TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State’s game against Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday should be special for plenty of reasons. It’s a matchup against one of college football’s most storied programs on a grand stage.
For ASU coach Todd Graham, though, the game is more than a marquee matchup: It’s a homecoming with some history to boot.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Graham said Monday. “For me personally, going back to where my home is, where I’m from, it’s a big deal.”
Graham was born and raised in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Texas. He grew up a Cowboys fans and admits he still is, though he knows that won’t win him many fans here in Arizona. Graham even worked as a security guard — for a company called Smith Security, he still recalls — at Cowboys games at now-demolished Texas Stadium, where the Cowboys played until 2008.
But Graham’s football roots in Texas, and specifically the Dallas area, run much deeper than Cowboys fandom. Graham starred as a linebacker at North Mesquite High School before going on to play college football at East Central University in Oklahoma. He returned to Texas to take his first coaching job as an assistant at Poteet High School in Mesquite.
After a stint as defensive coordinator at East Central and a year at an Oklahoma high school, Graham took over as head coach and athletic director at Allen High School in Allen, another Dallas suburb. In six seasons there, he built the program into a perennial playoff team and one so popular it later built a massive 18,000-seat stadium, the third largest in Texas.
“That’s probably the coaching position where I had the most growth,” Graham said. “I think we had about 28-32 kids on varsity. When I left there I think we had 287.
“It was big for me, that job. … I thought I’d be there my whole career. I’ll always be an Allen Eagle.”
Graham’s success at Allen helped him land his first Division I job as linebackers coach at West Virginia. Graham returned to Texas for a season to coach Rice in Houston, but Saturday’s game will be a true homecoming for Graham, who will coach in front of many friends, family and former colleagues.
“I want to let everybody know I don’t have any tickets, so stop calling me,” Graham joked.
Graham also has history with Notre Dame. In 2010, Graham’s Tulsa team upset Notre Dame in South Bend. It was Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s first year at the helm of the Fighting Irish, and the team would finish the year 8-5.
“It was probably the biggest win in school history,” Graham said. “You can’t measure the impact that that has on a program. It was really a neat experience.”
Tulsa led that game late and prevented Notre Dame’s potential game-winning field goal attempt in the game’s final minute by intercepting second-string quarterback Tommy Rees, who is now the team’s starter.
“It was a game-changer for us at the time,” Graham said. “We had not really beaten a BCS team, and to go on the road and beat them in South Bend was a big deal for our program.”
The win was also a game-changer for Graham. It was a resume builder and probably part of what helped him land his first BCS job the following season at Pittsburgh, where he would again face Notre Dame. The Irish took that game, 15-12.
Graham’s third meeting with Notre Dame will come with perhaps greater implications than ever. He’s in his highest profile job as a coach and has the ASU program on the rise. While Graham stresses the importance of winning the Pac-12 more than anything, he clearly understands the magnitude of Saturday’s game.
Notre Dame might be unranked and less effective than the 2012 team that played in the BCS National Championship Game, but a win would do much to boost ASU’s profile.
“Is it more important than Pac-12 games? No, it’s not, and that’s not how we emphasize it with our players,” Graham said. “But it’s darn important to our fan base. It’s darn important to our football program.”