TEMPE, Ariz. — The last time the state of Arizona experienced a changing of the guard at both of the state’s major college football programs in the same season was 2001, when Dirk Koetter took over for Bruce Snyder at Arizona State and John Mackovic succeeded Dick Tomey at Arizona.
Eleven seasons and one coaching change removed, the Sun Devils and Wildcats found themselves in a similiar situation, with Todd Graham (ASU) and Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) arriving at a time when both programs were in need of resuscitation.
Rodriguez was hired first, and his arrival in Tucson came with much fanfare, as the former West Virginia and Michigan coach was a known quantity with four Big East Conference titles and two BCS bowl wins to his name.
In Tempe, fans met the hiring of Pittsburgh coach Graham with a healthy dose of skepticism following a muddled coaching search. Graham was a relative unknown who had just left a job after one season for the second time in his career, but offered hope in the form of a high-powered offense.
Both coaches have endured similar roller-coaster rides in their first seasons, but while the overall reception for both has been positive, the first full assessment, at least in the eyes of the fans, won’t come until after Friday’s Territorial Cup showdown in Tucson.
“We know that’s the most important game,” Graham said. “You can go 11-0 and lose that game and it’s an unsuccessful year.”
By Graham’s accounting, his first season has been less than a complete success, with the Sun Devils falling short of the Pac-12 Championship goal they set for themselves. At 6-5, ASU is bowl eligible and still has a chance for an eight-win season. That could be no small accomplishment for a team predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12 South.
While many credit Graham for maximizing the talents of a thin roster of players mostly recruited by his predecessor, Graham evaluates his first season somewhat harshly.
“I think it’s very simple how you evaluate yourself,” he said. “You just look at wins (and) losses. We came in here and set the standard that we’re going to be a program that’s about winning championships, and we want to compete to win the Pac-12 South every year. Obviously we’re in our first year, and we fell short of that.”
Even if Graham failed to meet his own on-field expectations, most would said he exceeded external expectations, though perhaps not as much as his counterpart in Tucson. Rodriguez has taken over an Arizona team that went 4-8 last year and coached it to seven wins already, with the potential for two more.
While that’s an impressive turnaround considering what Rodriguez had to work with in Tucson, he insists he didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what his record might look like come this time of year.
“I don’t ever look at how many games this team should win and all that,” Rodriguez said. “You look at the strength and weaknesses and hope you have more strengths than weaknesses. We’ve had more concerns for certain positions than at any other time in my coaching career.”
UA enters Friday’s matchup ranked No. 24 in the BCS standings and secured a pair of signature wins, over then-No. 18 Oklahoma State on Sept. 8 and then-No. 9 USC on Oct. 27. It could have been even more eye-opening of a turnaround if not for narrow losses to Oregon State and Stanford, both ranked among the nation’s top 15 teams.
Rodriguez benefited from inheriting fifth-year senior quarterback
Matt Scott, but few would have anticipated him ranking eighth nationally
in total offense. His spread offense has made a star out of sophomore
running back Ka’Deem Carey, who leads the nation with 1,585 rushing
Rodriguez has no interest in doing a self-evaluation with the season still going: “I would hope our players and our staff would always be consumed with what’s next,” he said. “The only time I’ve reflected in 20-some years is last year. I was broadcasting, and you don’t care who wins. Now I’m into the coach mode and ask, ‘What’s next?'”
Rodriguez’s boss was quick to offer a positive review of the coach’s performance.
“Unless you go undefeated, you’re going to have some ups and downs during the season,” UA athletic director Greg Byrne said. “I think we’ve exceeded expectations at times, and at the same time had a few games you’d like to have a do-over on, but that’s part of football, part of sports.
“I’m thrilled with the job he’s done. … I think we’re showing that we’re putting the building blocks in place to have long-term success here.”
While Friday’s outcome will go a long way toward determining the first-term grades for Rodriguez and Graham, it’s much too soon to determine which school made the better hire. That won’t be clear for a few seasons, as both coaches are still laying the foundation for their respective programs.
Perhaps the greater victories for both coaches this season have come on that front. Graham has turned what was the nation’s most-penalized team last season into a model of on-field discipline and eliminated the off-field distractions that plagued the program in recent seasons. He also installed an attacking defense that, if Graham has his way, could become the identity of ASU football.
Rodriguez, likewise, has made similar strides in changing the culture at Arizona and energizing its fan base with an up-tempo, explosive team that has overcome talent and depth deficiencies.
Graham still has work to do in getting ASU’s fair-weather fan base to believe in the program. He won the fans over early with countless speaking engagements, pertinent promises and a 5-1 start, but when a four-game losing streak followed as the scheduled toughened up, many fans shrugged their shoulders and lamented the “same old Sun Devils.”
Regardless, Graham has gotten a positive review from athletic director Steve Patterson, who considers the complete package.
“We’re very pleased with the job Todd’s done,” Patterson said. “I think Todd had to clean up a lot of messes. Any time you go through the kind of culture change that he’s instilled, it’s not always easy for the people going through it, but I think it’s setting the foundation for success for many years to come.”
Rodriguez’s hiring inspired confidence among UA’s fan base as much as it did the players, who committed quickly to his plan, which was far more demanding than they were used to.
Said Byrne: “It goes back to the day he was hired and then he went down to meet with the team and he said, ‘Guys, I know you hear a lot of people say they’ve got to get their guys in here before they have success, but I want you to know you’re my guys right from the get go.’ You can tell in his approach to the job that he’s done this before.”
The long-term success of the hires will depend on much more than just the local evaluation. To attract the kind of recruits necessary to compete against the Pac-12 heavyweights, Graham and Rodriguez will have to increase their programs’ footprints nationally. That process has begun.
“I believe that both have done excellent jobs in year one at their schools,” FOX college football analyst Charles Davis said. “Arizona under Rich Rodriguez has plenty of excitement, and pizzazz on offense, and Coach Rodriguez has turned a fifth-year senior quarterback, Matt Scott, into one of the top signal callers in the Pac-12. Add Ka’Deem Carey at running back, and Austin Hill at receiver, and you have fireworks.
“And, since wins and losses are the bottom line, they are 7-4, and have beaten Oklahoma State and USC to name a couple of prominent teams. Arizona is a fit for Rich Rodriguez.”
The biggest impression Graham’s made, Davis said, is in transforming an undisciplined group that was visibly checked out under Dennis Erickson last season.
“I watched tape of their game against USC, and while they did not play very well in spots, I did see a team that competed all day, and took a lead into the thirrd quarter against a more-talented USC squad,” Davis said. “I like the long-term prospects of ASU under Todd Graham, and if he can keep (defensive tackle) Will Sutton in Tempe for one more year, he will have an all-star building block.”
The evaluations of Graham and Rodriguez will be constantly intertwined thanks to the timing of their hirings, but they also share a history, with Graham serving on Rodriguez’s staff at West Virginia. The Territorial Cup, a bitter rivalry game that deeply divides the state, adds perhaps the most significant wrinkle to the equation.
Both deserve credit for many positive things in their first seasons but acknowledge that they have a long way to go. Drawing first blood in the Territorial Cup could go a long way toward building relevance for a pair of programs largely characterized by mediocrity in recent years.