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Kish and tell it like it is: Arizona’s win is all about interim head coach

Winning coaches like Tim Kish sometime get to talk to ESPN's Jenn Brown after games. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

Tim Kish says it’s not about Tim Kish.

But the rest of this Arizona Wildcats football season is a lot about Tim Kish, even as he tries to share the credit with players, assistants and the guy he replaced at midseason amid difficult circumstances — the fired Mike Stoops.

Kish wasn’t even a minute into his remarks at a news conference following a football-is-fun-again 48-12 victory over UCLA on Thursday night before he gave a tip of the hat to Stoops.

“This is certainly a tribute to the foundation he built here,” Kish said. “I know our kids had him in mind as they came out here tonight.”

Maybe so, and rightly so, but it was Kish who stood on that foundation and crammed an offseason’s worth of scheme changes and confidence-building and culture-changing into 10 days before the UCLA game.

It was Kish who brought in Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller and former NBA player and head coach John Lucas to speak to the players, to challenge them, to inspire them.

It was Kish who ripped a page from Arizona’s past and instilled, if only for a game, the old double-eagle flex scheme that was the staple of the Desert Swarm years.

It was Kish who changed up practices, adding more “chaos” — game-like situations and sudden changes.

It was Kish who was smiling and patting helmets on the sideline during the game, allowing the players to feed off his positive energy.

For Arizona, change isn’t good just because change is good.

For Arizona, change is good because Tim Kish made it good.

“That was pretty special,” linebacker Paul Vassallo about getting a win for Kish, who, in addition to his interim head coaching duties, is still the linebackers coach and defensive coordinator.

“We know, from the linebackers perspective, he was all over the place this week. That man, I don’t think, has been busier in his life. We all saw that a little bit more than the rest of the team.

“I asked him on the sideline, ‘Are you having fun yet?’ He was like, ‘Not yet, this one isn’t over.’ But I know this one meant a lot to him. I know it was special for the linebackers to give this one to him.”

So, Kish, at age 57, in his 36th season of coaching, is 1-0 as a head coach.

“This has been a very emotional 10 days for us,” Kish said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way the seniors stepped up and provided ownership of this team, and the way this team rallied around each other.”

Kish let the offensive staff do what it wanted to do, and the coaches on that side of the ball worked out a new plan to script plays for the beginning of the game, instead of just calling plays on the fly. Arizona started fast for the first time in a non-NAU game this season, scoring a touchdown on its first possession, and its second, and third … fourth … fifth … sixth.

“We ran those plays a lot in practice, and we had a good idea of what we were going to do,” said center Kyle Quinn.

“That first quarter and first half was an unreal feeling. That was definitely a lot of fun. We definitely played looser tonight.”

Kish let assistant coach Jeff Hammerschmidt, who has been embattled as the special teams coordinator, teach him some of the finer points of the old Desert Swarm scheme. Hammer was a defensive assistant through those good ol’ defense days of the early 1990s, when it was sometimes easier to measure rushing yards against Arizona in inches as opposed to yards.

Tim Kish congratulates linebacker Derek Earls (40) after a defensive stop in the second quarter. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona, which had been allowing nearly 200 rushing yards per game, yielded just 37 yards to a team whose stated identity is that of a downhill running team.

“It was a lot of fun,” Vassallo said of playing the scheme, which is more aggressive up front and lets the corners be in man coverage, a departure from Stoops’ bend-but-don’t-break philosophy.

“We all kind of felt like we were out on the playground again, little kids. We all had fun doing it.”

There’s that word again. Fun.

Fun. Fun. Fun.

The Wildcats had it for one night because Tim Kish let them have it.

And now the final five weeks of the season no longer seem like a force-march through football’s valley of death. There’s life in this team, even if it is only 2-5.

“I had one wish for them when we left the team meeting at the hotel, and that is I just wanted them to enjoy playing the game again,” Kish said. “I think that wish we came true.”

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