No matter how you feel about the Jedd Fisch hire, it’s over and done with, and it’s now time for him to start rebuilding the Arizona Wildcats football program.
It could be years before they are competitive again, but here’s what should be on the new head coach’s first to-do list.
Fill out the coaching staff with assistants who have strong recruiting connections—and at least one or two with UA ties
Since Fisch has no head coaching experience and not much college coaching experience, it will be imperative that he surrounds himself with assistants who have strong recruiting ties in the West, especially in traditional UA recruiting grounds like Arizona, California, Las Vegas and Texas.
Given his history as a coach, you figure Fisch will be able to craft a decent offensive game plan, so ideally he can nab a proven defensive coordinator.
I’m usually not so keen on the idea that Arizona’s staff needs to have some Arizona blood on it, but it sure feels important this time around after alumni and former players were led to believe the school was going to hire someone with past connections to the program, only for it to hire a total outsider.
That could mean hiring experienced coaches like Chuck Cecil or Dave Fipp, the special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles who has also been a defensive coordinator in college. Obviously adding someone like Joe Salave’a, who’s both a UA alum and a proven DC, would be a home-run hire. But good luck getting him out of Oregon.
Fisch could also take a risk on guys like former UA defensive backs Brandon Sanders or Antoine Cason. While Sanders does not have any college coaching experience, he has coached high school ball in Arizona and Southern California, and his connections there could be valuable.
Cason doesn’t have any kind of coaching experience, but there is no doubt he is passionate about the UA and is actively looking to help the program, evidenced by his fiery campaign to be a head coaching candidate.
Cason’s playing career at Arizona—going from an underrecruited prospect to an All-American and eventually a first-round NFL draft pick—would be appealing to recruits and embodies exactly what the program has been about.
In that case, the identity of Arizona’s coaching staff would be one that is trying to prove itself in this industry. Fisch as a first time head coach, and the other two as first-time college coaches.
Maybe it doesn’t work out and they prove to be in over their heads. Or maybe they bring the kind of hunger this program so desperately needs right now.
Control the transfer portal
Arizona’s roster is incredibly thin, which is why any coach who accepted the head coaching job was staring at a multi-year rebuild.
The talent level was already low...then the Wildcats saw a bunch of defensive backs opt out of the season and lost a ton of offensive players to the transfer portal such as quarterback Grant Gunnell, guard Robert Congel, and wide receivers Jamarye Joiner, Stanley Berryhill, Ma’jon Wright and Boobie Curry.
Gunnell is a goner, but with Fisch’s background as an offensive coach, he needs to see if he can get the others to stick around, as well as prevent any more from entering the portal. Otherwise he’s basically building from scratch.
Either way, Fisch will need to be extremely active in the transfer market. The good news is he has two things working in his favor. One, a one-time transfer rule is likely to pass in January, allowing every transfer to be immediately eligible at their new schools. Two, he can offer immediate playing time.
That could mean an accelerated rebuild if Fisch can convince enough quality transfers—and there are already a TON in the portal—that Arizona is a desirable place to be despite the long losing streak.
He seems confident that he and his coaching staff, whoever it consists of, can do that.
“What I think the number one thing that we’ll be able to say to these recruits is take a look at the staff we’re about the hire, keep a very, very close eye on Twitter and on Instagram and some of the announcements that will be coming their way,” Fisch told Yogi Roth of the Pac-12 Network. “And when they start seeing what we’re going to build here at the University of Arizona, and they start seeing the type of player, type of coaches, the experiences of the coaches that we’re hiring, they’re going to see a lot of variety but a lot of experience. They’re going to see a lot of energy. They’re going to see a lot of passion. They’re going to see guys that know how to coach in the NFL, know what it looks like to coach a No. 1 overall pick.
“And they’re also going to understand why there was such a passion for me to come back to college football and they’re going to see an incredible family atmosphere from every member of our coaching staff. And I think that when people start looking in that portal, and they start deciding what team they’re gonna pick, I think the University of Arizona should be very high on their list and they should start doing some research and we look forward to talking to many of them.”
Connect with the community and other coaches, as difficult as that is right now
Fisch has a lot of work to do to win over the Tucson and UA communities, but he is in a really tough spot given that the coronavirus pandemic makes it difficult to meet anyone in-person right now.
Still, there are some simple things he can do to start building trust, like holding virtual Q&As with season-ticket holders so they can get to know him as a person and see his vision for the program.
Fisch needs to meet with Tucson high school coaches on Zoom so he can restore UA’s working relationship with them. Many local coaches felt like Kevin Sumlin overlooked their programs. Also, make sure to publicize it so that Arizona fans know you’re making a concerted effort to keep the best players in town.
Continue to seek input from former UA players. They want to help and, for the most part, know what it takes for Arizona to be successful. If you can earn their trust, fans will follow.
Reach out to the ZonaZoo and see what kind of ideas they have for generating student interest, something that has come and gone over the last several years. (Someone on Twitter suggested putting a small pool in the student section and calling it the Fisch Tank!)
Fisch has some great coaches to learn from at Arizona, too.
Women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes knows how to energize a fanbase and rebuild a program better than anyone.
Softball coach Mike Candrea has been here for 30+ years and is the master at creating a family atmosphere and winning culture.
Soccer coach Tony Amato turned around a downtrodden program by thinking outside of the box and playing a unique style.
Baseball coach Jay Johnson reached the College World Series in his first year with the program, so he has to know a thing or two about how to make the existing players feel welcome.
Pick those coaches’ brains and if see any of the things they do in their programs can be used in football. An example: Candrea copied Sean Miller’s gold practice jersey idea to fuel his team’s competitive fire.
Secure the 2021 signing class
Remarkably, Arizona inked 16 players during the December Early Signing Period despite not having a head coach at the time. That’s more than had signed at this time last year.
Those recruits could probably get released from their National Letters of Intent if they wanted to, so Fisch needs to sit down with them (virtually, of course), get to know them, and make them feel comfortable about the situation they are stepping in to.
In some cases, it might be best to part ways so that Arizona can use those scholarships in other ways. You can only add so many players per recruiting cycle.
Once that’s done, Fisch can work on convincing the unsigned commits, like three-star quarterback Clay Millen, to stay on board.
Eventually, he’ll have to start filling out the rest of the class and move on to the 2022 and 2023 cycle, but that’s further down the road.
Bring back the Desert Swarm uniforms
Want an easy way to generate some good PR? Make the Desert Swarm throwback uniforms permanent.
Fisch said in his introductory conference that he will “bring back Desert Swarm and we will do it in our unique way.” Well, a good first step is bringing back the iconic look that those teams donned. It’d also help remove the stench of the Sumlin era.
I’m not sure that Arizona has total freedom when it comes to uniform design, but it needs to put its foot down and stop being so content with accepting Nike’s crazy concepts.
The fact that the men’s basketball program still has those gradient uniforms after all these years is a disgrace.