In an ideal world, Kevin Sumlin would have been a success at Arizona. The coach would have seen Tucson as a place where he could resuscitate his career and would have put in the work to make it happen.
Sure, he may have ultimately left for a bigger job, but the program would have been in a good place when he chose to do so.
That’s not what happened. Not at all.
The Sumlin era was a disaster, so much so that the football program was practically forced to make a change, even during a pandemic that limited the financial resources.
Enter Jedd Fisch.
More than a year later Arizona has added just one win to its total, but it’s tough to argue the program isn’t in a significantly better place than it was.
A top-25 recruiting class, impact transfers and a reputation that far outpaces what you would expect from a school that has made residence at the bottom of the conference.
The coach has, with help from the school, gotten ahead of the game when it comes to Name, Image and Likeness. He has led an effort to take advantage of uncertainty and turmoil at other schools. He has Arizona on an upward trajectory that, in just a few short years, could have the Wildcats competing for a divisional crown.
Excited to announce "Friends of Wilbur & Wilma" an NIL Program dedicated to maximizing the opportunities for student-athletes at the University of Arizona! #BearDown ⬇️— Friends of Wilbur & Wilma (@fowwua) February 9, 2022
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It’s a far cry from Fisch’s in-state rival.
Up in Tempe, Herm Edwards’ program is in turmoil. The Sun Devils are dealing with the cloud of an investigation that reportedly has plenty of hard evidence behind it. That would be bad enough, but for whatever reason ASU seemed to have made it a point to not get involved in the NIL game. They were so against it, actually, that their refusal to play by the new rules was almost a source of pride.
Whereas Arizona has enjoyed an influx of talent, ASU has dealt with an exodus. In many cases, for the latter it has been said NIL is the issue, with players wanting to get paid and feeling like it can’t or won’t happen in Tempe.
Per team source ASU receiver Ricky Pearsall and linebacker Eric Gentry are in the transfer portal and this is entirely NIL driven. Significant losses for the Sun Devils as both were starters.— DevilsDigest.com (@DevilsDigest) April 21, 2022
Coming off a one-win season, it’s clear Arizona is doing something right.
It’s not just NIL, of course. The coaching staff has done a masterful job of creating—and selling—a future. Many of the players had offers from higher-profile schools, all of whom have a more recent history of winning (mathematically they almost have to). The allure of early playing time and a big role helps, yes, but there is more to it.
By all accounts the coaches have fostered the kind of atmosphere players want to be a part of, and one parents are glad to send their kids to.
But it would be impossible not to connect NIL to their offseason success, which is truly a credit to the staff and university. The narrative from many in Tempe is such that the only schools who can succeed in this new world are the elite programs.
Well, either they are calling Arizona elite or the assumption is flat out wrong. Arizona made the calculation that they could, if not thrive, at least survive so long as they understood NIL, got out in front of it and made it part of the overall brand.
Would that have happened with a different coach? We can’t know for sure, but the fact is Fisch—for all the questions he arrived with—has shown to truly get it. He understands the amount of work it takes to succeed in Tucson, has a feel for how to recruit in 2022 and is smart and capable enough to adapt in an ever-changing landscape.
It is often said that timing is everything, and that is certainly the case here. The rebuild was never going to be quick and there is still work to be done, along with much to prove, but if nothing else Fisch, his staff and the university are doing everything right.
It’s a nice change, and it came not a moment too soon.