“I think back to a year and a half ago when I came here, got my head kicked in…I’m pretty glad I came,” Graham said.
From the beginning of his campaign in Tempe, Graham promised that Arizona State would be a championship type of program with him at the helm – a promise he has already delivered in just his second season with the Sun Devil program.
All of the talk was about “accelerating the timeline,” and doing in two years what typically takes five. He promised a disciplined team full of character, an attacking scheme on both sides of the ball and a return to winning ways in Tempe.
But the transformation didn’t happen overnight. How could it? The Arizona State program was undisciplined under Dennis Erickson. Practices were unstructured, loose and the players lacked the maturity to handle the excess freedom.
Adjusting to Graham’s attitude and approach was going to be a shock for the players that remained from the Erickson era. But the program wasn’t in complete shambles; Graham inherited a group of players that are very talented, and he’ll be the first to tell you that.
“I got great kids man,” Graham said of his players. “I love coaching and have always thought that I could coach and win anywhere, but I found out that wasn’t the case. You have got to fit a place, and I was very lucky to fit a place (at ASU). Sitting with Will (Sutton) there in the locker room after the game…we have had our ups and downs, but they’ve grown as young men.”
This Sun Devil team has come a long way from the disappointing 2011 season, a campaign that ironically started to unravel in the same stadium where this year’s squad clinched its Pac-12 South championship. The product you see on the field these days is a result of the training, dedication and mostly Erickson recruits buying in to Graham’s style of coaching and preparation.
There was plenty of sweat and effort put into the offseason workouts, the grueling dog days of summer, and meticulous type of preparation each and every week of the season to this point. For it to all come together in a hostile environment such as the Rose Bowl was reassuring for this coaching staff and the players.
“It was really gratifying walk into that room and look those seniors in the eye,” Graham said after the victory on Saturday. “It’s been a quick journey the last two years. I’m just really proud of them for buying in to what we are doing; these guys are winners and we are very proud of them.
“These guys have been trained, and have been strained. There’s not a game that goes by where we don’t have conflict and it’s made them tough.”
There was a sense of entitlement with some of the most talented players to roll through Tempe under Erickson, where personal fulfillment came before the team. The root of athletics is, and always will be, the team. Graham understands that and has created a family culture around the program.
“What’s so neat and exciting to watch as a teacher is in today’s world it’s all about me and my draft status and all of that,” Graham explained, “and to watch that be emptied out of these guys and watch them really grow and love being Sun Devils and love this game, it’s all about winning the game.”
Players in post-game interviews after games constantly express that they’d do anything for the man next to him. They get it; a team that plays together, wins or falls together, stats don’t matter.
The players are truly all in with Graham. They trust what he preaches and understand that he’s putting them in the best possible position for the team to succeed.
For the first time since 2007, Arizona State has won nine games in a season. They’re disciplined: only 40 penalties in 11 games this year, a statistic that that is sharp 180 degrees from just two years ago. They’re poised: winning four of their last five road games. And they’re champions, with a chance to go back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997.
With a win over Arizona next week, the road to the Rose Bowl will go through Tempe, adding even more incentive to the ever passionate Territorial Cup rivalry.
Need one more reason to respect what Graham is doing at ASU? With being just two years on the job, he knows how much the Arizona game means to the fan base, regardless of what the Sun Devils just achieved in Pasadena.
“Obviously, the most important game of the season is next week,” Graham said. “It doesn’t matter what we’ve done up to this point. We lose this one, it’s an unsuccessful season.”
Graham will undoubtedly continue to be a magnet for rumors regarding coaching vacancies. What school is contacting him now? Will he leave? Some of the questions you can expect in the near and distant future.
There’s no doubt that if things stay on the path they are now, Graham will be a prime prospect for some of the biggest coaching jobs in the country, and schools will come calling.
Yet, all of the talk this year about catching legendary Arizona State head coach Frank Kush’s win record suggests he’s in it for the long haul.
Catching Kush will be no easy task (176 wins), but 17 wins thus far in two seasons isn’t a bad place to start.