TEMPE, Ariz. — Once Arizona State coach Todd Graham had finished his postgame press conference after last Saturday’s 58-21 win over Arizona, he stood and was greeted by a hug from his wife, Penni.
As the coach and his wife began to walk away, a photographer asked them to stop and pose with the Territorial Cup trophy, which Graham had brought to Tempe a year earlier with his first win over UA.
The scene evoked another famous photo of the couple, one taken nearly two years earlier of the coach and his wife on a private jet headed for Tempe after Graham had resigned at Pittsburgh to take the ASU job. The new photo embodies how far Graham has come since the first was taken.
Vilified and rebuked as a carpetbagger and a liar when he came to ASU, Graham is now the Pac-12 Coach of the Year and has the Sun Devils one step away from a conference championship and their first Rose Bowl berth since 1997.
Just two weeks shy of the two-year anniversary of his hiring at ASU, Graham will lead his team against No. 7 Stanford in the biggest game of his coaching career. Though Graham would not admit it, especially with one more win needed to reach the Rose Bowl, this is his redemption.
“I’m very lucky to be here,” Graham said after ASU beat UCLA two weeks ago to earn a spot in Saturday’s title game. ” I can think back to a year a half ago when I came here and how I got my head kicked in, and I’m pretty glad I came.”
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When Graham made Pitt the second one-season stop of his Division I coaching career, the outrage was as intense as it was immediate. Graham was called “President of the Liar’s Club,” “Fraud Graham” and variations of a sleazy salesman, peddling anything from used cars to snake oil.
Locally, Graham was met with skepticism. Who was this coaching vagabond, and how did ASU settle on him to replace Dennis Erickson? At his introductory press conference, Graham made lofty promises, at which many scoffed or rolled their eyes, having heard coaches before him swear they would bring championships to a program known widely as a “sleeping giant.”
Players, too, were skeptical of Graham, a coach most had not heard of and saw getting skewered for his hasty exit from Pitt.
“I was sitting at home and my cousin was like, ‘Man, you guys just hired somebody named Todd Graham,’ and I was like, ‘Who is Todd Graham?” senior safety Alden Darby recalls.
Darby and teammates began to do their research. They learned how he’d left his Pitt players with a text message about his new job, but what stuck out more was Graham’s penchant for running a disciplined program. At ASU, he was taking over a team that was the nation’s most penalized in 2011 and had become accustomed to playing a loose, aggressive style under Erickson.
“We were all used to playing for Coach Erickson, not so much of Coach Graham’s ways,” Darby said. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy’s coming into the wrong program.'”
Graham met the criticism and skepticism head-on. He expressed regrets over the way he left Pitt and would later admit he believed taking the job there was a mistake in the first place. As Graham’s character was assassinated nationally, he kept his head down and bit his tongue.
“I think he saw this was a fabulous opportunity,” Pac-12 Networks analyst Rick Neuheisel said. “He knew he’d take some flack for leaving Pittsburgh after one year, but in his big picture of what was important to Todd Graham, this was worth it, so he had to do it and take the slings and arrows that come with that and find a way a way to get going.”
Joining Graham at ASU was offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who had been with Graham for five seasons, first as a graduate assistant at Tulsa in 2007. He essentially rode shotgun as Graham was buried for his latest coaching change.
“He handled it like he handles anything,” Norvell said. “There were a lot of things said about him that were not always accurate or didn’t always have a great spin to it, but he handled it and controlled what he could control and focused everything we had on the players we have here and moved forward to the vision and the process of building Arizona State into the best it could be.”
Graham worked quickly to win over the players he inherited. It didn’t happen all at once, but his first impression went a long way.
“The moment he walked in the door and he opened his mouth, the words that came out just gave me chills,” Darby said. “I started to get goosebumps, because I knew in my mind that’s what we needed. That’s the kind of coach I wanted to play for.”
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By the time ASU took the field for the first time under Graham, most players had bought into his plan. Veteran leaders such as Darby and Brandon Magee led the charge, swaying teammates still on the fence.
“We talked about how we can’t go back and forth on if we’re going to be all-in with Coach Graham and believe what he’s saying because we’re battling time, and everybody knows when you’re battling time, time is always going to win,” Darby said. “So we kind of just said, ‘You know what, let’s do everything he’s saying 100 percent.'”
The most evident change was in ASU’s discipline. Suddenly, they weren’t getting called for drive-killing personal fouls or unnecessary penalties. The team went from last in the nation in penalty yards per game to eighth fewest at the end of the season.
