TUCSON, Ariz. — As James Slade Jr., a freshman studying physiology, sat in the University of Arizona student section Saturday night watching another football game gone wrong, he wasn’t thinking much about the missed tackles, the wayward passes or the other shortcomings that added up to the Wildcats’ 17th consecutive defeat.
Instead, he was enchanted by the green grass, wondering how it would feel under his feet.
“That’s all I was thinking about — how great it would be to be down there,” Slade said.
And so there Slade was three nights later, among 59 hopefuls who turned up for an open tryout Tuesday to join the Wildcats in the middle of what has become another trying season. Maybe sitting somewhere in a psychology class was a future Patrick Mahomes waiting to be discovered — or even just a willing tackling dummy who might be useful in practice.
They arrived with varying ambitions, one with a skateboard tucked under his arm and another with a mouthful of gold teeth, and came in all shapes, sizes and even genders — though five women who stood in line were turned away and told they did not have the proper paperwork.
Asked what position she had hoped to play, Rachel Shamblott, a 5-foot-6, 135-pound freshman from Minneapolis, smiled and said: “Tight end — like Gronk.” (The All-Pro tight end and merrymaker Rob Gronkowski was an Arizona star.)
Two former high school soccer players said they were inspired by Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt soccer goalie who kicked for her university’s football team last year, to great acclaim. One of them, Nicole, a senior from Dana Point, Calif., who asked that her last name not be used, pointed to a loss last month to Northern Arizona, which plays in the lower tier Football Championship Subdivision. “Honestly, they couldn’t be any worse,” she said of the Wildcats.
That may not quite be true.
The Wildcats’ rock-bottom moment came last December when they were humiliated by rival Arizona State, 70-7. Kevin Sumlin was fired as coach within hours and replaced by Jedd Fisch, 45, a peripatetic career assistant who immediately began trying to nuzzle up to a community that was lukewarm over his arrival. He held video conferences with hundreds of former Arizona players — and became one of their biggest employers: former stars Ricky Hunley, Chuck Cecil, Brandon Sanders are assistants, and Tedy Bruschi, when he isn’t in ESPN studios, serves as a senior adviser.
Fisch was everywhere — on podcasts, TV shows, radio broadcasts, Twitter and around town speaking to boosters — trying to generate interest, even rolling down fraternity row before the home opener to hand out T-shirts. He helped generate $6 million that has already been spent renovating the football facilities.
The Wildcats (0-5) have been competitive against ninth-ranked Oregon and U.C.L.A., but what looked like a tangible opportunity to end the nation’s longest losing streak on Saturday at Colorado (1-4) became more remote when quarterback Jordan McCloud was lost for the season with a leg injury against U.C.L.A.
Thus, there are more than 50 players who have never experienced a generational ritual of Arizona football: singing “Bear Down” in the locker room after a victory — an anthem that Hunley, who was an All-America at Arizona, had to teach so many of them this summer.
Football tryouts are not unusual on college campuses, but they are almost always in the off-season or at the start of camp if teams have not reached the 120-player roster limit. When Fisch was an assistant at Miami, fliers were posted asking any student on the South Florida campus at least 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds to contact the football office about playing. But that was in March. A similar tryout occurred when Fisch was an assistant at Michigan — but that was in January.
If a tryout happens during the season, it is seen as a cry for help.
“The optics weren’t great,” said Barrett Baker, who earned a spot in a walk-on tryout and eventually was a special teams captain on the 1998 team that set a school record with 12 wins.
Fisch said the reality is more nuanced. He had planned to hold tryouts earlier this year but wanted to wait until his team was fully vaccinated, which it was by mid-August. At that point, there were no roster spots. When he lost two players to the transfer portal in September, a tryout notice was posted on Twitter.
Fisch said the decision to make the open tryout closed to reporters — who are allowed to attend portions of practice — was not to tamp down on publicity, but was consistent with what he said will be his practice of keeping high school camps closed.
“I feel bad it was interpreted negatively because there was nothing negative,” Fisch said of the tryout, adding that it was a way to give back to a university that has thus far been supportive. “It was just was there a great high school player who planned on being part of a tryout in January? Maybe there’s a big body, a track guy or a kicker who might help you next year.”
Fisch did not attend the tryout. A handful of assistants checked the prospects in, gave them numbered practice jerseys (which were returned afterward) and evaluated mostly their speed in a 40-yard dash, their agility in a shuttle drill and their skill for receivers and quarterbacks in running some routes. The whole exercise lasted an hour.
Watching outside was Dylan Davis, a receiver at Sacramento State who entered the transfer portal after his season was canceled last year. He had driven 500 miles from his home in Long Beach, Calif., even though the tryout was only open to Arizona students. “Sometimes a coach will let you in if they know how bad you want it,” Davis said as he paced outside the gates of the stadium.
Among those inside was Jonathan Allen, a freshman from Reedy, Texas, who is only 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds and tore ligaments in both knees in high school, but had few doubts that he could earn a spot. “It’s hard to get looks when you’re my size, but if you’ve got speed, hands and run good routes, you have a chance,” he said.
Also full of confidence was Justin Akinsipe, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound junior who grew up in Kulmbach, Germany, and played defensive back at Mesa Community College in Arizona. He was encouraged to try out by Roberto Miranda, a fellow German who is a freshman tight end for Arizona. “This is not me doing a hobby,” he said. “I’m dedicated and I know I’m good enough.”
As he said goodbye to a reporter, Akinsipe’s assuredness against long odds had not dimmed, which in one way at least seemed to make him a reasonable candidate for a team that needs a deep reservoir of belief.
“It’s going to be a big story someday,” Akinsipe said of his journey. “This will be a crazy story.”
It may be someday, but on Wednesday, Fisch, sitting in his plush office, said no one who tried out would be added to the team.