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Jedd Fisch takes Arizona alums’ criticisms of his hire head-on

Arizona Wildcats head coach Jedd Fisch (Screenshot)

Jedd Fisch could be the right man or the wrong one to fill the Arizona Wildcats’ head-coaching vacancy, but one thing was immediately clear when the university announced his hiring on Wednesday.

He will have to win over a lot of people.

That group includes keyboard warriors and former players, many of whom have toiled directly in pushing the football program closer to legitimacy over the past few years as it sank under recently fired coach Kevin Sumlin.

While Fisch’s two bosses, president Dr. Robert Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke, attempted to explain why they hired someone unfamiliar with football in Tucson days after promising to find a coach who “embodies the ‘Bear Down’ spirit,” in Heeke’s words, Fisch at least did his part in understanding the challenge ahead.

He held a Zoom meeting with former Arizona football players before he was introduced.

What comes of it? We’ll see.

It’s at least a start and a show of awareness of the challenges ahead.

“The biggest message that I wanted to give to the football alumni is that I understand the history and what has gone on here over the course of time,” he said over a Zoom introductory press conference. “I have really done my research of what it looked like when Larry Smith was the head coach, and then when Dick Tomey, and then when John Mackovic was the head coach, and then when Mike Stoops was the head coach , and then when Rich Rodriguez was the head coach and then when Kevin Sumlin was the head coach.

“I recognize and see what has gone on and what some of the positives and negatives were in each one of those years and tenures and times,” Fisch continued. “What I’ve asked (the alumni) to do is to open up this forum and open up this relationship, and welcome our family to Tucson in the same way we want to welcome them in our building.”

Fisch’s research might have led him to failed tenures of Sumlin or Mackovic, the latter of whom had a player mutiny before being fired. He might’ve seen relatively successful runs for Mike Stoops and Rich Rodriguez before things turned sour for very different reasons.

Of course, the Tomey period remains emblematic of how and what building Arizona into a football power looks like. Tomey led Arizona to a 95-64-4 record from 1987-2000, including a 12-1 season in 1998. Fisch reference the Desert Swarm defense a handful of times Wednesday.

Before Fisch spoke to reporters on Wednesday, the Wildcats’ new coach held that Zoom meeting with the football alumni base that during the 11-day coaching search gone to Heeke, explaining they needed someone who bleeds red and blue to take the job.

Some alumni, from former defensive back Barrett Baker to more recent Wildcat Scooby Wright III, recoiled when news of the hire broke.

Fisch does have at least a few Arizona connections: He’s familiar with Robbins having interviewed for the job three years ago before it went to Sumlin. His daughter attends the university, and Fisch spoke about the family atmosphere of coaching in college as a reason to stick around should his first head-coaching opportunity go right.

The school’s leadership appeared aware that the hire was not received well.

During Robbins’ and Heeke’s opening statements, they made sure to present the importance of their next head coach having a connection with the Tucson community and former players.

Fisch doubled down on that but presented evidence when reporters asked questions.

He said he’s talked twice with former Wildcat great Tedy Bruschi about the identity of the Desert Swarm football teams that played under Tomey. Fisch said he texted former UA basketball player Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors head coach who saw first-hand how his college coach, Lute Olson, built a basketball school in Tucson.

The hire not only put the microscope on Fisch’s resume but on a reported gulf between Heeke and Robbins, who according to multiple reports might have had a difference in opinion.

“We’re always partners in our work together and it’s never been more evident than our last 11 days,” Heeke said in his prepared statement.

Heeke was later asked what Fisch brings that “embodies the ‘Bear Down’ spirit.”

“I talked about energy, enthusiasm, all of those components,” Heeke said, “but also having a sincere understanding and appreciation for what that ‘Bear Down’ spirit is. Our history, our tradition, the toughness, those types of things are incredibly important as we build a program.”

Robbins was asked how much influence he had on the hire.

The president did not exactly contradict the reports that he pushed strongly for Fisch to land with the Wildcats ahead of other candidates with Arizona ties, like San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan or ASU defensive coordinator and former UA player Antonio Pierce.

“I’m really involved with all aspects of the university,” Robbins said. “Dave Heeke is Jedd Fisch’s boss, and I worked in collaboration and right by Dave in helping him get the support he needed to go out and look for the best fit … We found Jedd Fisch, and I’m very excited about it. Be very clear about it: Dave is the leader of our athletics program.

“I’m reminded of this story that Brett Favre told when he was with the Minnesota Vikings,” Robbins added. “He really didn’t understand what that word ‘schism’ meant (in regards to Favre starting). ‘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.”