It took just two years for UA head coach Jedd Fisch to turn a once appalling, one-win Wildcat team into a nearly unstoppable force — a force that took down the mighty Oklahoma Sooners in the Alamo Bowl to cap off a 10-3 season. But it was all for naught as Fisch unexpectedly left it all to become Washington's head coach, stunning the Wildcat faithful and sending shockwaves throughout college football.
However, players typically follow when a successful coach like Fisch leaves a program. ASU head coach Kenny Dillingham needs to capitalize on the chagrin of Wildcats hitting the transfer portal.
It all happened in the blink of an eye — almost a ripple effect. Former Alabama head coach Nick Saban announced his retirement on Jan. 10. Alabama then filled the hole by hiring former Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer on Jan. 12. All of a sudden, Washington had a coaching vacancy, and Fisch’s name was being thrown in the pot.
Yet, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about college football over the years, it’s that money talks.
Washington showed Fisch the money, and he took it: seven years, $54.3 million. This signing perfectly exemplified what college football has become: a cash grab.
“I did not take the decision to come to the University of Washington lightly,” Fisch told Washington reporters. “But once (university president Ana Mari Cauce) and (athletic director Troy Dannen) showed me what is possible in Seattle and what their vision of the future looks like, there was no answer other than yes. It’s not just about Washington football that brought us here.”
The situation only continued to snowball following Fisch's departure. On Monday, UA announced that athletic director Dave Heeke had been fired after hiring Brett Brennan to replace Fisch. Along with the change in personnel, the University has also been vocal about its financial crisis.
The Sun Devils are coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons, undoubtedly their worst stretch in nearly eight decades. Growing up a Valley native, I’ve seen a handful of great players pass through this program; N’Keal Harry, Brandon Aiyuk and Jayden Daniels all come to mind. I’ve seen some pretty good Sun Devil football teams and a handful of mediocre ones.
But nothing this bad.
The program has undoubtedly seen better days. Former coaches Herm Edwards and Antonio Pierce (with the help of a few others) drove the program into the ground amid recruiting violations around COVID-19 restrictions from 2020-21.
Now, Edwards enjoys a full-time gig with ESPN, and Pierce is making headlines with the Las Vegas Raiders, leaving Dillingham with all the baggage. The 32-year-old Valley native is left to rebuild the storied program while the NCAA hasn’t even leveled the team’s sanctions after three years of investigation. The worst may still be to come.
Still, most seem to turn a blind eye to the former Sun Devils' destruction of the program.
All things considered, Dillingham has already done a great job this offseason. He built one of the largest recruiting classes in the country, and the program will welcome 39 additions for the upcoming season. Of the 39 incoming players, 22 are transfers, and 17 are true freshmen.
“We were filling in the cracks rather than laying the cement,” Dillingham told reporters at a press conference on Friday. “It's like round two of painting the wall. If anybody can go paint the wall once, it ain't going to be good. You better go paint it a second time and get all the lines cleaned up, then a third time. And that's kind of how recruiting works.”
Nonetheless, the Sun Devils are in a prime position to take advantage of Fisch’s departure. His fleeing was a sucker punch to the Wildcat faithful, and it can certainly gut Arizona’s roster.
Since Fisch’s departure, 12 Wildcats have entered the transfer portal, nine alone since Jan. 17, when Brent Brennan was announced as Fisch’s replacement in Arizona.
Among those transferring are offensive lineman Raymond Pulido, cornerback Ephesians Prysock and running back Jonah Coleman, who announced his commitment to Washington on Sunday. To Arizona's delight, one of the top offensive duos in the country, quarterback Noah Fifita and receiver Tetairoa McMillan, announced their return to the team despite Fisch's exit.
In addition, numerous Arizona assistant coaches are expected to flock up north, following Fisch to join the Washington staff as the team embarks on a new journey in the Big Ten.
Amid all the drama surrounding Fisch and other coaches nationwide, Dillingham has made it clear that he’s in for the long haul.
“At the end of the day, when you move from here, you're going to want to come back," Dillingham said. "There's a part of you that wants to want to come back. That's part of it. I've done it."
Now, both ASU and UA will be searching for new ADs, and Dillingham has the opportunity to capitalize on the situation through recruiting.
Incoming Sun Devils noticed his commitment; some even picked the Valley as their home because of his adherence. It's a stepping stone for recruiting in years to come. Dillingham's loyalty and Fisch's departure will influence the classes of 2025, 2026 and beyond in their decision to wear maroon/gold or red/blue.
“I went through a coaching change in the past with Coach (Luke) Fickell leaving (Cincinnati) to go to Wisconsin, so being able to know that the coach that I have here wants to be here … It was really important to me in the transfer portal process,” incoming redshirt junior transfer Justin Wodtly said. "It soothes me a little bit, knowing that nobody's going nowhere.”
Things are crazy down south. The clock is ticking; Arizona players have 30 days since Fisch’s departure on Jan. 15 to enter the transfer portal.
It’s evident that Dillingham is looking to get all the players he can get. He strives to have competition in every position. While Jaden Rashada looked like the surefire starting quarterback next year, Dillingham brought in former four-star quarterback Sam Leavitt from Michigan State.
It’s part of the culture he’s working to build here in Tempe.
“At the end of the day, we're going to bring in the best players for this football program in any position. I don't care if we have a sitting first-round draft pick. If there's another first-round draft pick at that position, we'll bring him in,” Dillingham said. “If you think you're not going to compete, you're fooling yourselves. And if you don't think competition makes you better, you're fooling yourselves."
“If you ask any great at anything, in any profession … anything you do in life, if you're scared of competition, there's no way you're going to be great.”
While there's strict competition among the roster, the competition remains strict between ASU and Arizona. It's one of the top rivalries in the country. Both schools have an incredible recruiting history. Both schools have produced incredible NFL talent.
In a state once dominated by Fisch's recruiting, Dillingham and the Sun Devils are now in an advantageous position in the Valley. It fell right into their laps, and Dillingham's loyalty and commitment to his program, unlike Fisch's, will prove pivotal in the recruiting game for years to come.
Edited by Walker Smith, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.
Editor's note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.
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Aaron Schmidt is a sports reporter who covers ASU Baseball and ASU Women’s Golf for The State Press. He previously covered Higley High School football for AZPreps365.