In most respects, the University of Arizona football program is at its lowest point.
Or at least, with 12 straight losses — the most recent of which was a 70-7 embarrassment against the rival Sun Devils — the hope is things can’t get any worse.
Ever since that season-ending loss, and even in the weeks and months before it, there has been a constant theme of players exiting the program. By the time you read this there’s a good chance someone else who had not yet entered the transfer portal will have.
It’s tough to blame anyone for wanting to abandon ship. Even if Arizona’s hiring of Jedd Fisch as head coach turns out to be a home run, it would seem the rebuild will take a bit of time. For these players, some of whom have eyes on a professional career, they have little to waste.
Yet even while many seem to want out, a group of young players decided they wanted in.
Arizona signed 16 players during the course of the early signing period. All of them were recruited by a coaching staff who they must know is not likely to be on campus when they arrive.
They also must be aware of the losing streak, the apathy and the overall vibe emanating from Tucson.
It’s not as if they didn’t have offers to play elsewhere, nor did they have to sign in December.
“It was still an easy decision for me,” Baylor transfer Davis Divall told Wildcat Radio 2.0 this week. “I still just think back to when I was in high school and thinking that that’s my dream school and it’s never changed since then.
“It was not a hard decision for me.”
For Divall, an Arizona native, it’s perfectly reasonable that Arizona is his dream school. The same could likely be said for running back Stevie Rocker, a Tucson native who will be staying home.
But for the other 14 players, who hail from the likes of Illinois, Texas, California, Louisiana and Washington, they chose to stay with Arizona for some other reason.
It can’t be the coach, because at the time they submitted their letters of intent the team did not have one. It may also not be the campus, because due to COVID-19 not all of them made it down for an official visit.
Whatever the reasons, if the program does get back on its feet then these players should be thanked. Not because all will pan out or become great, but because they stuck with the Wildcats when few others would and, really, few probably think they should.
They would be the true beginning of the turnaround because they really, truly wanted to be Arizona Wildcats.
“I definitely want to be one of the players that helps turn around the team and turn around what people think about the Wildcat team,” Divall said.
Hopefully they can do it.
It was just six years ago when Arizona won the Pac-12 South Division, and in the decade that preceded that the program was able to rise from the scrap heap to become fairly competitive.
The two-win 2003 season was another bottoming out, and the hire of Mike Stoops helped, eventually, lead to better days. It took time for the former Oklahoma defensive coordinator to really get things rolling, with the Cats winning just six games over his first two seasons before following those up with tallies of six and five wins.
It was not until Stoops’ fifth season in Tucson where Arizona finally broke through and made it to a bowl game, which shows a level of patience not often found in college football these days.
It was believed Arizona would have to offer that kind of slack to whoever the new coach was, and that is certainly the case for the one they chose.
But that does not mean players have to feel the same way.
Most players will spend no more than five years with the program, and if it takes at least that long to find success it’s a wonder why anyone would get in line for the ride.
While Divall does not speak for the rest of his singing class, he likely probably can.
He is confident in his abilities and it would be a shock if the other 15 players did not feel the same way.
The same is likely true for Arizona’s 2004 recruiting class, the one that arrived following a two-win season, was ranked ninth in the then-Pac-12 and 41st overall. Some members of the 28-person class, like cornerback Antoine Cason, proved pivotal for the turnaround that few got to really enjoy.
But their willingness to take a chance on a program that was at its lowest point was admirable. Compared to what the 2021 class has done it was also easy, because at least they knew what coach they were signing up to play for.
But as Divall and his father John noted, while it’s the coaches who recruit you the choice comes down to the school itself. In that regard, as the rest of us non-athletic folks can attest, Arizona has plenty to offer.
Still, football players (and other athletes) are different. They have to be. Besides academics and everything else, their college choice could have an incredible impact on their lives.
Land with the right coach and team and you could hear your name called during the NFL Draft and get started on a fruitful professional career. End up in the wrong situation and your playing days may end prematurely.
As many players have decided Arizona is the wrong situation, as of now 16 see it differently. They are a group that sees the program as something more than it is and can be better than it has been.
Given the roster situation, they should have ample opportunity to prove it. Maybe the likelihood of early playing time was a factor in their decision. Why wouldn’t it be?
Playing on a bad team doesn’t do much to help one’s cause. Helping to lead a bad team to better days, however, can.
“That’s music to my ears,” Divall said of that concept. “Help turn the program around? Us 16 guys just working really hard to just be the best we can.”
There were no guarantees when the players signed their LOIs, especially since the team did not have a coach at the time. But if Arizona is to rise from these depths it will be courtesy of people like Divall and his class who see what’s going on and decided they want to help the program rise again.