Graham moving fast to implement plan
TEMPE, Ariz. — The play over, Arizona State's players switch places at a full sprint as coach Todd Graham screams, “Let's go! Let's go!”
A flash of jerseys crisscross the field, swapping places as the assistant coaches follow Graham's lead and scream speed-it-up encouragement, occasionally giving a sluggish player a swat on the back with a baseball cap.
Despite aching knees, the coach prowls the field nonstop, hooting and hollering when someone makes a play that pleases him, yelling with that Texas drawl of his when they don't.
If it seems Graham's in a hurry, he is.
In a hurry to get his players used to his fast-paced offense in time for next season; to instill some discipline in a program that's been lacking it; to make it relevant in a crowded sports market; to prove to everyone at the university, in the Phoenix area, and across the country that's he going to stick around this time.
“When you're a new coach, the thing you're fighting most is time,” Graham said from his office overlooking the field at Sun Devil Stadium.
Graham was hired on Dec. 14 to replace Dennis Erickson, the latest in a line of coaches who had failed to live up to expectations in the desert.
Graham was not a particularly popular hire to the Arizona State fan base, in part because the process appeared to be botched. The school reportedly was interested in Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, who backed out after Texas A&M fired Mike Sherman, and an all-but-done deal with SMU's June Jones fell through at the last minute.
More than bitterness about what didn't happen, supporters were concerned about Graham's background. He was perceived as a coach who couldn't follow through because he had bounced around, and the last thing Arizona State fans wanted was for their football program to be a stepping stone to someplace else.
A former high school coach in Texas, Graham was an assistant under current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia and to Steve Kragthorpe at Tulsa before landing his first head job at Rice in 2006.
Graham was named Conference-USA coach of the year with the Owls, but was gone after one season, leaving for Tulsa just days after signing a contract extension with Rice.
After three bowl wins in four years at Tulsa, Graham left the Golden Hurricane to become the coach at Pitt in 2011, believing it was a step up. But after one mediocre season, Graham was on the move again, this time to take the job at Arizona State.
The bouncing around sent up red flags to ASU's fans, particularly after there were reports Graham told Pitt's players he was leaving via text message.
Graham had no problem convincing ASU's administration that he was headed to the desert for the long haul, telling them that, other than the move to Pitt, he had always taken a better job and better situation for his family.
“I talked to him about his moving around because we needed to understand that before we can make him an offer,” Arizona State president Michael Crow said. “I felt that he gave reasonable and fair explanations for his personal circumstances and the conditions at the universities he was at. We didn't sign him up because we thought he was going run off, we signed him up because we thought he could be successful and dig in.”
The next step was convincing ASU's fans and boosters that the desert was where he wanted to be.
To do that, he went on the campaign trail, stumping for a job he already had.
Graham has said on numerous occasions that the best way to fill Sun Devil Stadium is to go out and shake hands with 74,000 people. He may already have eclipsed that number five months into the job.
Speaking whenever, wherever and to whomever he could, Graham spent his first few months on the job spreading the word of Arizona State football — to fans, boosters, community leaders, recruits, just about anyone who would listen.
Graham landed a decent recruiting class despite having a short window and has created a buzz around the Sun Devils with his enthusiasm and promises of change in a program that has lacked discipline and wins while struggling to generate interest.
He's also eased the fears that he'll bolt as soon as a another job comes open, making it clear that Arizona State is a destination for him, not a stop-off point to somewhere else.
“I don't think it's right to be a place one year and leave,” said Graham, who has family in the Phoenix area and had been looking at retirement homes in the Valley before the ASU job came open.
“I think you deserve probably some criticism for that, but that wasn't my intention when I went to Pitt. If I made a mistake, it was going from Tulsa to Pitt. If I had it all to do over, I'd have stayed at Tulsa, but I'd be right here at Arizona State.”
For all that he does away from the field, Graham will have to win on it to sustain the buzz he's creating.
Arizona State has a long history of inconsistency, following good stretches with not-so-good ones. The Sun Devils have been in one of those downward trends lately, failing to put together a winning record in four straight seasons.
In a market like Phoenix, that's not going to work.
Over the years, Phoenix has filled with transplants from other parts of the country, so there aren't as many hometown fans as there once was. Except for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, teams have to win in Phoenix to get attention, evident by the recent surge in popularity for the Phoenix Coyotes, who won their first NHL division title and made it to the second round of the playoffs.
Graham has put a plan in place to get the Sun Devils winning right away.
It starts with discipline.
One of the knocks on Erickson was that his players were sometimes reckless and played inconsistently because he was easy on them.
Graham comes from an old-school mode, the emphasis on discipline.
He's put in strict rules about hair length, being on time, going to class. No hats, earrings or headphones allowed in the football offices. Pants pulled up, shirts tucked in. No bandanas, no filthy language.
This is a yes-sir, no-sir operation now — and the players don't seem to mind.
“The biggest thing they've stressed so far is following the rules,” senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. “And believe me, you don't want to break the rules.”
Graham also has tried to bring back tradition to a program that's lacked it in the past.
One of Graham's beliefs is that a program can't have success without it past, that what has happened before is the foundation for what happens now.
To help bridge that gap, he's reached out to former players, invited them to practices, to the spring game, to be on the sidelines during games. As part of a renovation to Sun Devil Stadium, Graham wants to turn the football offices into a museum of sorts, the walls telling the history of Arizona State football.
“I believe that reaching back to the past shows respect to the past, but it also motivates the present,” Graham said. “If we can get those players to come back, they'll know that they're playing for someone other than themselves. We want being a Sun Devil to mean something.”
Rules and tradition are fine, but players still have to make plays.
At Pitt, Graham had a hard time implementing his “high-octane” offense and the team struggled on the field, finishing 6-6.
To keep that from happening at Arizona State, Graham has had his team go through cram sessions of a sort.
Everything at practice is up-tempo, players sprinting to formation, from drill to drill, the coaches constantly screaming for them to move. Plays are called quickly, run quickly.
Even when players are hurt and can't practice, they have go to an area of the practice field known as “Muscle Beach,” where they hit tractor tires with sledge hammers and do a variety of exercises to stay in shape.
With not much time to prepare, Graham is trying to get his players up to speed quickly so they'll be ready for the season opener against Northern Arizona four months from now.
“You've got to win,” Graham said. “I think we can do that here, but it's been a major culture change for our players.”
And not a lot of time to do it in, which is why Graham is in such a hurry.