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Flying Fisch: First Impressions of the Huskies’ New Head Coach

Musings on Montlake’s New Head Man

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Arizona at Oklahoma Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It only took two days for the Huskies to hire Kalen DeBoer’s successor in Jedd Fisch, but for those of us living on social media and message boards for the 48 hours, it felt like months. Now that the Dawgs have their next head coach in place, here are a few initial thoughts about the process, the coach, and what comes next.

1. Fisch was clearly in the search from the beginning, but he is not the candidate I expected.

We have watched enough coaching searches play out over the last few years that you start to understand the predictable beats of the search. Agents feed candidate names to reporters. These tweets give us an idea of the field of potential candidates. The ones with the most initial noise around them usually end up getting raises and extensions at their own schools because their agents were the ones making noise to connect them to the opening. The eventual hire usually comes from the initial pool, but is one without as much immediate noise because the program and candidate are both incentivized to work through the negotiations privately.

I did not think Fisch was a serious candidate because there was significant buzz around him as soon as UW’s coaching position opened up. His (or his agent’s) public posturing looked more like an angle to get a raise at Arizona- who was paying him less than the market rate for an AP top-15 coach- than the behavior of someone in ongoing negotiations. I expected someone quietly connected to the job- Lance Leipold or Chris Klieman- to emerge late in the process when they were finalizing contract details. There was late buzz around Matt Campbell, who has not matched his early success in the last two seasons but otherwise fit the profile, though that subsided quickly. Leipold and Klieman both announced that they are staying (not that they had turned down offers, meaningfully) shortly before the Fisch hiring was finalized.

There are reasons that Fisch makes the most sense of this group. He has more experience on the West Coast. His offensive philosophy is more aligned with Washington’s program than the run-heavy schemes from all three Midwest candidates. He is young, had an affordable buyout, and has outstanding connections through the college and pro coaching worlds. Frankly, I was not sure he would be interested in the job with a possible CFP-roster returning as Arizona moves to the Big 12. For all of these reasons, I think he is a very strong hire. Reading the tea leaves through the process just didn’t make me think he would be the guy.

2. Best wishes to Ryan Grubb, who did not have the resume of a serious candidate for this job at this time.

Grubb seems like a legitimately good guy and an outstanding offensive mind. I was skeptical of him getting the OC job coming from Fresno St., but he blew my expectations out of the water. Even so, I had no interest in his candidacy for the head coaching job after DeBoer announced his departure.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Media Day-Washington Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The first reason is related to Jimmy Lake but not because of Jimmy Lake. There were reports that UW was not interested in hiring a first-time HC due to the horrible experience of Lake’s short tenure. To me, the aversion has less to do with Lake himself than the lessons learned from his rapid promotion. Like Lake, Grubb has proven that he is an excellent offensive play-caller. There is nothing in his resume to show that he knows how to build, maintain, and develop a staff of assistants. He has never led and executed a program-wide recruiting strategy through a single cycle, let alone long enough to build a program. He has not had responsibilities for building programmatic relationships with donors, media, coaches, families, and trainers. The list goes on and on. Play-calling was one of the most important abilities in his OC job. It probably doesn’t crack the top 10 as a HC. And we have no information on how he would do in those areas.

The second reason is that the normal desire for program continuity doesn’t seem so appealing in this case. When you promote an assistant, you’re hoping to keep the same culture and hold onto as many players as possible. In this case, DeBoer’s speedy exit after the National Championship Game appearance engendered a great deal of frustration and animosity from the incumbent players. Snake emojis, “smh” tweets, and even tearful videos popped up across social media. Is that the culture the program would want to maintain? Would Grubb even be able to keep a roster together with a message of unity and family after his closest associate undermined those principles?

3. The coaching carousel is part of college football right now.

Probably the biggest argument against Fisch’s candidacy was the risk that he would bolt for another job in the next 2-3 years. With Fisch’s alma mater Florida struggling under the leadership of Billy Napier, the immediate question is whether he would be a top candidate for that position as soon as a year from now. The other side of the coin is that coaches leaving for bigger jobs typically means that they have succeeded in their previous role. Almost no program is immune to the risk. Oregon has lost multiple coaches to other schools in recent years, but has improved from Mark Helfrich to Willie Taggert to Mario Cristobal to Dan Lanning. Notre Dame lost Brian Kelly to a better opportunity. Michigan continues to confront NFL rumors for Jim Harbaugh while they celebrate their National Championship.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban spent almost two decades at Alabama and that is an extreme outlier. Miami has had five full-time coaches since 2010. Oho State has had four (counting Luke Fickell’s full season as an interim). LSU has had three, as have Florida State and Penn State. The schools that haven’t had head coach drama while remaining in national contention have been Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia.

