When the Arizona Wildcats took the field Saturday evening, more than 50,000 fans were there to greet them.
Scoreboard aside, that’s an achievement in itself.
For reasons in and outside of coach Jedd Fisch’s control, a sell-out crowd at Arizona Stadium a year ago was unthinkable. The program was coming off an apathetic couple of seasons under Kevin Sumlin. Covid-19 still interfered with people’s confidence to attend large sporting events. Most significantly, the on-field product wasn’t worth the price of admission.
Attendance plateaued mid-season when just over 30,000 fans saw the Wildcats upset Covid-stricken Cal 10-3. If the win brought a brief moment of exultation for fans, the way in which the UA won didn’t inspire eagerness to sit through sluggish football. Regrettably, only 2,000 more fans showed up a week later to see Arizona end the home slate with a competitive contest against Utah.
When the 2021 season mercilessly came to an end, the Arizona staff embarked on a talent acquisition run that injected much-needed serotonin into the bloodstream of Wildcats fans. Jacob Cowing, Jayden de Laura, Tetairoa McMillan. These were guys fans would pay to see.
The sellout crowd Saturday served as an endorsement of the effort Fisch and the Arizona coaches have put into making this program worth watching again, even if the talent is years away from producing at an elite level.
Out of the gate, the fan support could be felt on the field.
“I say it helped a lot,” said Arizona offensive lineman Jordan Morgan. “Going out the first quarter it was really loud. They just showed that they’re for us.”
Safety Christian Young said the defense felt the energy as the crowd got loud on third
“The community of Tucson, they did a great job,” said Young. “I appreciate them for coming out and packing the house, even with the way the game ended.”
Arizona fans lived up to the bargain. The team, not so much.
By halftime, hundreds of students trickled out of the ZonaZoo, realistic in knowing that there was no hope for a comeback against an Oregon offense that had its way all evening. When the Ducks put the nail in the coffin early in the third quarter, whatever was left of the early atmosphere seeped away.
The on-field letdown was eerily reminiscent of Arizona’s most recent sellout, the 2015 blowout loss to UCLA that saw College Gameday’s visit get swallowed up by an injury to Scooby Wright. More than 56,000 fans saw the Wildcats get walloped 56-30 that day, and attendance never recovered.
Arizona can’t afford to let apathy reign supreme again, especially with an intriguing remaining home schedule. USC will visit Tucson for probably the last time ever. Jayden de Laura’s former team, Washington State, almost always makes for a compelling game. The season concludes against ASU, which looks to have new life under interim coach Shaun Aguano.
First things first is homecoming against the Trojans, a game Fisch believes should sell out.
“I think they should come back,” said Fisch. “I think it’s a fantastic gameday experience. I think we have everything you could ever want on a Saturday. You come here and you play college football, you have kids that are playing as hard as they possibly can, you’ve got great moments and opportunities.”
The greatest moments, of course, are seeing your team win against big-time opponents.
Fisch must continue to convince fans that those moments are still to come.