Jedd Fisch’s rookie status isn’t the only thing that makes him an outlier among Pac-12 coaches.
Fisch opened the entirety of Arizona spring practice to media and fans, and he’s doing the same for the first two weeks of training camp, which starts a week from Friday.
But wait. There’s more.
Six of the first 13 practices will feature a fan fest — an NFL Experience-style setup on the field next to where the Wildcats practice.
It’s all part of Fisch’s ongoing efforts to connect with the Tucson and UA communities.
“That shows the openness of the program, the inclusivity of it, wanting to engage with our fans, wanting to build relationships,” Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said. “We’re an open book. Here’s our story. Here’s what we’re about. Here’s what we’re based on.
“If you don’t know about it, people make assumptions. When you understand what the program’s about, when you’ve been part of it, when you see it first-hand, you can make a better judgment of what’s happening and understand where the program’s going.”
Fisch came to Arizona from the NFL, whose teams hold open training-camp practices (at least they did, during non-COVID times). The UA reached out to the Cardinals for help in putting the fan-fest elements together.
“They were great, talking through what they do and how to make sure we can bring an NFL-type experience to the city of Tucson,” said Matthew Hayes, the UA’s associate athletic director of football operations. “There’s no pro team (here). The community of Tucson, the alums, everyone, they should want to have the same experience, and that’s what we want to provide for them.”
The fan fest will feature 40-yard dashes, football-toss games, face-painting, inflatables, bounce houses and other activities. On select days, players will be available to sign autographs. The first three days of practice — Aug. 6, 7 and 8 — will feature the fan fest. The other dates are Aug. 14, 15 and 21.
“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Heeke said. “We’ve got to enjoy this. We’ve got to have fun. Sometimes we take it way too seriously, and it becomes exhausting.
“Jedd wants people to be engaged, be part of it, share in the success, see some of the struggles and the pains that we have to go through. But we’ll all be better off at the end.”
Practices won’t be as open as the season approaches and the team starts installing game plans, Fisch said during Tuesday’s Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles. But they’ll be wide open up to that point, and Fisch believes that will benefit his players.
“It’s an opportunity for our players to perform in front of other people, which I think is as cool as it gets,” Fisch said. “I’d love for our media to see what we’re doing. It’s a lot better than them guessing. It’s an opportunity for them to see how we interact, how we coach, what we do. I just feel like it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s also an opportunity to win over fans who might have lost faith during the program’s 12-game losing streak — and possibly recruit new ones. That process began in June, when the UA held camps for kids and prospects while also hosting recruits for the first time in over a year. The camps drew about 3,000 participants.
“We’re trying as hard as we can to move the program in the right direction,” Hayes said. “And we want everyone to come along for this ride.”
Heeke on Pac-12 expansion
Like just about everyone else, Heeke was surprised to learn that Oklahoma and Texas were deep into talks to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. Their impending move — which is all but a done deal — will reverberate throughout college sports, including in Pac-12 country.
News of the SEC’s expansion has spurred rampant speculation about the other so-called Power Five conferences and what their next moves might be. New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said Tuesday that the league doesn’t believe “expansion is required to continue to compete and thrive.”
“That said,” he added, “the fallout from Texas and Oklahoma gives us an opportunity to once again consider expansion. We had already (have) had significant inbound interest from many schools. We will work with our presidents and chancellors to evaluate these opportunities.”
Heeke agreed with Kliavkoff that it’s critical to find universities that are “culturally” aligned with the Pac-12 in terms of academic standards and other non-athletic factors. But Heeke also stressed the importance of the bottom line. The SEC’s power play is mainly about money. Other leagues are just trying to keep up.
“If we’re going to expand, let’s be honest — you’ve got to bring value to the table,” Heeke said. “Everyone needs to bring value. We can’t just split up the pie that we have with more people. Some would say that pie doesn’t have enough money in it already. So we’ve got to be careful with how that could help us going forward financially.
“Is it the right fit? Does it strengthen our league and our ability to compete nationally?”
Heeke was talking mainly about football, where the Pac-12 has lagged behind its peers in recent seasons. Only two Pac-12 teams have qualified for the four-team College Football Playoff in seven tries – none in the past four seasons.
“Football is very important to us going forward,” Heeke said. “The brand of football is incredibly important. We intend to be on the national stage, and the decisions we make will help us as a football brand, as a conference.”
Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 under his watch will be “hyper-focused on greater success in football and men’s basketball” and that “the conference will take the steps necessary to give our student-athletes the best possible opportunities to win titles in these two sports.”
The Pac-12 already has implemented measures to improve the football product. Kliavkoff announced the formation of a Football Working Group whose job is to “recommend changes to our football program with the goal of optimizing for CFP invitations and winning championships.”
Kliavkoff also announced the addition of Shonna Brown as associate commissioner of football operations under Merton Hanks, the league’s senior associate commissioner for football ops. Brown had been the associate commissioner for business affairs and CFO of Conference USA.