The Star’s Michael Lev and Justin Spears present five storylines of interest as the Arizona Wildcats face NAU on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. The game will air on Pac-12 Networks.
Lance Briggs returns to UA as broadcaster, recalls ‘dark time’ under John Mackovic
Since retiring from football in 2014, former Arizona Wildcat and All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs has gone fishing and on intense hunting trips and traveled around the world.
Briggs’ latest adventure? Wearing a three-piece suit and broadcasting headset at hold old stomping grounds. Briggs will serve as the color analyst on Pac-12 Arizona for the Wildcats’ final nonconference game against NAU.
Briggs can relate to the current Wildcats’ woes. He began his UA career under Dick Tomey and finished it under John Mackovic, who posted a 10-18 record from 2001-03.
Briggs spoke to the Star’s Justin Spears on ESPN Tucson this week about his time at the UA and what led him to become a broadcaster. Here’s an excerpt from the interview, which can also be listened to on The Wildcast Podcast:
What inspired you to enter the broadcasting booth and become an analyst?
A: “Playing at the U of A and playing in the NFL for 12 years was a dream. One of the things that I really coveted after I retired was to be a part of U of A athletics in a different way. This right here is a part of my dream, and this opportunity is big for me. I’m going back home to Tucson and cover a U of A football game. What more can you want?”
What is your impression on what Jedd Fisch has done so far since taking over as head coach?
A: “I understand that this is a tall task for Coach Fisch to turn this program around, and it’s not going to happen overnight. This is something that is a process, and as much as Arizona alums and Arizona faithful want to see wins now, that’s just not the way it’s going to work.
“This is going to take some time. Fisch comes in to change the culture right away. But the culture won’t be changed until the next 3-4 years.”
How would you reflect on your time as a Wildcat?
A: “Oh man. That was a dark time. I came in under Dick Tomey, and I like to remember the times that he helped recruit me to the school. To me, it was always known as a defensive school.
“The character of a man tells you who you are, and I was surrounded by good men and good coaches. Obviously, with the firing of Dick Tomey, it brought in John Mackovic, and that was a whole different page and a (test) for myself and the rest of (my) teammates at the time. It was a learning experience, and probably not the best experience for a lot of us.
“We went from Dick Tomey and competing to win the (Pac-10) to winning minimal games. ... You want to talk about a big culture shock? That was a big culture shock for us.”
How much did you think about transferring after the coaching change?
A: “I was going to transfer when Tomey was fired. I referred to those who I’m closest with and my teammates, and my thought process was, ‘Whoever comes in, I don’t know who it’ll be, but it couldn’t be that bad.’
“I kept hoping that something positive was going to happen. Regardless if the experience under Mackovic was a good one or not, things worked out for me. It didn’t work out for everybody, but it certainly worked out for me.
“We had to fight through some tough times. But it’s tough to say that I regret any of those decisions because I don’t. Those are all the makings of who I am.”
Jedd Fisch continues to focus on process, but patience is thinning as skid continues
Trust the process.
That phrase became famous when the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers went about rebuilding their franchise. Their general manager at the time, Sam Hinkie, focused almost exclusively on accumulating assets — including the high draft picks that come with finishing near the bottom of the standings.
First-year Arizona coach Jedd Fisch is asking the same of his players and the Wildcat faithful. As he conceded after last week’s loss to San Diego State — Arizona’s 14th in a row, a school record and the nation’s longest active skid — “if anybody thought this was gonna be easy, they're out of their mind.”
Fisch knows what he’s up against. So does Steve Kerr. Kerr, who served as the honorary captain for the SDSU game, reminded the team that the UA basketball program wasn’t always a juggernaut. Coming off a 4-24 record in 1982-83, the Wildcats went 11-17 in Lute Olson’s first season. The following year, they were off and running.
“We're building something, brick by brick,” Fisch said. “We understand the undertaking that we have all chosen to be a part of and are extremely excited about it.”
But it’s clear the losing streak is starting to weigh on Fisch and his players to some degree. For the first time since he became the UA coach, Fisch discussed the program’s recent struggles at length.
“We have to get out of the rut of losing,” he said. “We can't ever accept it. Our guys haven’t accepted it. But it's been a while around here (since) we've won. We've had one winning season since 2015.”
Fisch then rattled off Arizona’s records in each succeeding year: 3-9, 7-6, 5-7, 4-8, 0-5. The Wildcats are currently 0-2. It’s difficult to remain patient and let the process play out, especially when, unlike the NBA, there’s no reward for losing.
