Former Pitt football coach Graham relishes success at Arizona State
TEMPE, Ariz. — Sitting in a sparse office that still had pictures leaning against the wall, coach Todd Graham spoke about changing the culture at Arizona State, of adding discipline to a program in need of a healthy dose.
That was in April, just after his first spring game as the Sun Devils' coach.
Nine months later, the former Pitt coach's office looked more like an entertainment lounge, with a huge TV hanging in the corner, massive leather recliners and colorful photos hanging on the walls.
After an eight-win season that included a comeback over rival Arizona and a bowl blowout, the program he took over has that new and improved look, too.
“I think, no doubt, we have laid a solid foundation,” Graham said. “I don't think it's dry yet, so by no means have we arrived yet, but I am very proud of where we're at.”
Graham was faced with a daunting task when he arrived in the desert, taking over a program with a history of mediocrity on the field and apathy from its fan base.
Stumping like a politician, Graham spoke to anyone who would listen to pump up interest in the Sun Devils, promoting his plan to turn them into winners with an exciting but disciplined brand of football.
He backed it up once the season started.
Led by dynamic sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly, the Sun Devils rode Graham's high-octane offense to a 5-1 start and rallied from a four-game losing streak to win their final three games, including two big punctuation marks to end the season.
The first came against Arizona in the regular-season finale, when Arizona State rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Wildcats, 41-34, and capture the Territorial Cup, one of Graham's top priorities for the season.
The Sun Devils capped that emotional victory with a momentum-for-next-year win at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco by steamrolling Navy, 62-28, for their first bowl victory since the 2005 Insight Bowl.
“We go on that four-game losing streak and you hear Arizona State football is cratering again, but I never once saw any bad body language from our players,” Graham said. “I never saw any of our guys flinch, question anything that we were asking them to do, and that's how I know we got to their hearts, really built some trust. I was impressed by that.”
That trust might be Graham's biggest accomplishment, not what his team did in the standings.
Under previous coach Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils were known as a loosely reined bunch waiting to commit the next personal foul.
Once Graham arrived, he turned it into a yes-sir, no-sir operation, installing a dress code, a prohibition on cursing, no hats, earrings or headphones allowed in the football offices.
Graham's players bought into it wholeheartedly, going from worst in the Pac-12 in penalties to best with 30 fewer penalties than the next closest team, Stanford.
“If you would have come in here screaming, ‘Sit down, shut up, take your earring out,' I think you would have had a lot of pushback,” Graham said. “Our philosophy is not that. We treat these guys like young men. You act like a 13-year-old, we're going to treat you like a 13-year-old. But we asked them, ‘When you come into the building, would you take that earring out?' as a physical gesture that this isn't about you, it's about team.”
Even with success, Graham couldn't escape questions about his loyalty to the program.
After short stints in previous coaching stops, particularly his one-year run at Pitt, the perception was that Graham was a coach who wouldn't stick around for the long haul, someone who would bolt if a better opportunity presented itself.
Graham assuaged concerns in the months after getting the job with his whirlwind tour and built the program in his own image, yet when the season ended and job openings cropped up, the rumblings started up again.
Not that he cared.
“I'm committed to be here. It doesn't bother me,” Graham said. “I can tell you my wife and I bought our dream house, we're paying it off in the next three years and win, lose or draw I'm going to be living out there at the base of the McDowell mountain range.”
The future doesn't look too bad for the Sun Devils, either.
Kelly will be back after setting a school record by completing 67.1 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns. Leading rusher Marion Grice will be back, as will talented freshman running back D.J. Foster.
The Sun Devils also got a big boost when defensive lineman Will Sutton, the first ASU player to earn consensus All-America honors since Terrell Suggs in 2002, announced he will return for his senior season rather than head to the NFL.
Graham had a solid first recruiting class in 2012 despite having just a few months to work on it and has been busy scouring the country for talent leading up to signing day next month.
“It's been going pretty well so far,” Graham said. “We're well on our way to 2013.”