Ex-Pitt coach Todd Graham talks about loyalty, commitment after firing at Arizona State
Todd Graham pours himself a Diet Dr. Pepper and sits down in his Arizona State office. Behind him, several unfolded cardboard boxes lean against a wall. The shelves behind his desk are bare.
“You can see I've already packed the entire office,” the coach said.
Nearly a month ago, ASU vice president of athletics Ray Anderson met Graham in this room, thanked him for his six years and informed him the university had decided to look for a new football coach. According to Graham, the conversation lasted four minutes, ending with Graham accepting Anderson's offer to coach the Sun Devils in Friday's Sun Bowl.
Thus began the most awkward transition in sports. As ASU introduced new coach Herm Edwards, Graham led the Sun Devils in practice, fought off bitterness and packed up an office he never thought he would leave.
“This place meant so much to me because I was all-in,” Graham said. “This was it, man. I told my wife, ‘We ain't got to move no more. This is it.' And I really got my head kicked in to take this job. It was really pretty rough.”
Graham came to ASU in the winter of 2011, leaving Pitt after one season, informing his team through group text message as he flew to the desert. National media ripped him for his job hopping. This exit is different.
As Graham recently dined in Scottsdale, a man approached him and thanked him for all he had done. As he stopped for gas one morning, a man extended his hand and said, “Thank you.” A student at Notre Dame Prep gave Graham's son a letter and asked him to deliver it to his dad. It sits on a table in front of Graham, addressed in a purple envelope that reads: “To Our Coach Todd Graham.”
“Sometimes when you're coaching, you only hear the people who are screaming the loudest,” said Graham, who turned 53 this month. “You're never going to please everybody, but (the support) has been overwhelming to me and my wife. It's really made me feel good about the way we do it. That's why I have a full heart.”
Since his dismissal, Graham has taken the high road. Instead of bitterness, he has sided with gratefulness. At first, Graham admits he was in shock. This was the first time he had been fired in the sport he loved. He struggled sleeping, worried about the futures of those who worked under him, those who relied on him.
Graham has insisted the dismissal came as a surprise, but during a 40-minute interview he suggested maybe it wasn't. Even with ASU (7-5) placing second in the Pac-12 South, his future had hung over the program most of the season. According to sources, Graham and Anderson didn't have the best relationship during the four years they worked together.
Asked about this, Graham searched for the right words.
“I don't know,” he said. “I don't know how to answer that. We didn't spend a lot of time together, but it was very cordial, very friendly. I just let people see what they want. I think time will tell what kind of job we did.”
Outside his office, ASU has devoted a wall to the program's coaching legends. Dan Devine, Frank Kush, John Cooper and Bruce Snyder are pictured, their accomplishments listed. At least one school official thinks Graham should be added. A case can be made he belongs.
Graham's 46 wins rank only behind Kush (176) and Snyder (56) in school history. But more than that is the culture he set and the foundation he built.
In addition to cleaning up the discipline problems and improving academics, Graham helped design the 118,669-square-foot football facility. Nearly every detail includes his touch, “down to the couch you're sitting on,” Graham said.
Not long ago, Graham looked outside and saw people posing for photos next to the Pat Tillman statue that players touch each game as they take the field. That was his idea, too. Since his arrival, Graham had worked to make Tillman the centerpiece of his program.
“I just relate to him so much,” Graham said. “The thing about Pat, and, obviously, what he did for our country giving his life, but really where I connect with him is the competitive spirit that he had. It just activates me in a way that is different.”
Graham is proud of what ASU accomplished on the field. To him, the Sun Devils had only one bad season, which came last year when they failed to qualify for a bowl game. Graham had a chance to reflect on this as he cleaned out his office, taking home one box each night as he left the facility.
He packed up the game ball Mike Bercovici threw to Jaelen Strong to beat USC. The ball from ASU's win over UCLA that clinched the 2013 Pac-12 South title. The ball from the Notre Dame and Wisconsin wins. The ball from his first bowl win against Navy, and the balls from his four wins against rival Arizona, the last coming this season, which completed a better-than-expected regular season.
“I've never talked about anything here but winning championships,” Graham said. “As a matter of fact, I got in trouble for driving expectations too high. We never have strived or celebrated mediocrity, but should we celebrate the year we had this year? Absolutely.”
Graham is not sure what's next. He plans to keep his home in Scottsdale. He plans to keep coaching. He always has wanted to win a Super Bowl ring, so maybe he might get a chance in the NFL. At the same time, he wants to be a head coach again.
He'll figure it out soon enough.
In his office, he has left behind a few items for Edwards. On a table sits a Bob Moran Territorial Cup MVP trophy. In front of the room hangs a Tillman photo and a list of ASU's Scholar Ballers, the designation given to those who excel in the classroom. Graham also plans to leave a photo of the Rose Bowl trophy, but at the moment, it has slipped off the frame.
“I've tried to clean it up,” Graham said.
ASU leaves for El Paso on Christmas Day. That likely will be the coach's final day in the football facility. Graham admits walking down those stairs a final time might be difficult, but he insists it won't change the way he feels.
“I've always been committed to every place I've ever been, but also in my mind I was ambitious,” Graham said. “Just like anybody, I wanted to get to a place where I could really (build something), and Arizona State was my ‘it' place. That's why I think we did it the right way. I got a full heart because of that. It's all positive.”