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All about Akina: Talking past, present and future with Arizona’s newest assistant coach

Duane Akina, right, celebrates a win at Nebraska last season with Texas head coach Mack Brown.
Photo by Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

Duane Akina is the middle of explaining his difficult decision to leave the University of Texas when he starts flashing back to all things Arizona.

Chuck Cecil pouncing on ASU punter Mike Schuh’s dropped snap in 1987 … Darryll Lewis turning Oregon quarterback Bill Musgrave sideways at the goal line in 1990 … the Desert Swarm days … coaching All-American cornerback Chris McAlister …

Akina is a Wildcat again, lured from Texas, where he had spent 10 seasons as an assistant, to return to Arizona, where he had spent the previous 14 seasons under Dick Tomey.

Now, Akina will coach the secondary for Mike Stoops.

“It was extremely hard,” Akina said by phone Monday night after packing up his locker at Texas.

“It was the exactly the same thing emotionally, with all the anxiety, that we went through the first time when I was leaving Tucson to come to Austin. It was like, ‘Oh no, not this again.’ Stomach churning. Couldn’t sleep.”

In the end, Akina said he felt the timing was right. He had felt a pull to head back west. His family was “fired up” to return to Tucson. He talked about his “unfinished business” as a Wildcat.

“We had a great stand when we were there in the 1990s,” Akina said.

“We were close. And that’s still the goal: I want to line up and be part of the first Arizona team in the Rose Bowl. We need to go there and get that.”

With Akina’s experience, success and Wildcat ties — plus, he inherits a terrific group of young defensive backs — there will be no shortage of topics in the coming weeks and months. For now, here are eight things about Akina’s hiring to hold you over:

1. The coaching title

Arizona didn’t release an official statement of Akina’s hiring (almost certain to happen Tuesday), but he is here to coach defensive backs. Tim Kish is expected to remain the sole coordinator.

As for having an additional title, such as “assistant head coach” or “associate head coach,” Akina said that might be a possibility. Two things about that: We’ll have to wait for the official release … and he doesn’t much care.

“Let’s just go win. The fun is in winning,” Akina said. “Nobody cares who gets the credit. No egos.”

Tomey noted in an interview Monday that Akina is “the most unselfish coach I’ve ever been around.”

When Akina was Arizona’s offensive coordinator in 1995, he volunteered to move back to defense if Tomey could bring in renowned Homer Smith to lead the offense. Then, Akina was in line to be defensive coordinator in 1997 but said he’d stay as secondary coach if Tomey could bring back Rich Ellerson as coordinator.

“People aren’t doing that today,” Tomey said. “They are so invested in their own careers, and Duane is a team guy. …

“He doesn’t need a title to have respect. Some people I think do.”

2. Recruiting

Akina is expected to be in town Tuesday and hit the ground running as soon as possible. His ties to Texas and his native Hawaii are right in Arizona’s recruiting wheelhouse. Akina said he has been busy contacting Arizona’s defensive back recruits.

3. Working with Kish

Akina said he is eager to learn from Kish and bounce ideas off him. One of the things that hasn’t been talked about much in Tucson is that Kish served 11 years as an assistant — at Purdue and Army — to former Arizona head coach Jim Young.

“Tim Kish’s reputation precedes him,” Akina said. “In the coaching fraternity, Jim Young and that staff carry so much credibility.”

Related: Ex-Cat on Akina: ‘I would chew nails and spit blood for that guy’

4. Philosophy

Let’s use Akina’s words to sum it up: “We coach ‘em hard and we love ‘em hard, too.”

Tomey told the following story about a practice during his first season at Arizona, where he and Akina inherited All-American senior safety Chuck Cecil in 1987.

“Chuck was kind of like, ‘Here’s this new guy from Hawaii,’ and it wasn’t a confrontation but it was a test of wills on the field one day between Duane and Chuck. The whole team was there.

“They loved each other, but Duane was not going to back down to the All-American. They were going to be out there all day. He just stayed at it. ‘Do it again, do it again, do it again.’

“Duane is stubborn and persistent and technical, and there is nobody more enthusiastic on the field. Nobody.”

Coach ‘em hard and love ‘em hard.

5. Working with them, not against them

Three members of Arizona’s offensive staff — coordinator Seth Littrell, outside receivers coach Dave Nichol and new offensive line coach Robert Anae — coached at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Over the years, they gave Akina plenty of headaches trying to scheme against the pass-happy spread.

“My blood has been all over that field at Texas Tech,” Akina said.

Akina said he has known Anae, also from Hawaii, for a long time. Anae coached the offensive line at Tech from 2000 to 2004.

“One year, we threw every blitz at him that I can remember,” Akina said. “And our defensive line coach said to me, ‘What a great job your buddy did picking all that up.’”

Chris McAlister made this interception late in the 1998 Holiday Bowl to preserve a 23-20 victory over Nebraska.
Tucson Citizen photo

6. Simply the best

Akina has coached three winners of the Jim Thorpe award — given to the nation’s top defensive back — but remains mystified about how Arizona cornerback Chris McAlister didn’t win it in 1998.

“That was criminal,” Akina said.

Akina coached five first-round defensive backs at Texas, but McAlister is still the gold standard among his pupils.

“Out of the all the defensive backs, Chris Mac is still the measuring sticks for all the pro scouts that come out,” Akina said. “They say, ‘How does he compare to Chris?’”

7. Arizona pride

When Akina hits the recruiting trail for Arizona, he’ll be talking to kids who know all about his success at Texas.

When he started at Texas, recruits knew all about his success at Arizona.

“I used the success at Arizona to really help me at Texas,” he said.

“Many times when I would go to speak at events or was introduced, they always said, ‘He was part of Arizona’s Desert Swarm’ … and, I tell you, I swelled with pride. There was a tremendous, tremendous standard of play here.”

8. Final word

“I coached a lot of things, but I prided myself on being a secondary coach. So the secondary coach was kind of the whipping boy for me because I was so critical. But Duane, he became the best one I had ever been around … There’s nobody better at what he does. Nobody.” — Dick Tomey

Related: The official release from Texas about Akina’s resignation

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