Like pretty much every coach ever, Jedd Fisch has made culture a focus of what he is trying to do at Arizona.
When it comes to recruiting, interacting with players, getting out in the community and on-field performance, the how is nearly as important as the what.
Of course culture is not always a tangible thing that can be judged. Things like penalties are not indicative of a poor culture, and off-field issues can happen anywhere. We’re also not privy to locker room conversations so any intra-team tension is more a matter of speculation than verifiable fact.
Generally speaking when a team is winning the culture is good or, at least, not an issue.
Arizona is winning, at least at a level not seen in recent years and, therefore their culture seems to be just fine.
It’s about to get tested.
The Wildcats are coming off their bye week with a 4-3 record and in good position to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2017. Hope and optimism have given way to expectation, meaning the pressure to perform will be heightened.
Previous Arizona teams have struggled with even the slightest bit of success and attention, tripping up in big moments rather than rising to meet them.
There is also a decision to make at the QB position, with the choice possibly determining whether or not the postseason dreams are realized. Of course, it would be simple if the only thing the decision would impact is wins and losses.
But in a world of the transfer portal and NIL, lineup decisions – especially at a position where really only one player gets to see the field – have even greater in implications. In this instance, Fisch is choosing between two good options.
In one corner he has a veteran who transferred to Arizona when it was coming off a 1-win campaign to be the starter, played well and entered this year not only as QB 1, but as one of the better passers in the conference. Jayden de Laura had a turbulent offseason but Fisch stood behind him and stuck with him and obviously has put a lot of work into trying to make him as good a QB as possible. At this point in his season and career, though, doubt has seeped in.
In the other corner there is a redshirt freshman who was the first QB signed by Fisch and his staff, one who lacks prototypical size but offers everything else you’d want in a QB. Noah Fifita is well liked, a quality that undoubtedly helped draw some of Arizona’s top teammates ’22 recruits to Tucson — and it seems as though he is improving with every start. Belief in him is quite high.
Choose de Laura and it’s conceivable you could lose Fifita, who has earned the right to start with his play. The move also may not be well received within the locker room, the implications of which are potentially massive. The home crowd will mostly be on edge, at best, and upset, at worst, with high-level play being the only thing that could satisfy. Every incomplete pass, every turnover, every questionable decision will be scrutinized while the coach will be forced to defend the move.
Go with Fifita and you may lose a veteran QB you know you can win with and may still need at some point this season. Choosing the redshirt freshman could make it more difficult to sell QB recruits on the chance to see the field at Arizona and high level transfers may worry that they are in danger of the same.
On a lesser scale the same is true for Fisch’s decision at running back, where the veteran Michael Wiley may have lost his job to sophomore Jonah Coleman. Wiley, of course, came back for a season he did not have to and is trying to play his way into the NFL Draft and will have a tougher time doing so watching from the sidelines.
It’s possible, if not likely, that whatever decisions are made will insult, upset, irk or bother some players.
Which brings us back to culture.
At some point one would hope that Arizona Football becomes big enough to where it is greater than any single player, that everyone who dons the Red and Blue understands that the team comes above all and if they don’t like it, someone just as good will be ready to take their place.
The idea of competition will be universally welcome and getting beat out for a spot will be accepted and used as motivation to continue improving. Perhaps it’s naive to think that could ever be the case now that player movement is easier than ever and if you’re not playing for one program you could find a new one with plenty of snaps to offer.
Whatever the case, since Arizona is not competing for a conference or national championship there is more room for any single player to let hard feelings become an issue. So far, at least, everyone has seemed to say the right things.
Whatever Fisch decides, these next few weeks will tell us a lot about just how far the program has come. Not in terms of talent, where it has progressed at an astounding and pleasing rate. But in mentality, where hopefully we’ll see that the pressure of winning games is welcomed and not feared while the concept of team above all is, in fact, practiced as well as it is preached.