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Looking back at Jedd Fisch’s first year as Arizona football coach

arizona-wildcats-football-jedd-fisch-2021-season-debut-review-byu-cal-nau-recruiting-twitter Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Happy Jedd-iversary!

It was one year ago that Arizona hired Jedd Fisch as football coach, a hire that didn’t exactly move the needle when it was first announced but since then has looked like a pretty good decision.

A lot has happened since then—some good, some bad—so let’s take a look back at some key moments during Fisch’s first year on the job.

Dec. 23, 2020: The introduction

Fisch, who was serving as quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots when he was hired, had his introductory press conference via Zoom from a conference room in the Patriots’ training facility. He, athletic director Dave Heeke and school president Dr. Robert Robbins spoke and answered questions for about an hour, during which time Fisch revealed that he’d interviewed for the UA job before it hired Kevin Sumlin and he broke down his vision for a program that had bottomed out. He also unintentionally made a prediction of how many near-misses the Wildcats would have in his first season.

“We’re going to be a hard out and there’s not going to be one team that’s going to be looking forward to or circling Arizona on their schedule and not think that that’s going to be the toughest game of their season,” he said. “That’s what our ultimate goal is going to be. It’ll take some time, I understand that, but what it will do, or what it won’t do is it won’t be out of reach. We’ll make sure that we get there and we’re gonna have a brand of football that people are gonna want to be a part of here.”

Jan. 1-6: The first cryptic tweets

It didn’t take long for Fisch to put together his first staff, with most of his assistants announced by Jan. 7. But before each was official, though, he took to Twitter to drop some hints.

The first of those was a picture of him and future passing game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty out on University Blvd., but for the impending hires of tight ends coach Jordan Paopao and wide receivers coach Kevin Cummings the images were a little more ambiguous.

But it was the tease of his landing Don Brown at defensive coordinator that really solidified Fisch’s strong tweet game:

“It’s 2021; social media is a huge aspect of our way to communicate and it’s a critical part of the messaging that we’re trying to get across,” Fisch explained back in January. “In my mind, it’s a way for us to have some fun together. I don’t need to call up a guy and break a news story, I might as well throw it out there and see who can figure it out. I like to play around Twitter myself, so I do my own stuff.”

Fisch has stayed active on Twitter all year, particularly when it comes to recruiting. He’s taken to using gifs that include a dancing cactus—who knew there were so many?—to tease most commitments, going with images of people or things doing flips when the commit had been pledged elsewhere. He even tweeted a woman making the sign for “transfer” to tease that Arizona had just signed former UCLA DB DJ Warnell.

March-April: We’re talkin’ about (open) practice

Arizona held spring practice March 23-April 24, with all 15 workouts open to media and the public. There were multiple scrimmages held in Arizona Stadium, including the Spring Game that drew roughly 5,000 fans … as well as favorite sons Tedy Bruschi and Rob Gronkowski.

Bruschi, who is a special advisor to Fisch, and Gronk served as honorary coaches for the Spring Game, though Gronk spent more time posing for pictures and helping Fisch throw water balloons into the Zona Zoo. It was Gronk’s first time back to Tucson since 2011, and while in town he also got Arizona some international publicity by setting a Guinness world record:

Sept. 4: The debut

Arizona is Fisch’s first head-coaching job, but he had previously served as an interim head coach when he took over for the fired Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA in 2017. He went 1-1 in that role, so technically the Wildcats’ 2021 season opener against BYU in Las Vegas wasn’t his first in charge.

Still, there was plenty of buzz surrounding his first game as Arizona’s coach, particularly since he was facing a talent-laden BYU team on national television in an NFL stadium in which the vast majority of fans were rooting for the Cougars.

So what did Fisch do the first time Arizona had the ball? He had the offense go for it on 4th and short from deep in its own territory, converting on a Gunner Cruz quarterback sneak. The Wildcats would go for it three times against BYU, making it every time, and for the season were 18 of 28 on 4th down to rank in the top 30 nationally.

The UA lost that game, 24-16, pulling within five points after falling behind 14-3. It covered the 13.5-point spread, setting the tone for a season in which it would go 6-6 against the spread including 5-3 when a double-digit underdog

Sept. 18: The low point

A blowout loss to San Diego State in its home opener took some of the shine of Arizona’s impressive performance against BYU, but right after that was by far the Wildcats’ best chance to end a losing streak that had stretched to 14 games. In-state foe NAU, an FCS school, had lost badly in its first two games and was a huge underdog coming to Tucson, so all signs pointed to the UA finally getting into the win column.

A 13-0 lead in the second quarter added to that likelihood, but then things went bad in a hurry. NAU returned an interception for a touchdown just before halftime, then took the lead in the third quarter and extended to an 8-point lead midway through the fourth.

Arizona scored a TD with 2:16 left but couldn’t convert the 2-point try, falling 21-19 for a 15th straight loss.

“We are in year one, game three of a 12-game season,” Fisch said afterward. “Trying to build something over time here, and with that being said, yeah, of course we’re always gonna be frustrated when the outcome is not what we want it to be, but we also recognize that we’re going to try to see the forest through the trees and not get caught up in one game.”

Nov. 6: Victory, at last

After the embarrassing NAU loss the Wildcats fell by 22 at Oregon, by 18 to UCLA and by 34 at Colorado. The results were getting worse, not better, and Arizona had also lost two of its three quarterbacks to season-ending injuries.

But then came one-score losses to Washington and USC, with the former seeing the Wildcats unable to hold onto a 13-0 lead and the latter include a scoring explosion after going nine straight games failing to top 19 points. Those the losing streak was up to 20 games, the longest in the country, optimism was flowing ahead of a Homecoming matchup with Cal.

And added to that hope was the unfortunate circumstance of the Golden Bears getting hit with a COVID outbreak just before the game, one that resulted in them being without more than 20 players (including their quarterback and several other starters).

Cal’s COVID issues and Arizona’s mounting injury situation made for an offensively challenged afternoon, but one that still ended up being history. Michael Wiley’s TD run in the fourth quarter sealed a 10-3 victory, ending the long skid and giving Fisch his first—and, so far, only—win as Arizona’s head coach.

Dec. 15: Announcing the future

Fisch’s first season ended with three more losses, the last two fairly lopsided including a 38-15 setback in the Territorial Cup. But the next day Fisch and his staff were on the road trying to lock up a recruiting class that had the potential to be pretty good, and it turned out to be better than anyone could have imagined.

The UA inked 21 players and one transfer during the Early Signing Period, including four 4-star prospects, for a 2022 recruiting class that currently ranks 23rd in the nation and second in the Pac-12. Those are the best ranks for Arizona since 2006.

“All in all this has been one heck of a day for Arizona football,” Fisch said.

The biggest of those signings came on Dec. 18 when 4-star wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan flipped from Oregon to join a trio of his Servite (Calif.) High School teammates.