TUCSON, Ariz. — More than 50 minutes after Arizona’s spring game ended last month, Rob Gronkowski was still signing autographs, still posing for pictures, and yes, catching touchdown passes from former Wildcats teammate Willie Tuitama.
The question on that hot, desert day: Why? His duty was fulfilled just by showing up as an honorary coach to help hype the arrival of a new head coach.
“Because that’s what I do,” Gronk explained with some goofy bravado, “catch touchdown passes.”
The question was meant to go deeper than that. What is happening in Tucson is beyond a Super Bowl champion coming back home to glad-hand at the spring game.
Gronkowski hadn’t been back to campus in 10 years. Something compelled him to be here in an altogether typical Gronk way.
The day before, he set a Guinness World Record for highest altitude catch of an American football by hauling in a ball dropped from more than 600 feet from a helicopter. The video went viral. It was all part of a college football grand experiment in these parts.
The plan at Jedd Fisch’s Arizona is that style will eventually lead to substance. The wacky will lead to winning. Stunts will precede (winning) streaks. You can almost sense the sneers coming from the sport’s conservative base. Fisch, a first-time coach hired to replace Kevin Sumlin, doesn’t care.
Asked to break down that spring game, he literally hadn’t seen enough of it to offer a cogent analysis.
“I feel like I was a little too busy spraying the student section with a hose and water balloons halfway through the game,” he told reporters. “We had a bunch of trick plays in, not a lot of stuff we’re going to use in the fall.”
Fisch, 44, is fulfilling a lifelong dream with a Whoopee Cushion as one of his coaching tools. Before Arizona, he was a well-known, well-traveled assistant in college and the NFL who had made 14 stops at jobs since leaving the New Jersey Red Dogs of the old Arena Football League in 1997.
That’s not to say he isn’t qualified. Fisch spent three years as an NFL offensive coordinator. He was on Jim Harbaugh’s original staff at Michigan. Since being UCLA’s offensive coordinator at the end of the Jim Mora Jr. regime in 2017, Fisch has been an assistant offensive coordinator (Rams) and quarterbacks coach (Patriots).
He interviewed for the Arizona job before the school hired Sumlin. A year later, in 2018 when Kansas ultimately hired Les Miles, Fisch had interviewed with the Jayhawks.
He wanted this — actually any — job, bad. An assistant coach lifer landed in a place where the Wildcats have seen one winning season since 2015. Last year, they went winless (0-5) for the first time in program history. Arizona has lost 12 games in a row.
The 2021 season can’t start fast enough with the last of those 12 defeats being a 70-7 loss to rival Arizona State in the Territorial Cup.
“We made a decision we were going to look at it differently, not the old traditional way. ‘Let’s kind of follow these steps,'” Arizona athletic director David Heeke said.
With the hiring of Tommy Lloyd in basketball, Arizona is the only Power Five school with two first-timers head coaches in the two revenue sports entering this season. For Fisch, those steps included an unprecedented outreach.
Spring practices were open to anyone, including fans and media. Fisch has been on Twitter more than a 12-year-old middle schooler looking for validation, saluting everything Arizona. Sixteen times he has tweeted about the Arizona women’s basketball team’s run to the NCAA Tournament championship game. More than 200 former players showed up for the spring game.
There wasn’t a coin toss at the spring game. At the last minute, Fisch appeared at the 50-yard line, microphone in hand, declaring there would be a “jump ball” between Lloyd and women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes.
Vince McMahon couldn’t have staged it better. Like the WWE empresario, Fisch gets it. You hook ’em with the outlandish, then ’em them the product — even if part of it is absolutely staged theater.
But can water balloons lead to wins?
“There comes a point where it’s out of the coach’s hands,” said Wildcats legend Tedy Bruschi, another honorary coach that day. “The players that play, they gotta play. You can have the plans and you have the excitement. … Once they get out there, it’s going to be them against USC and UCLA.”