“I can't wait to get our first victory and get that cloud lifted, and then from that point on, go ahead and just play ball,” Fisch said. “I know that that's what we're going to do.”
Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll was asked if the team needed to see results at some point to validate the process, which has included changing not only Arizona’s roster but its culture. He responded with an emphatic “yes.”
“But the process is ongoing,” Carroll conceded. “It will continue to be ongoing. However long it takes, that's what we're here for.”
Carroll added that the Wildcats are “ready for some good things to happen soon.” If the losing streak happens to end against an FCS team in NAU, so be it.
“We need to find a way,” Fisch said, “to get off of that streak, start building this thing, start winning some ballgames. I think our guys recognize that and want to do that
“I would love to see our team be able to see all of that hard work end in a positive. And really the only positive would be ending with more points than the other team. Moral victories are not for us.”
Bracket buster: How Arizona WR Tayvian Cunningham beat double coverage for a 54-yard gain
Tayvian Cunningham made it sound routine.
It was anything but.
Arizona’s longest play of the season also might have had the highest degree of difficulty. Cunningham’s 54-yard reception from Will Plummer against San Diego State came against bracket coverage. Two Aztec defenders bumped Cunningham as the ball was sailing toward them. He made the catch anyway.
“It's a play I made in practice,” the senior receiver said matter-of-factly. “I knew where the ball was gonna come, and I just adjusted and made the catch.”
UA offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said the grab was “a little Tyler Lockett-ish,” referring to the diminutive Seattle Seahawks receiver who excels at contorting his body to make downfield receptions.
“It was a great catch,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. “You have got to be concentrating throughout the entire (play), not just your route but finding it between two bodies. And then be able to hold on to it.”
Cunningham said the two defensive backs, Cedarious Barfield and Noah Tumblin, were more worried about him than the ball — even though, at the last instant, Barfield tried to catch it too. It appeared to slip through his hands.
Jostled and off balance, Cunningham snared the ball as he crashed to the turf. The successful outcome had little to do with technique.
“I just wanted to catch the ball more than they did,” Cunningham said.
From Chandler to Evanston to Tucson, pair of Wildcats have proved inseparable
Most recruiting “package deals” involve classmates who play on the same side of the ball.
A running back and a safety who graduated two years apart from each other? That’s an oddity.
But Drake Anderson and Gunner Maldonado have been friends and teammates for years. If one was going to come back home, so was the other.
On Jan. 4, it came to be. Both players announced they were transferring from Northwestern to Arizona. The Chandler High School reunion tour would be making a stop in Tucson.
“Once we knew that we both were maybe looking elsewhere,” Maldonado said, “we kind of joked around: 'We're a package deal. We need to go somewhere together.'”
Jedd Fisch’s rebuilding project held considerable appeal. The UA offered immediate playing time. Fisch also wanted to boost in-state recruiting. Several other former Arizona high school standouts followed Anderson and Maldonado’s lead.
“It was almost like a conversation about two (players),” Fisch recalled. “It wasn't really one guy. It was more like, ‘Hey, Coach: We want to come help you. We feel like we can be a part of something special. We want to come back home.”
Anderson has split time at tailback with Michael Wiley. The shifty fourth-year sophomore has 71 scrimmage yards on 19 touches.
Maldonado made his first career start last week. The second-year freshman has 10 tackles, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
Maldonado climbed the depth chart during training camp after missing much of spring practice because of a hamstring injury.
“Every time you get injured — because in football, you're gonna get injured — it makes you appreciate being on the field a lot more,” he said. “It just gave me a chance to learn the defense more, cheer on my guys, get mentally prepared and get my body right.”
NAU’s roster features four players from Chandler High School, including Maldonado’s good friend, Nehemiah Magalei, a second-year defensive tackle.
The biggest losers: Wildcats look to unsubscribe from this list
When Kansas defeated South Dakota State in Week 1, and Arizona came up short against BYU, the UA jumped to the top of a dubious list:
The Wildcats became the owners of the longest active losing streak in FBS.
Arizona will try to snap that 14-game skid against NAU. These teams also are trying to end losing streaks of at least seven games:
• UMass 13
• Louisiana-Monroe 12
• Bowling Green 10
• South Florida 10
• UNLV 8
• UConn 7
• Navy 7