EUGENE, Ore. — Jedd Fisch has proved to be a master salesman during his nine months at Arizona. He was at the forefront of raising $6 million to refurbish the weight room and football offices at a time when the athletic department faced a revenue shortfall several times that amount because of the pandemic.
But selling patience? In today’s college football? That’s damn near impossible. It’s like trying to hawk sweaters on a 105-degree summer day in Tucson.
Fisch is asking for patience, though, because he has no choice. He took over a program in disarray, and things haven’t gotten better in the one area where success can be tangibly measured: the win-loss column.
The Wildcats are 0-3 heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 opener at Oregon. The Ducks are 3-0 and ranked third in the nation. They are favored by four touchdowns.
Arizona’s start isn’t unprecedented — see 2020 — but this one comes with an asterisk. The Wildcats couldn’t even defeat NAU, the FCS school they pay to come play at Arizona Stadium. That 21-19 loss last week effectively ended Fisch’s honeymoon period and set off alarm bells among UA supporters.
Fisch was asked this week what he would say to the fans and alumni he had won over during an offseason filled with change and hope — fans and alumni who might be wondering if they’d been sold a clunker.
“I would say this: The program is just starting,” Fisch said. “We’ve played three games. We are in the middle of a rebuild. The last time there was a bowl game around here, there was a winning season, was 2017. Prior to that was 2015. We are in the process of trying to get a great recruiting class. We’re in the process of trying to develop the younger players that we have.
“We’re trying to build something ... brand new. As (with) all the teams that have come before us, when you come in and you take on a situation where you’re trying to build it brand new, things are going to happen. There are going to be setbacks.”
Fisch said he could “point to a million different teams” that have struggled in the first year of a rebuild. Even Alabama, in Nick Saban’s first season, lost to Louisiana-Monroe.
The most apt example might be the Arizona Wildcats of the mid-2000s. Mike Stoops took over a program that had cratered under John Mackovic. Mackovic was fired four games into the 2003 season. The Cats finished 2-10. They were outscored by 248 points.
Arizona went 3-8 in each of Stoops’ first two campaigns. The Wildcats started 1-7 in 2004 and 1-6 in ’05. Each of those wins came against NAU.
Arizona started to turn it around the following year, going 6-6. They Wildcats qualified for a bowl game in three consecutive seasons from 2008-10. The ’08 Las Vegas Bowl marked the program’s first postseason appearance in 10 years.
The situation Fisch inherited arguably was worse. Arizona entered this season riding a school-record 12-game losing streak that now stands at 15. The UA’s last game of 2020 was a humiliating 70-7 loss to rival Arizona State on national TV.
“We understand this is a process,” Fisch said. “You don’t usually just walk into a winning organization. It just doesn’t happen.”
Arizona receivers coach Kevin Cummings knows how challenging a rebuild can be. Cummings came to the UA from San Jose State, which had one of the best seasons in program history last year. But the Spartans sunk before they rose under Brent Brennan, going 2-11 and 1-11 in his first two seasons.
Everyone’s patience was tested.
“There were some days over at San Jose,” Cummings said, “where we’re like, ‘Can we do this? Can we flip this thing?’ And it will flip. You just gotta stay on course.”
One of the hardest parts when you’re going through it, Cummings said, is sustaining belief. Fisch and his staff brought energy and enthusiasm to a program in need of both during the offseason. The buy-in was real. But it’s fair to wonder whether it will erode if the losses keeping piling up.
“Guys felt really good about the work that they put in,” Cummings said. “It’s easy when you lose three games, your first three games, all of a sudden (to say), ‘Why did I put in all that work?’
“So the big preaching point, and I’ve talked with Coach Fisch about it ... is just understand that this is a process. We knew it was going to be this way.
“We laid out a plan, and it hasn’t gone exactly how we wanted it to go. But doesn’t mean it can’t change. We are playing for the Pac-12, and that goal is still in front of us. So just stay patient with it. Keep grinding.”
Laying the foundation
Fisch often refers to the “long haul.” No one expected Arizona to contend this year. The consensus over/under win total for the 2021 Wildcats was 2 1/2.
If Fisch’s initial recruiting success is a sign of what’s to come, Arizona should be respectable again in 2-3 years. But many core members of this year’s team won’t be around to experience that. So how do you sell “The Process” to the seniors — such as center Josh McCauley and linebacker Anthony Pandy — who don’t have any eligibility after this season?
“You can be a part of the process by being the first,” Fisch said. “You could look back on it and say, ‘Hey, I was in that. I was on that team. I was part of the change.’
“The house would fall over without a foundation. So this season is the foundation of the process and of the change.”
The program Fisch inherited was a fixer-upper. It was torn down to the studs. But if you’ve ever watched any of those remodeling shows on HGTV, they don’t just jump from knocking walls down to the big reveal. It’s a step-by-step progression, and there are usually unforeseen difficulties.
Fisch can pitch the idea of in-season improvement, even if it’s hard to see so far. If the Wildcats can find their way, October and November don’t have to resemble September.
The players haven’t lost faith yet. The start of conference play represents a clean slate. On Thursday, the TV monitors in the weight room displayed a simple message that underscored that idea: “1-0.”
A couple of days after the NAU loss, Fisch said the players were “disappointed” but not “devastated.” Receiver Stanley Berryhill III, a fifth-year junior, concurred with that assessment. There’s an important distinction between the two.
“Being devastated is how teams fall apart; being disappointed is how teams grow,” Berryhill said. “Of course you’re going to be disappointed. Now we’ve just got to grow from that. Don’t dwell on the past too much ... and just focus on the bigger picture. We have nine Pac-12 games. If we could win some of these games, we can turn the season around.”