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Arizona football: NIL is a thing, just not the only thing

Arizona-Wildcats-football-commentary-opinion-NIL-recruiting-development-jedd-Fisch-2023-pac12-big12 Michael Chow/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Not long after his team was demolished by the Arizona Wildcats, ASU’s first-year head coach Kenny Dillingham offered some insight into what comes next for he and his staff.

He noted there will be plenty of exit meetings, which is standard. What comes after that?

“Then fundraise,” he said. “I can go recruit, that’s cool. I’m going to go fundraise because that’s what the name of the game is nowadays.

“So, what are we doing? I’m going to go and fundraise, fundraise, fundraise. (The coaching) staff is going to go out and recruit players. I’ll go out and recruit some players, but I’m recruiting people who want this place to win as well, and that has nothing to do with players.”

That’s certainly one way to approach the offseason.

It is a fact that money is important when trying to build a successful program, and that’s especially true in the NIL era.

With that in mind, it’s a good thing the University of Arizona is flush with cash and has a stable of big-time donors. That must be the case because otherwise how else would the football program have put together a team that could go 9-3 and be ranked 15th in the College Football Playoff?

Perhaps the coaching staff excelled at identifying and recruiting talent before coaching it up and game-planning in a manner that allowed for them to knock off four top-25 teams en route to becoming one themselves.

No, that can’t be it. As Nelly said, must be the money.

None of this is to say ASU is not in rough shape with regards to NIL and funding and that Arizona is not doing well in those areas. Just, this idea that the only way to build up a talented roster is to pay good money for one is quite simply not accurate and even worse, not possible for ASU or Arizona even if it was.

Arizona’s neighbors to the north have a warped idea on how the game is played these days, in part because their administration and previous coaching staff chose to ignore and even resist how it had changed.

NIL certainly matters, with some players undoubtedly choosing their college based on where they can make the most money. But it is not the driving force for all players or probably even most, with the vast majority of athletes looking for a place where they will see the field, get developed, win some games and make it to the NFL.

Fortunately Arizona’s brass, led by Jedd Fisch, got a handle on the changing landscape and even may have gotten ahead of it. While Arizona is no slouch in the NIL department with help from the Desert Takeover (formerly Friends of Wilbur and Wilma), it is obvious that the coaches see NIL neither as the only way to build a good roster or an excuse for why they can’t.

It’s just part of the deal.

A few weeks ago Fisch talked about the importance of NIL, saying, “it is expensive to run a football program.”

He talked about player retention and player acquisition, noting it’s important to support them through NIL.

“And if you want to have a winning culture and a winning team, the supporters of the University of Arizona have to step up in that regard,” he said. “It is the only way right now to get it to where it has to go.”

Fisch went on to say it is important to find balance while recognizing and rewarding players for what they have done.

All of that makes sense. If Arizona is to continue its ascension, it must also be competitive off the field. And if Fisch wasn’t trying to increase donations, he wouldn’t be doing his job.

But it’s not his only job, or even his primary one.

On the list of reasons why players have been choosing Arizona, for the vast majority NIL is likely not near the top. Instead you’d probably find development, coaching, ability to play, chance to win, family atmosphere and every other non-financial thing the program has to offer.

And the more Arizona wins, the more attractive the program is for recruits and boosters alike. The team’s on-field success has most definitely opened some doors to players who before probably wouldn’t have given the Wildcats much thought. And for fans, knowing that donations could be the difference between landing more elite talent will now likely lead to the opening of more wallets, so to speak.

Recruit well, making sure to find some under-recruited stars or diamonds in the rough. Arizona has done that.

Coach up your players. Show you can develop talent is imperative, and Arizona has done that.

Come up with good schemes and win games. It’s how you get noticed, and plenty of eyes have turned their focus to Arizona.

Create an atmosphere where players and their families are comfortable and can thrive, not just on the field. Arizona seems to have done that.

None of that has anything to do with NIL.

Because the truth is, despite NIL’s influence, it does not have to be central in building a roster. And for schools like Arizona and ASU, barring some unforeseen riches, it can’t be.

Arizona football will not be winning any bidding wars and is certainly not immune to having players who leave because they can get paid more elsewhere. It has happened before and most certainly will happen again.

However, what Arizona has so far been able to do is create an environment where the only reason a key player would leave is for the opportunity to earn more money. By showing it can develop talent, win games and (in the spring) send players to the NFL the program is able to offer most everything a player could want.

That also has nothing to do with the players, but instead the coaches and staff who have Arizona positioned for success going forward.