Gold: Jedd Fisch and the Cats are proving Tucson isn't just a hoops town
No, I never saw the Desert Storm defense in person, and I can only dream of what it was like when the Miles-and-Mike-led Wildcats were cutting down nets in 1997.
But I do remember a certain Scooby Wright and the dream season that was 2014, when Rich Rodriguez led the Cats to their first 10-win football season since 1998, just their 3rd in program history. Scooby Sacks (he had 14 of them, along with 163 tackles and 6 forced fumbles in an unanimous All-American season) became a verifiable meme. Under a new star freshman quarterback in Anu Solomon, the future was as bright as the desert sun in July.
Tucson was rocking. Eegee’s was flowing. And then the wheels came off, and it was downhill for the next half-dozen years. The shine wore off RichRod and the Kevin Sumlin era never got off the ground, winning 5 games in 2018 then 4 in 2019 then zero in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
It was bad. It got worse.
At one point, the Wildcats lost a nation-worst 20 games in a row, going more than 2 calendar years without a win.
When Jedd Fisch was hired in 2021, many wondered if he would be the one to fix what ailed the Wildcats.
A long-time NFL and college assistant, the first-time head coach was an unorthodox pick. He’d never played the game at any organized level. He’d bounced from job to job since kicking off his career as defensive coordinator for the PK Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville. He’d gone to the University of Florida to study under the most famous professor at the school, Steve Spurrier, somehow convincing the Ol’ Ball Coach to let him serve as a graduate assistant.
For a team at less-than-zero, this was a strange hire.
I didn’t get it until I spoke to him for the first time at length in a column for the Arizona Daily Star. Then I got it in a second.
“I always felt like because of (me) not playing, it was my job to be a great listener to the players, to understand what their needs and wants were. I’ve never shied away from that,” Fisch said. “I always say, ‘I haven’t done what you’ve done. You have to tell me if what I’m asking for you to do is possible.’ If you are willing to show vulnerability and have those discussions, you can earn their respect. Being willing to adjust, listen and adapt and, at the same time, prove you know what you’re talking about.”
Have you ever heard a coach speak that way?
Back then, Fisch wanted to know what was possible.
Three years in, a 10-win season is possible.
Call me a hater.
Not two months ago, I never would have believed for a second what has happened in Tucson.
Enjoy next Saturday, Arizona fans. pic.twitter.com/xuO07E4nJu
— Jon Gold (@ByJonGold) September 17, 2023
I thought Arizona was on the rise, sure, but that gauntlet looked mighty daunting.
Seven ranked opponents in a row? Good luck.
But the Wildcats played Washington tough and USC tougher and the trajectory has been almost straight up since then.
- A mammoth 44-6 win at Washington State.
- A gritty 27-24 victory over a stout Oregon State squad.
- A thrilling 27-10 domination of UCLA and its powerful defense.
For the first time in program history, Arizona has beaten 3 consecutive ranked teams. Leaning heavily on a star-studded 2022 recruiting class, Arizona is hotter than they’ve been in years and Tucson threatens to get even hotter.
They enter Saturday’s matchup at Colorado with a 70% chance to win, according to ESPN’s matchup predictor. Then they host Utah and its pedestrian offense. Then comes the always-heated Territorial Cup.
There is a realistic chance the Cats finish the regular season with 9 wins and a 6-game winning streak.
I never would have believed it. Maybe I should have.
“You’ve got to do it for the cause, not the applause,” he said. “I love the game of football. I love teaching kids. I could’ve stayed in the NFL for as long as I wanted. But I love being on a college campus, being with the kids, watching these guys get better. It’s more about teaching, being a part of their lives. It’s about giving a dude a hug when something’s going wrong and being fired up for them when something’s going right. If you’re not in it for all three of those things, it’s kind of eh. It’s not for me.”
So now we know the kind of coach Fisch is looking for.
We already know the kind of quarterback.
Arizona’s surge has coincided with the entry of Noah Fifita into the starting lineup, the the redshirt freshman has been a revelation.
Jayden de Laura, the former conference freshman of the year at Washington State before transferring to Arizona last year, helped Fisch architect a 4-win improvement last year, from 1 win in 2021 to 5.
Fifita has taken them an extra step, staring at a 2nd potential 4-win jump.
He has a 76.2 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns to 4 picks and a 164.0 passer rating. He was brilliant the past 2 weeks against very good defenses, hitting 25-of-32 passes, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception in both games, while throwing for 275 yards against the Beavers and for 300 against the Bruins.
That Fifita-led 2022 recruiting class has been a godsend to the program, with more than a dozen players starting and some making all-conference-level impacts, like linebacker Jacob Manu (who ranks 3rd in the Pac-12 in tackles per game at 8.89) and wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan (6th in receiving yardage at 83.4 yards per game, tied for 3rd with 7 touchdowns).
“We knew it was a really good class,” Fisch told reporters this week. “It was arguably the best class in the Pac-12. You had players that have traditionally not come to Arizona come to Arizona. You had guys that were committed to other programs that signed to come to Arizona instead. You start naming all the people in the class, and it’s one after another after another that we watch them play. They’re all high character. Noah Fifita has done a fantastic job of rallying the troops. Jacob Manu did a great job of rallying the troops. I think 13 starters from that class of 22. So that’s pretty crazy.”
Not as crazy as 10 wins in Year 3.
That would truly be something.