Take note that Fisch isn’t the first coach to make fun a priority. Dabo Swinney has made it one of the foundations of Clemson football.
“[I’ve] been an assistant coach for 20 years,” Fisch said. “‘What have you taken from each person?’ In my mind, it was [this]: We’re going to bring a great amount of joy, passion and energy and enthusiasm and fun to everybody who wants to be a part of our program.
“That’s what’s going to win. That’s what’s going to win with recruiting. That’s what’s going to win with our current players. People are going to embrace it.”
One veteran media member said he hadn’t seen the Tucson community so energized about Arizona football in 20 years. When the school’s recent coaching history includes the dour Sumlin, John Mackovic and Mike Stoops, you can see why.
“It kind of lost its way,” Heeke said.
Tucson just wants to be loved. So does Fisch. A relationship is blooming.
“I think he’s done a great job of realizing the kids he has to reach are 16-, 17-, 18-years-old,” Bruschi said. “He’s able to see things and see forward.”
The legacy of the great Dick Tomey lingers over everything Arizona. From 1987-2000, Tomey provided Zona most of its football identity. In that time, he won 95 games and took the Wildcats to six bowl games, winning the 1994 Fiesta Bowl with the famous “Desert Swarm” defense.
Every Arizona coach and coaching search since then has been compared to Tomey’s humble, classy excellence. Fisch knew what he was doing when he retained assistant Chuck Cecil, a senior during Tomey’s first season at Arizona. During that hot spring game, Fisch saluted the great coach by wearing a loose-fitting Tomey-era jacket popular in the 1990s.
“He’s bringing a sense of belief. He’s bringing a sense of swagger,” said Mo Darwiche, CEO of Arizona’s production partner, Liquid Light Productions in Los Angeles. “So much of football is confidence if you’re on board for the ride, right?”
Fisch likes to name drop. Maybe it’s just an expression of his jam-packed coaching Rolodex. Pete Carroll has spoken to the team via Zoom. (Fisch was the Seahawks quarterback coach in 2010, and Carroll’s son Brendan is Arizona’s offensive coordinator.) Fisch frequently quotes Bill Belichick (he was Patriots quarterbacks coach in 2020) and Steve Spurrier (he was a Florida graduate assistant in 1999-2000).
That Gronk world record? It came about amid a brainstorming session with Liquid Light. The company consists of filmmakers who create videos for channels across YouTube and other platforms.
Fisch name-dropped them, too. One of their clients is actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Rock’s agent is influential Arizona alum Brad Slater. Liquid Light was already producing a docuseries on Arizona football. It all came together for Darwiche, whose company also specializes in producing world-record videos.
The company filmed a video with Cam Newton in which the quarterback broke three Guinness World Records — most one-handed catches in a minute, longest catch between the legs, furthest blindfolded catch.
Throw in the fact that Fisch worked with Newton last season, and Gronk — a recent WWE 24/7 champion, mind you — was immediately in on the helicopter drop the day before the spring game.
“Gronk was so nervous,” Darwiche said. “He shows up, the whole team is there. He says, ‘Oh my God, I gotta take a shit.’ That’s the first thing he said. Then he puts on the shoulder pads and says, ‘I’ve got to take another shit. This is as nervous I’ve been before a Super Bowl.'”
Darwiche estimated the video got 100 million impressions both online and on traditional TV. In one shining moment, Arizona football was literally trending around the world.
Get used to it. These things matter these days to coaches like Fisch trying to reach recruits any way they can.
“Nothing goes viral by accident,” he said. “We just had no idea it would be viral on steroids.”
It all translates to attention — the kind McMahon cultivates, the kind Fisch imitates, the way out of a football morass for a rookie coach who has never done this before.
No one at Arizona is complaining.
The actual games await.
“It’s pretty obvious what our program is going to become,” Fisch said. “It’s going to be full of energy, enthusiasm and joy. If you want to be part of that, I suggest you come to University of Arizona.”