If Fisch averages 9-10 wins per year at Washington and leaves in three years, it will be hard to say he was anything other than a roaring success in the transition to the Big 10. If he averages 7-8 wins per year, he likely won’t be in contention for another job. We have yet to see the buyout clause in Fisch’s contract, but given the length and Fisch’s reputation, I assume that it will be a very large number. In the current college football environment, that’s the best you can hope for.

4. Washington was not going to upgrade its scheme, but it might have upgraded its recruiting.

Fisch has worked with a laundry list of HOF-caliber coaches. He has developed an offensive scheme that is modern and very effective. He likes zone blocking, play-action, and lots of movement. It’s a good system that ranked 34th in FEI in 2022 and 12th last year with limited premier talent. Expecting to capture lighting in a bottle like DeBoer and Grubb did with Michael Penix, three elite receivers, and a Moore Award-winning offensive line cannot be considered a realistic baseline going forward. I am confident in Fisch’s X’s and O’s ability.

The secret sauce in Washington’s 2023 season may have been the chemistry. The attitude of unfinished business and self-belief was a hallmark of DeBoer’s approach. Whether he will be able to engender the same sense of loyalty after his most recent move is a fair question, but that does not change how well it worked on Montlake. Can Fisch build the same sort of culture and chemistry? Can he cultivate leaders within the roster? Those are unanswered questions, though the 2023 Arizona team certainly went on a run where players came together to play above their talent level, which is a good sign.

The area where Fisch might actually surpass the DeBoer staff is in recruiting. Fisch took over a horrible Arizona roster and immediately started to bring in much better talent. Arizona has never been a magnet for top talent. Even coming off of a tough season on the field in his first year, Fisch pulled together a recruiting class that ranked in the top 25 by the 247 Composite. Tetairoa McMillan was the jewel of the class and has lived up to his reputation so far. Fisch has drawn from big Southern California programs and the relationships he has built there will serve him well at UW. He has secured talented transfers from schools like Georgia, Oregon, Tennessee, USC, and Michigan. We will learn more about Fisch’s specific approach in recruiting in the coming months, but it is clear that he has a message that resonates with high-end talent. If he pairs that with success at UW, it could raise the talent level in a meaningful way.

5. Fisch’s staff will be extremely critical.

One of the early rumors in the UW coaching search came from a dinner between Pete Carroll and Troy Dannen. While the initial speculation had to do with Carroll himself coaching the Dawgs, it appears that the meal had more to do with vetting Fisch via Carroll’s son Brennan, who is Fisch’s OC at Arizona. The early presumption has been that Carroll will join Fisch in Seattle with at least a few assistants, though that remains unconfirmed and could change if he receives an offer for the HC position.

I am even more interested in the defensive coaching staff. The reason for Arizona’s breakout in 2023 was that the defense improved from 123rd to 21st in defensive FEI from the previous season. Former UW assistant Johnny Nansen was the DC responsible for the turnaround and he has taken a Co-DC role at Texas. Nansen’s resume is checkered enough that I would not necessarily trust him with the job at UW anyway.

NCAA Football: Arizona at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

UW anticipated a significantly higher outlay for coaching salaries in 2024 had they kept DeBoer and company. DeBoer was offered somewhere in the neighborhood of $9m for his own salary and the assistant pool likely would have taken that number over $12m cumulatively. While UW probably will not spend as much on coaches as they would have to keep the previous staff together, the difference between DeBoer and Grubb would make and what Fisch and (possibly) Carroll will make should create some room in the budget for a high-end DC. Given the past struggles on that side in Fisch’s program, I will be following that search with a watchful eye.

6. The Jayden de Laura situation impacts Fisch’s reputation.

Over the summer of 2023, details about a sexual assault case against QB Jayden de Laura became publicized. Neither de Laura nor Fisch spoke publicly about the case until Pac-12 media day. When Fisch did speak, his response left a lot to be desired. He said that the coaches did due diligence on the allegations but could not get much information from the authorities because the case was sealed. He did not express any sympathy or support for the victim. He did not say anything about de Laura’s attitude or growth on the subject. My own impression of the comments was that he just wanted the discussion to go away so he could get his QB back on the field.

Maybe it’s not fair to Fisch, but this occurrence has been the first thing that has come to my mind every time I have thought about him since it happened. I hope he has learned from the situation and will develop as a more thoughtful and compassionate leader. My own mental reconciliation is that I will cheer for the Huskies, but I likely won’t have the same type of fandom directed specifically at the coach that I had in the Chris Petersen and Kalen DeBoer eras.

Poll

Will Jedd Fisch take Washington to the 12-team CFP in his tenure as Head Coach/

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  • 74%
    Yes
    (1022 votes)
  • 25%
    No
    (358 votes)
1380 votes total Vote Now