- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tim Kish's responsibilities at Arizona are: "Interim Head Coach, Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers."
That's a lot of coaching hats. And work. And it's hard not to belabor the pyrrhic reward of "interim." But let's bracket off for a moment the circumstances and the uncertain future for a 57-year-old coaching lifer.
Here Kish is: A head coach for the first time. And he and Stanford's David Shaw give the Pac-12 two undefeated head coaches, something no other conference can boast.
Kish, easygoing and mellow, is almost an exact opposite of the man he replaced, the hyper-intense Mike Stoops. His first goal after taking over, he said, was to make football fun again for the Wildcats, who were mired in a 10-game losing streak against FBS foes when Stoops was fired. The second was accountability. The remainder of the season would only be what Arizona -- players and coaches -- made of it.
"The pride thing I thought was a given. It really wasn't addressed," he said. "We tried to block out all the noise and the distractions and asked the seniors to take ownership of this team. In the big picture, all we had was each other. That was the message. That's been the mantra going forward."
That mantra worked in Game 1: an impressive and dominant 48-12 whipping of UCLA.
Further, Kish was willing to improvise on the fly.
He gave the offensive coaches complete control of their unit, and they handed over some play-calling responsibility to quarterback Nick Foles. All that did was produce 42 points in the first half, a program record against a conference foe. He handed over the kicking duties -- a position that had been horrible for two years -- to walk-on John Bonano, who didn't miss a kick. And he changed the Wildcats' defensive scheme, adopting the old double-eagle flex the program used during the glory days of the Desert Swarm in the 1990s. UCLA, which entered the game averaging 194.5 yards rushing per game, produced 37 and just 1.5 yards per carry.
Kish said he and assistant Jeff Hammerschmidt, a former Wildcats defensive back and assistant coach during the Desert Swarm era under Dick Tomey, liked the idea of using a defense that was more aggressive and required less thinking.
"It doesn't have all the rules and regulations a lot of standard defenses have," he said. "It gave our guys a little boost."
Of course, a season isn't one game. The Wildcats know that as well as anybody. Further, they head to Washington on Saturday with major personnel issues they didn't have last week: Four players are suspended for their role in a brawl with UCLA just before halftime. All four are from a secondary that already lost two starters to injury. Cornerback Shaquille Richardson and nickelback Jourdon Grandon are suspended for the entire game; cornerback Lyle Brown and strong safety Mark Watley are suspended for the first half.
While Richardson is the only starter, things are still going to be tough against a Huskies passing offense led by quarterback Keith Price and a deep crew of receivers. Price leads the Pac-12 with 22 touchdown passes and ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency.
Kish called the suspensions "justified," but they are a major blow to a unit that ranks last in the conference in pass efficiency defense.
"We're not sure how it's all going to fit together on Saturday," he said.
But what if it does fit together? What if Kish leads the Wildcats to a major turnaround after a 1-5 start and, perhaps, a bowl game? Does that put him in position to have the "interim" removed from his title?
Probably not. Kish doesn't have any illusions of where he likely stands in athletic director Greg Byrne's coaching search.
"I knew what my place was when I was hired to take over this position," Kish said. "My patented answer to everybody who asks that question is I am not auditioning for the head coaching job."
If that's the case, then he and the rest of the staff face an uncertain future in December. While a couple of assistants might be retained, if Byrne hires a veteran or "name" head coach, he'll likely have a pretty good idea how he'll fill out his nine-man staff.
In other words: Merry Christmas! You're fired.
And this is undoubtedly a distraction. Kish and his assistants are coaching and recruiting -- work that demands long hours -- but they've also got to prepare their résumés and renew old coaching contacts in anticipation of shortly needing a new job.
"That's always tough. This situation pulls at a lot of heartstrings," Kish said. "That somewhere down the road will need to be addressed. But I've asked them to keep engaged with our players and keep the focus on the game plan."
This isn't Kish's first square dance. He's been a coach 36 years -- 34 in college, two in high school -- and worked at eight different programs before landing at Arizona in 2004 when Stoops hired him as linebackers coach. He's worked for, among others, Jim Young, Gary Barnett and Gerry DiNardo, each of whom had success and failure as head coaches. He's been a good soldier, a players' coach. And he's shown a lot of grace by repeatedly paying tribute to the positive things Stoops accomplished -- which is plenty, by the way -- instead of tweaking him.
But the "grieving" period -- his term -- has ended. Kish has too much to do to spend time looking back.
"It's a scar that lasts, but we needed to put it to rest," he said. "We needed to put that first half of the season to rest as well."
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