“There was a way to show Sun Devil fans and to show a Sun Devil football team how discipline can be a positive,” Neuheisel said. “Going from one of the worst teams in the country in terms of penalized yardage to the No. 4 team in the country (this year) was unbelievable, and I think the players saw that as evidence that, ‘You know what, we need to listen to this guy.'”
The Sun Devils were also practicing different, following a regimented routine and ending practice late instead of early. There was screaming and shouting, but not just for the sake of it. Graham stressed teaching, an approach developed from his days in the high school ranks.
The change was impressive, as was ASU’s new high-powered offense and attacking defense, but it was not enough to make the Sun Devils contenders right away. They did go 8-5, though, registering the program’s first winning season since 2007 and first bowl victory since 2005.
Paramount to the early success were the players already in place, including quarterback Taylor Kelly and defensive tackle Will Sutton, now a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Graham is the first to admit that he benefited from Erickson’s recruiting efforts.
“I think I was very fortunate that there were great players here, great young men here, and I’m just very fortunate to get the opportunity to come here and get to work with them,” Graham said.
Graham also made some big additions of his own, such as junior college transfers Marion Grice and Chris Young and freshman D.J. Foster. But Graham and players later characterized the season as “average” or “good but not great.”
There was still a lack of belief. Players universally believed they could win games, Graham says, but not enough believed they could win a championship. Graham, who is harder on his best players, could only take them so far. It was up to them to convince each other
“I don’t think there wasn’t as much leadership (last year),” Kelly said. “It was mainly on the coaches. Now we know what the coaches want, and it allows us to start leading and coaching each other. That’s played a big role this year.”
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With players now believing they could win the Pac-12 South, win the conference and play in the Rose Bowl, Graham and his team began their encore performance. The early results were underwhelming, with marquee wins over Wisconsin and USC scuttled by losses to Stanford and Notre Dame.
But after the loss to the Irish in a game the Sun Devils still believe they should have won, something clicked. The leadership Graham had stressed for so long began to emerge. Kelly, Sutton and others began to lead as much as or more than Graham and other coaches.
The result of that, along with weekly improvement on both sides of the ball, has been seven straight wins, including three on the road and five over bowl-eligible teams.
“I think they’ve learned that talent’s not enough,” Graham said. “More than anything else, I think this team has improved in the fact that our players are leading the team.”
ASU’s win over UCLA, which clinched the division, delivered the first of the championships Graham promised upon his arrival. He credited the players for accomplishing in two seasons what he said usually takes five, but he also insisted they were not done.
Saturday’s game is the next step, another shot at a championship. That the Sun Devils are here is an accomplishment in itself, a validation of Graham’s decision to leave Pitt for the opportunity in Tempe. Not that anyone would admit as much.
“I think it shows his drive and his work ethic,” Norvell said. “There’s been a lot of buy-in by a lot of people. We’ve never deviated from the plan since the very first meeting with the guys.
“I told the offense today, ‘This has been the goal, this is where we wanted to work to. And even this week is not the final goal, but it’s part of the process.'”
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On Monday, Graham was named the Pac-12 Conference Coach of the Year, as voted on by fellow conference head coaches. He immediately passed credit on to his coaching staff.
No matter how much he tries to deflect the credit to his players and assistants, though, Graham will be seen as the catalyst for ASU’s turnaround, and rightfully so. He more than anyone else has made his mark on the program in two seasons, from on-field discipline and leadership to a standout defense and a high-powered offense.
“He’s got his fingers on everything in that program, from offense and defense to special teams but also what the design of the dang helmet is,” said Neuheisel, a former Washington and UCLA coach. “His idea of fun is, ‘What can we make better at Arizona State today?’ Obviously that’s paid huge dividends for him.
“The articulation of ‘championship,’ the articulation of all the little things leading to championships, have led him to the doorstep of a championship.”
With one more win, Graham would have the most wins by any ASU coach in his first two seasons, surpassing John Cooper, with whom he’s currently tied at 18. He would be the first to admit, though, that one season of success is not enough.
Graham may have weathered the storm of criticism he created when he got on that plane two years ago, and he may have proved his skeptics wrong, but he still has promises to keep. He expects consistent success, which no coach since Frank Kush has brought to Tempe.
“We’re excited to be where we’re at right now and continue to work, but we’re just getting started,” Graham said. “We’re just getting started building something that’s going to be special.”