“I have never been more ashamed. A million times worse than the ASU game. Never giving a dime until Fisch and Robbins are gone, and I have been a season-ticket holder for 15 years.” — @BearDownSteve via Twitter
When Arizona introduced Jedd Fisch as its new football coach, the move wasn’t exactly welcomed by UA fans. That in and of itself isn’t unusual.
Pete Carroll was considered a backup choice and a retread when he became the coach at USC. Dabo Swinney was a virtual unknown; he hadn’t held a college coordinator post before becoming the interim and then full-time head coach at Clemson. Herm Edwards was an out-of-touch, over-the-hill TV personality when his friend, Ray Anderson, tapped him to be the coach at Arizona State.
All three won over skeptical fans by winning games.
None took over a rebuilding project as daunting as Arizona. The Wildcats have lost a school-record 12 consecutive games. The last time they took the field, they were pummeled, 70-7, by rival ASU.
The results Fisch needs to convince UA supporters that he’s the right man for the job might not come for a while. The reaction to his hiring was immediate and visceral.
Hundreds of social-media posters expressed outrage and disgust. The Star received dozens of e-mails from fans complaining about the decision.
In the 10 or so days since Fisch officially got the job on Dec. 23, UA fans have experienced their own version of the seven stages of grief — from shock to grudging acceptance. Again, not unusual.
What’s peculiar is the level of vitriol and the lingering doubt. Why did this move cut so many so deep?
The Star spoke with three longtime Wildcat fans — all UA alumni — to try to figure that out. None directly faults Fisch. Their concerns instead lie with process and perception — with expectations they believe weren’t met.
Mostly, they are frustrated with the university’s leadership, starting at the top.
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“@UArizonaPres needs to be fired. Arizona football belongs to the players and fans. Right now, it belongs to one person.” — @Here4Fball via Twitter
UA President Robert C. Robbins participated in Fisch’s introductory news conference. The degree to which Robbins participated in the hiring process remains unclear. Many Wildcats fans believe his involvement was significant.
“I didn’t understand how Fisch’s name got into the discussion. Then when I started to read the reports that he’s friends with Robbins and they have a previous relationship of sorts, it started to get weird,” said Brooks McDaniel, 39, a 2006 UA grad who runs a food truck in Tucson. “Big-timers like him and head football coaches tend to run in the same circles.”
When Fisch’s name first surfaced, media reports suggested he had a friendship with Robbins that preceded Fisch interviewing for the job in January 2018. Robbins said during the initial news conference that he “first met” Fisch “more than three years ago.” Fisch said he met Robbins in 2017.
The Star reached out to Robbins this week through UA media relations to clarify the extent of his prior relationship with Fisch. That question, and others about Robbins’ role in the hiring, had not been answered as of Saturday.
But perception tends to become reality, and Robbins, an ardent sports fan, didn’t deny being involved.
“I’m involved with everything at the university,” Robbins said on Dec. 23, but added that UA athletic director Dave Heeke “is Jedd Fisch’s boss.”
“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 and coach for this university, and we found Jedd Fisch,” Robbins said. “I’m very excited about that. But to be very clear about it, Dave is the leader of our athletics program.”
Despite that explanation, UA fans remain steadfast in their contention that Robbins meddled in the process.
“I don’t like the fact that Robbins seems to be way more invested than he should be,” said Marty Briggs, 56, a 1986 graduate who’s a sales manager for a gas and oil company in Houston.
“I think he should run the university and shouldn’t be hiring football coaches. It just feels like Dave Heeke had no say in this. From where I sit in Houston, it feels like Dave was told, ‘You’re going to hire this guy.’ ”
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“Who made this hire, the AD Heeke or the UA president Robbins? Sounds like Robbins to me. I feel I was lied to.” — @pmgref via Twitter
The impression that Robbins overruled Heeke stems in part from a news conference Heeke held on Dec. 18 that didn’t necessarily have the desired effect.
Speaking to local media, Heeke described the qualifications the new coach had to have.
“We need someone who embodies the incredible ‘Bear Down’ spirit that is what this program is all about,” Heeke said, adding that the coach had to be “passionate about this job, about this university, about this athletic program, about this community, about this state.”
Heeke discussed a meeting with UA football alumni and concluded they were all in “alignment” about bringing in “someone who will embrace what has made Arizona football great.”
