matt Thurmond also would be good anywhere, but I’m not seeing that move, either.
Oregon’s Casey Martin likely is high on Arizona’s list. Why? Byrne, who formerly worked at Oregon and Oregon State, knows Martin and might have an interest in him taking over the Wildcats. Not sure if Martin – who has a senior-laden squad – would leave his hometown of Eugene, Ore., but he probably will get a call.
Arkansas’ Brad McMakin is thought of as one of the best in the business, and if your goal is to be the best again, why wouldn’t you contact McMakin? Would he leave Arkansas? If the price is right, anyone will leave anywhere.
A coach who might be the best at rebuilding programs is Iowa’s Mark Hankins. He won eight times in two seasons at Texas-Arlington and guided the Mavericks into the top 25. He then took Michigan State to the top of the Big Ten and now has done the same thing at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are the favorite to win this weekend’s Big Ten Championship.
If I were doing this search, those would be three calls I would make, but another guy who might deserve the job and is getting the most buzz in the college golf world as Arizona’s next coach is San Diego State’s Ryan Donovan.
Donovan has been in charge of the Aztecs for almost a decade and consistently has produced solid teams. He has proved that he can recruit, compete and win against top West Coast programs and would be a natural hire to replace LaRose.
Sure, there are other coaches, such as Whit Turnbow at Middle Tennessee or Mark Guhne at Chattanooga, who could get the job done, but this needs to be an eyebrow-raiser. Assistant coaches need not apply.
At the end of the day, none of these coaches may end up in Tucson, because it might not be a better job or fit than where they are now, but again the all-powerful dollar total may be the difference in the Wildcats’ landing a head-turner or just a good, solid coach.
The college game has changed, and with even schools in Northern climates putting more and more resources toward their golf programs, recruits are learning that success can happen almost anywhere.
Arizona, though, needs more than just the elite name on its golf bags to turn the once-powerhouse program around quickly. It needs an elite name as head coach.