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Don’t sweat the few losses Arizona football has endured this offseason, it’s part of being a rising program

arizona-wildcats-football-commentary-johnny-nansen-jacob-kongaika-jedd-fisch-asu-texas-2024 Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

It’s good to be good, and yet being good is also cause for concern.

Over the last week or so Arizona saw its defensive coordinator leave for a job with Texas and one of its defensive tackles enter the transfer portal and come out as a member of the Arizona State University Sun Devils.

While losing Johnny Nansen and Jacob Kongaika is not ideal, their chosen destinations say a lot about where Arizona football is as it comes off one of the best seasons in program history.

Nansen was attractive to Texas, a team that was in the College Football Playoff and is heading for the SEC, because Arizona’s defense took a major step forward and was good.

While a loss, there’s no reason to think the Cats can’t find a quality replacement.

Kongaika chose to go from Tucson to Tempe ostensibly because he’ll see the field more for the Sun Devils than he would have for the Wildcats.

While also a loss, it’s actually nice to see Arizona be the team that sees depth leave because it doesn’t see a path to playing time ahead of more talented players, rather than being the one that has to take chances on a player in hopes he’ll excel in a larger role.

This is not to say Arizona will be better off without either. Just, the program is in a place where it should be able to withstand their departures, if not barely notice them at all.

Neither Nansen nor Kongaika would have been pursued if they didn’t produce while at Arizona, which speaks well to both Jedd Fisch’s ability to hire and he and his staff’s knack for identifying and developing talent.

It is because of those skills that you can feel confident in Arizona’s ability to withstand this offseason’s personnel losses as well as the likelihood that this will be a semi-regular occurrence in the coming years.

Yes, as long as Arizona keeps winning you should expect their coaches and players to come up in rumors and be linked to other schools, especially when the latter enter the transfer portal (and, apparently, even when they don’t).

It may never be comfortable, but it is something Arizona fans should want to get used to.

Granted, this view of coach and player movement is easier to take when star players are not jumping ship and the head coach—who is responsible for the program’s rise and its ability to retain talent—is not going anywhere.

Despite the seeming delay in a much-deserved contract extension, by all accounts Fisch has no plans to leave. Then again, when jobs like Alabama (and potentially Michigan) open up, the coaching carousel could see some unexpected movement that trickles down to Tucson.

But let’s not think about that, hard as it may be. Remember, Arizona is a good program and is expected to be just as good, if not better, in 2024.

That’s something to be excited about.

To be fair to those who are concerned, it has been a while since Arizona fans had to worry about losing a successful head coach. Not since Rich Rodriguez flirted with South Carolina in 2015 has the threat legitimately existed.

RichRod was a more established name then than Fisch is now, but there’s a reason the current coach has been seen on TV shows and heard on various radio shows. While not the brightest star in the profession (see: Prime, Coach), he is certainly one of the brightest coaches around.

And everyone knows it.

In three seasons Fisch has built a program that not only wins on the field but garners attention off it. Thus far both coach and the majority of his best players have found staying in Tucson to be the best option.

Fisch points to people sticking around for the team’s successful 2023.

“I think the biggest thing was that our guys didn’t leave,” he told the Jim Rome Show last week. “We didn’t lose more than one or two players in the transfer portal, we recruited a ton of high school kids that became freshmen, sophomores and then juniors.

“And we were able to keep the staff together. We had nine out of our 10 coaches return for all three years.”

On that last point, it’s not entirely true. Along with losing defensive coordinator Don Brown and linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski following the ‘21 season, the team moved on from DB coach DeWayne Walker after the ‘22 campaign. So that’s three coaches and there have been other, smaller roles on the staff that have undergone some turnover.

But Fisch’s overall point is valid. He continued:

“I think when you do that and you have continuity and then you’ve been around some great coaches in the past you know kind of how to keep it together and I think that’s what we did best most recently.”

Rome asked the coach how he was able to do that, and Fisch was quick to point out it wasn’t due to money. That, he said, is not his program’s greatest recruiting and retaining strength.

“We don’t necessarily sell NIL, we sell NFL,” he said, pointing to opportunities Wildcats have to meet coaches like Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, Pete Carroll and others who are big names at the next level. “We try to be the 33rd NFL program.”

In the NFL, player and coach movement is a regular thing.

Which brings us back to Arizona.

Fisch has done a terrific job getting the program to where it is. To go from one win to five wins to 10 in a way that seems sound and sustainable, without the benefit of being able to just buy a roster, is nothing short of inspiring.

But the apparent ease in which it happened likely hid the difficulty of the accomplishment. Not only did it require hard work and effort, but the rise required shrewd moves, expert decision-making and some luck.

Fortunately for Arizona the person and people most responsible for the program’s ascension are still there, and the man at the top has shown an understanding of how to build and maintain a roster without the advantages some bigger programs can work with.

His ability to find good players makes Arizona’s roster attractive. His ability to identify good coaches makes Arizona’s staff desirable. The better Arizona plays, the better everyone looks.

But as long as Fisch is in charge, Arizona’s future will remain in good hands both on and off the field, no matter who heads for the exit.