Heeke was asked if the coach had to have ties to the UA or past coaches such as Dick Tomey. Heeke stopped short of saying that was a mandate.
“I think it’s critical that a person understand our values, that they understand our history, they understand our tradition,” he said. “There needs to be some recognition of the power that exists here.”
UA fans interpreted those comments differently than the way Heeke might have intended them. His references to the “Bear Down spirit” and Arizona football’s “history” and “tradition” led many to believe the UA would hire a former Wildcat or Tomey disciple.
“I couldn’t figure out why this guy (Fisch) would even be a finalist or even be considered based on what Mr. Heeke said,” said Dean Goodman, 61, a 1983 grad who grew up in Tucson and works as an insurance agent in Scottsdale.
“I looked into it a little bit and found out there was some kind of connection between him and the president. Nothing against him personally. He seems like a nice guy. But I really thought the process of finding a new coach missed the mark entirely.”
Said McDaniel: “That’s the most frustrating part for fans. You had the AD coming out and saying one thing and then choosing somebody that wasn’t in the spectrum of characteristics you laid out there. We were drawn down a certain road by Dave Heeke, then they went the reverse. I think that’s where a lot of the negative fan reaction came from — the messaging.”
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“Welcome to Tucson from a UA alum in Las Vegas! The few moves you’ve already made before you’re even here, I think, mattered. Be who you are, do what you say and you’ll win the fans. We just want someone who cares about the program.” — @TonyFisherLV via Twitter
Briggs attended the second game of the Kevin Sumlin era, on Sept. 8, 2018, at Houston. It did not go well. The Wildcats trailed 31-0 at halftime. They lost 45-18.
“That was just atrocious,” Briggs said. “There were a lot of pissed-off alumni that day.”
The scar tissue from the Sumlin regime remains intact. There’s also a perception that Robbins interceded in that hiring process.
Robbins grew up in SEC country and worked in Houston when Sumlin was rising up the coaching ranks at UH and Texas A&M. In a July 2018 interview with the Star, Robbins said of Sumlin: “He won; he’s a winner. When you go into Tuscaloosa and knock off Alabama and Nick Saban (in 2012), that gets people’s attention.”
The UA program’s decline under Sumlin and the belief that Robbins played a sizable role in bringing him here created a sense of wariness that hasn’t dissipated. That led to Fisch, through little fault of his own, arriving in Tucson without any benefit of the doubt.
Fisch has said all the right things since becoming Arizona’s coach, and he has followed through on vows to connect with past Wildcats — even hiring two UA legends to his staff. Yet the fans the Star spoke to remain cynical.
“It’s almost as if he ... was told what to say,” Goodman said. “It’s almost like a script. It’s almost too clean. He’s saying everything that everyone wants to hear.”
Goodman read up on Fisch, who earned his first college job by placing notes on the windshield of Florida coach Steve Spurrier’s car for over a year. As a pre-law student, Fisch talked his way into the courtroom for the O.J. Simpson trial.
“That was a great story,” Goodman said. “The guy’s obviously persistent. It sounds like he knows what he wants. Again, I just keep coming back to, is he all talk? He’s got to prove it.”
Before leaving New England for Tucson, Fisch had breakfast with former UA All-American Tedy Bruschi. After arriving, Fisch hired two Wildcats greats, Chuck Cecil and Ricky Hunley, as full-time assistants.
Those moves have helped assuage fans’ concerns. But they haven’t erased them.
“It’s good PR, but I want to see results,” McDaniel said. “Let’s see if the alumni passion for UA comes through and they can sell their story to kids and their parents. I think I was burned by having such optimism about Sumlin. Everything is wait-and-see with UA football.”
McDaniel has come around to a degree, though. He has accepted the fact that Fisch will be Arizona’s coach for the foreseeable future. McDaniel believes it’s important to support him. He’s renewing his four season tickets for the 2021 season. Goodman, whose family has had season tickets for years, hasn’t made that call yet.
“The guy has overreached and succeeded on many occasions,” McDaniel said of Fisch. “He’s got energy. He speaks well. Let’s see if the kids go for it.”
Briggs is still skeptical. He questions Fisch’s history of jumping from one job to another. Briggs wonders if the players will take Fisch seriously given that he never played the sport.
“I hope I’m wrong,” Briggs said. “I hope I’m really wrong.”