UCLA vs. Arizona: Jedd Fisch has hands full with rebuild of Wildcats

Arizona coach Jedd Fisch talks to quarterback Will Plummer on the sideline.
Arizona coach Jedd Fisch talks to quarterback Will Plummer on the sideline during a stunning loss to Northern Arizona earlier this season.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

Trick plays were a Jedd Fisch specialty in his one season at UCLA.

Flea-flickers, double reverses and a screen pass to left tackle Kolton Miller were just part of the fun. Fisch, the Bruins’ offensive coordinator before becoming interim coach upon the firing of Jim Mora, conjured much of the magic in an otherwise disillusioning 2017 season.

What he wants to do at Arizona would amaze David Copperfield. Fisch is trying to make ages of desert disappointment disappear.


The only member of the Pac-12 Conference before its most recent expansion to never appear in a Rose Bowl, the Wildcats find themselves with far greater problems than snagging the national spotlight. They haven’t won a game in more than two years. Their school-record 16-game losing streak included a belly flop last month against Northern Arizona, a Football Championship Subdivision team.

Why would Fisch, whose winless Wildcats (0-4 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) will face UCLA (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium, subject himself to this?

The answer is written on the cover of the notebook he’s toted with him while crisscrossing the country for more than two decades: “One day as a head coach.”

A week after a gutsy victory over Stanford, UCLA’s loss to Arizona State underlined Chip Kelly’s struggles to bring sustained success to the program.

This is the only way for the Steve Spurrier and Brian Billick disciple to show what he can do as the boss after 12 previous stops where he was an underling at the college and NFL levels.

“The chance to be in college and be on the West Coast and be in the Pac-12 and lead this team and really try to change the entire fortunes of the program,” Fisch, 45, told The Times this week during a telephone interview, “was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

The Bruins got a taste of Fisch’s offense four years ago, when it sparked the school-record comeback from a 34-point deficit during a 45-44 victory over Texas A&M. That involved some trickery too, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen faking a spike before firing a pass to Jordan Lasley in the corner of the end zone for the winning score.

Fisch took over the team after Mora was dismissed late in the season. He guided the Bruins to a bowl-clinching victory over California and a loss to Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl with incoming UCLA coach Chip Kelly watching from a luxury suite. Fisch also helped recruit several players who are still on the team, including quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

“He’s a big part of why I chose UCLA, him and his offensive scheme,” said Thompson-Robinson, who hugged Fisch at Pac-12 media day. “It’s a real NFL-style offense, has a lot of similarities to stuff that they run on Sundays.”

The arrival of Kelly, another offensive guru, precluded the need for a second play-caller. So Fisch departed, becoming a member of coach Sean McVay’s offensive staff with the Rams and helping the team reach Super Bowl LIII. After moving on to become quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots in 2020, Fisch took a call from Arizona officials late in the year.

Having interviewed for the job that went to Kevin Sumlin three years earlier, he was familiar with the massive challenge that awaited upon his hiring two days before Christmas. Among his top priorities was injecting some fun into the long-suffering program. He hosted players at his home each week and invited famous alumnus Rob Gronkowski to catch a football dropped from a helicopter the day before the spring game.

“We just feel like we have to make a family atmosphere,” Fisch said, “we have to create a culture where kids love playing here, kids want to be a part of it and kids know that it’s going to be a great place to be.”

Here’s some help planning your Saturday viewing, college football fans. Big games include No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 21 Texas and No. 4 Penn State at No. 3 Iowa.

Facilities were upgraded, the football staff overhauled, the culture revamped. Core principles became respect, accountability, competition and joy. The immediate goal was to become the hardest team on its opponents’ schedules.

Arizona is closer than its record would indicate, having gained more offensive yardage than three of its first four opponents. A flurry of turnovers and an inability to execute in critical situations — the Wildcats failed to score a touchdown in four trips into the red zone against Brigham Young — have doomed the team.

A breakthrough seemed possible late last month. Arizona trailed then-No. 3 Oregon 24-19 early in the fourth quarter before quarterback Jordan McCloud logged the last two of his five interceptions, continuing the team’s pattern of infuriating mistakes.

“I’m hopeful that what our guys see is that if you do things right,” Fisch said, “good things will occur, but until you keep from losing, you’re not going to be able to win.”

Winning big is going to require significantly upgrading the talent. A coaching staff that includes additional UCLA ties with defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker, quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty and graduate assistant Darren Andrews has amassed what could be the best recruiting haul in nearly a decade.

Arizona’s class of 2022 is currently ranked fourth in the Pac-12 by 247 Sports, putting it on track to be in the upper half of the conference for the first time since it was sixth in 2014.

Fisch knows this is going to take time. He said he wanted to get his team to the point where it has 20 returning starters, like Kelly’s Bruins. More symmetry involving UCLA would be welcome Saturday for a team that last posted a home victory on Sept. 28, 2019 — against the Bruins.

“We’re just trying to build this thing block by block, piece by piece, brick by brick,” said Fisch, still assembling a foundation that could be his greatest trick of all.