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McFeely: For Bison opponent Arizona, the recruiting pitch never stops

When Wildcats head coach Jedd Fisch took the podium at Pac-12 football media day in Los Angeles on Friday, he did what any college coach in his position would do. He dropped Bill Belichick's name. And Sean McVay's. And Steve Spurrier's. He recruited. Hard. By painting the Wildcats as the gateway to the NFL.

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Arizona Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch speaks during Pac-12 Media Day at Novo Theater in Los Angeles.
Kirby Lee /USA TODAY Sports
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Arizona's football team went 1-11 last season and has lost 23 of its last 24 games. A 10-3 victory over California in November halted a 20-game losing streak reaching back to 2019. The Wildcats lost last year to Northern Arizona, a Football Championship Subdivision school that finished 5-6.

So when Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch took the podium at Pac-12 football media day in Los Angeles on Friday, he did what any college coach in his position would do.

He dropped Bill Belichick's name. And Sean McVay's. And Steve Spurrier's.

He recruited. Hard. By painting the Wildcats as the gateway to the NFL.

Which is bold, considering Arizona didn't have a player drafted in 2022. It was the fifth time in 10 years the Wildcats were shut out of the NFL Draft.

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Fisch talked about cash, too. Like the name, image and likeness money available to Arizona athletes. And the Alston payments for good grades that Wildcats can earn.

When North Dakota State plays at Arizona in a non-conference game Sept. 17, it will have a different feel than the Missouri Valley Football Conference. It'll even be much different than other FBS games the Bison have played like Iowa or Kansas State.

Fisch, a longtime NFL assistant, is making no bones about trying to build a college program modeled after a professional team.

"We talk to our players all the time about being the 33rd NFL team based on our (coaching) experiences in the league," he said.

Fisch, entering his second season, wasn't looking back at 2021. It was full speed ahead.

His 7 1/2-minute opening statement wasn't about players or history or conference realignment or anything else. It was 7 1/2 minutes mostly pointed at recruits. It was a sales job that would have Del Griffith blushing.

Just in case the next star quarterback was watching.

This isn't a criticism. This is a tip of the cap. Fisch and his staff had what appears to be a tremendous first year of recruiting, landing what one service ranked the top incoming class in the Pac-12. Recruiting is clearly where Fisch is focused, and he used his platform Friday to keep it going.

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Arizona Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch speaks during Pac-12 Media Day at Novo Theater in Los Angeles.
Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats are likely to be improved over last year's team, but they still need more players. Every college football team always needs more players. But especially one as woeful as Arizona the last decade.

And so it felt like Fisch's press conference was being held in a recruit's living room.

"We have 150 years of NFL experience on our coaching staff," Fisch said. "And what we've done is we've tried to commit to allowing our players to see it from the inside-out. To see what the NFL looks like. To see what it looks like to be a pro and see what it looks like to build champions."

It's ingenious, really. With big-time college football sliding toward the professional model, Fisch is using his NFL experience and connections to build a college program. And with Los Angeles and southern California his main recruiting base, it makes sense. He's trying to get kids who have lots of options and many who see themselves as future NFLers.

Fisch has worked for eight NFL teams, most recently for the Los Angeles Rams under McVay and the New England Patriots under Belichick. He said McVay, Belichick and Spurrier have all been to Tucson in the last two months to talk with Arizona players.

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor spoke to the Wildcats, as have others connected to the NFL and the NFL Draft.

"We believe our guys need to know and hear what it's like to be a pro and what the program should look like," Fisch said.

How this translates into the 2022 season, specifically the game against the Bison, is the great mystery. Are the Wildcats better than 1-11? Extremely likely, even though the media picked Arizona to finish 11th in the conference this season.

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Fisch and his staff landed several top-rated recruits, including receiver Tetairoa McMillan out of Los Angeles, the highest-rated prep player ever signed by Arizona. They were also active in the transfer portal, taking Washington State quarterback Jayden De Laura, the Pac-12's Freshman of the Year last season.

The Wildcats will have some skill awaiting when the Bison visit.

Fisch wants more. And he spent part of Pac-12 media day recruiting.

Come to Arizona, kids. Your portal to the NFL.

"I think that a lot of people talk about that they can get you to the next level or they know what the next level looks like, but you actually have to be there to know it," Fisch said. "I feel like it gives us an opportunity based on the relationships that we have with coaches at the next level, to be able to talk with them and kind of see what they're looking for. ... And as we share our message with our recruits and players, we're going to do everything we can to get you a chance to be at the next level."

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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