Hunley headed home?

10-16-03, 7:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals would have to adjust to a staff change during the season if linebackers coach Ricky Hunley converts his people's choice status into the head coaching job at his alma mater.

All indications are that Hunley's charisma, a College Football Hall of Fame career in Tucson, and a varied resume have made him a leading contender for the University of Arizona post vacated last month by the firing of John Mackovic. He's piling up a stack of rave reviews that range from the Bengals and head coach Marvin Lewis, some of Arizona's sports columnists, and the Black Coaches Association.

"With his people skills, experience, and knowledge, he's an excellent candidate and we'll do what we can to help him," Lewis said this week. "I don't want to speculate on what would happen, but we're aware of it and we're not going to hold anyone back from doing what they want to do."

Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood has indicated he wants a coach in place by Dec. 1 and search committee members have said they want to narrow their list to three to five names by mid-November. Hunley has apparently yet to interview, and he had no comment this week as the Bengals prepare for this Sunday's game against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.

But Hunley, who turns 42 Nov. 11 and has been an assistant college coach in three big-time conferences as well as for two NFL teams, has plenty of people talking for him.

"He's the kind of guy who can get players to believe in themselves and relate to younger guys," said Bengals safety Marquand Manuel, who watched him work with the defensive line at the University of Florida. "He'd be great at recruiting."

One of Livengood's seven items he wants in his next guy is a head coaching background, but he has said assistants would be considered. Hunley has never been a head coach or coordinator, but he was Missouri's assistant head coach/linebackers for three seasons, and his supporters point to last year's Super Bowl coaches (Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden and Oakland's Bill Callahan) whose NFL head coaching jobs were their first as the head man.

"Go ask Andy Reid about that," said Lewis of the Eagles head coach who was never a NFL coordinator.

"You can find a reason not to do anything," said General Manager Tom Donahoe of the Buffalo Bills. "We've had chances to work with Ricky and we've been impressed with his enthusiasm and ability to work with and communicate with players, and I think he'd be a great guy they would consider. I don't know if it means all that much that he's an alum, but there is something to be said for familiarity, and you may get a greater sense of wanting to get something done. I mean, look at who the guy has worked for and that has to impress you."

Donahoe points to Steelers coach Bill Cowher, for whom Hunley worked in the NFL's minority fellowship program, as well as Steve Spurrier at Florida and the Redskins. Bengals defensive end Justin Smith, who had Hunley for a position coach at the University of Missouri, thinks his experience as player (six years) and as a coach (two years) in the NFL gives him an edge in recruiting.

"He would already be really good as a recruiter because of the kind of guy he is," Smith said, "but with guys knowing that he played and coached in the NFL, he can show them what they have to do to make it to the next level."

Hunley is a Petersburg, Va., native, who, by the way, was delivered by one of Lewis' uncles. But he has been identified with his school in a legend that was secured when the Bengals made him the seventh pick in the 1984 NFL Draft after he was named Co-Player of the Year in the Pac-10. In 1997, he became the first Arizona player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

"He's the most popular player the school has ever had," said Corky Simpson, sports columnist for the "Tucson Citizen. " "You combine that with his outgoing personality and what he accomplished here and he's the people's choice. He looks to be a tremendous candidate. The guy has great communication skills."

Gene Marshall, chairman of the NCAA's Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee and a board member of the Black Coaches Association, said Hunley is at the top of the BCA's list.

"We've been impressed how Arizona is going about doing due diligence," Marshall said. "I think Ricky is going to get very fair consideration. He's a very qualified candidate and I know he knows football. He certainly has the energy and charisma."

Hunley would become the fifth African-American head coach among the 117 NCAA Division I jobs. But former Arizona coach Larry Smith, who calls Hunley his right-hand man during his days at Missouri, never mentions color.

"He's dynamic. He's passionate. He's one of the very best recruiters I've ever seen," Smith told "The Arizona Daily Star." "The players really like him. I hope and pray they at least take the time to interview him. He's ready.

"What Ricky did for me in seven years at Missouri was far more than simply being a coordinator," Smith said. "He was a public speaker. A marketer. He had his face out there."

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