Before he was introduced as Arizona’s football coach Wednesday, the only association Jedd Fisch had with the UA was tangential: His eldest daughter, Zaylee, attends the school.
Fisch gets it. He’s from New Jersey. He has had 13 jobs in college and pro football, and only one of those was in the Pac-12 — at UCLA in 2017. He’s not the Wildcat that fans and alumni wanted. He’s an outsider.
So how will Fisch go about winning over those people — especially if wins on the field are sparse early on?
“As with anything, with time,” Fisch told the Star about a half-hour after his introductory news conference. “With time comes winning people over — not getting wrapped up in the first 24 hours of everybody’s ... concerns or questions or wondering why we went outside the family, so to speak.
“What we really have to do is allow the process to go. I understand that the football alumni, the community of Tucson ... former students, they’re all looking for a certain person to fit that criteria. But if you let our staff develop, I think people start seeing some of the bloodlines. All of a sudden when you start filling your staff with some assistant coaches that might have been top players at the university, there’ll be some energy and excitement there.
“I know none of us like to have time and patience, but I think time and patience in the short term. And then trust. Trust that when I say that our family will be completely ingrained into the community, I don’t think it’ll take long for people to see us as University of Arizona (representatives).”
Despite his East Coast roots and job-hopping résumé, Fisch offered the qualities UA President Robert C. Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke were seeking in a head coach — someone who could turn around a floundering football program by connecting to its glorious past and its fervent fan base.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be swift. Arizona is coming off three consecutive sub-.500 seasons, has a 12-game losing streak and dropped its last game by a score of 70-7. The roster is gutted. A complete rebuild is required.
But all three men — Robbins, Heeke and Fisch — are confident he’s the right man for that daunting job.
“Dave and I agreed that there were some factors that were simply non-negotiable,” Robbins said. “We wanted energy and passion. We wanted someone who wanted to be the coach at the University of Arizona. We wanted someone who shared our vision and our values. We wanted someone who would embrace our history and connect with former letter-winners, alumni, students and donors. We wanted a coach who our student athletes would respect and love and would see that love returned to them.
“We knew what we wanted in a new coach, but we didn’t know who it would be. In the end, it became clear that Jedd Fisch was our guy.”
Fisch, 44, stepped into that role Wednesday in the most 2020 way possible. He spoke via Zoom from the New England Patriots’ practice facility in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Fisch’s most recent job on a nomadic journey through the assistant ranks had been as New England’s quarterbacks coach.
Fisch received endorsements from his boss there, Bill Belichick, as well as Pete Carroll and Sean McVay, two former bosses. Fisch has worked under many of football’s sharpest minds. He got his start at Florida after placing hundreds of notes and ideas on the windshield of then-Gators coach Steve Spurrier’s car. Fisch also has worked under Brian Billick (Baltimore Ravens), Mike Shanahan (Denver Broncos) and Jim Harbaugh (Michigan).
From the time he was a ballboy for the Bergen Catholic High School team in Oradell, New Jersey, Fisch has wanted to be the head coach for a college football program. He didn’t play football in high school or college but worked his way up the coaching ranks through sheer will.
Fisch interviewed for the UA job three years ago, when Arizona ended up hiring Kevin Sumlin. Robbins remembered being struck by Fisch’s backstory.
“His story of rising in the football coaching world without ever having played a down of football was certainly unique,” Robbins said. “But it also told me something about his determination and drive.”
Fisch will need all of that and more to resurrect the Arizona program, which went 9-20 under Sumlin and has seen about two dozen players leave or enter the NCAA transfer portal over the past year.
Fisch said all the right things about how to address the Wildcats’ problems. He spoke to Tedy Bruschi about how tough the “Desert Swarm” squads were. Fisch texted with Steve Kerr to pick his brain about Lute Olson’s success as Arizona’s basketball coach.
Fans and alumni had expressed their concerns through the usual channels — social media and message boards — about Fisch’s lack of links with the UA. He tried to appease them by speaking with football alumni before addressing the media.
“I’m confident that as Wildcats across the nation get to know Jedd, they’ll fall in love with his energy, his genuineness, his enthusiasm and his true commitment to the University of Arizona and this football program,” Heeke said. “Already he’s spoken with many of our alums and the greats of the game that we’re so proud of. He’s reached out and connected in those areas. And he understands we need to bridge that gap that sometimes has existed.
“Jedd knows that for us to be successful, we need to be pulling together in the same direction. ... Together, there’s nothing we can’t do going forward.”
Identity = toughness
Although his X’s-and-O’s acumen is considered to be one of his greatest assets, Fisch didn’t provide many answers about schematics. He’ll begin the process of assessing Arizona’s roster when he arrives in Tucson, likely Monday. He planned to work on assembling a staff as soon as his media obligations were over.
Fisch did tackle an important and elusive question about Arizona’s identity as a program. The Wildcats never really established one under Sumlin.
“Our identity’s gonna be toughness,” Fisch said. “Mental toughness. Physical toughness. It’s going to be about a team that will never, ever stop competing.
“To know if your team is tough, you better know how to run the football, you better be able to stop the run and you better be able to cover kicks. If you do those three things, we know we’re gonna have a tough football team. We’re going to be a hard out.
“It’ll take some time. I understand that. But it won’t be out of reach. We’ll make sure that we get there. We’re gonna have a brand of football people are going to want to be a part of.”
Statements like that will help Arizona win the PR battle it became embroiled in when Fisch was hired instead of coaches with direct UA ties such as Brent Brennan, Antonio Pierce and Joe Salave’a. Actions — such as open practices, community engagement, recruiting triumphs and wins on the field — will help even more.
Whether real or not, Fisch was perceived as “Robbins’ guy.” The UA president conceded that he was involved in the process, not unlike every other aspect of his job. But he insisted he worked in collaboration with Heeke.
“I’m reminded of this story that Brett Favre told when he was at the Minnesota Vikings,” Robbins said. “He really didn’t understand what the word ‘schism’ meant. ‘Schism in the locker room.’ He said, ‘People just stopped using it when we started winning.’
“When Coach Fisch starts winning, that’s what we’re going to talk about.”