Dark days for Arizona State athletics
TEMPE, Ariz. – Juan Roque became an All-American college football player and a successful NFL lineman because of the coaching and guidance he received at Arizona State.
“ASU is the reason I’m successful in life,” he said. “They taught me courage, perseverance, hard work and honor.”
That’s why it’s so hard for the 1996 Rose Bowl participant to digest what he’s seeing on the basketball court, the football field and the baseball diamond these days in Tempe.
“As an alumnus, you’re embarrassed,” he said. “At some point, you scratch your head and wonder: WTF? What’s going on? That’s not what ASU is to us. That’s not what ASU is supposed to be.”
Maybe poor administration and poor leadership are to blame. Maybe it’s poor play and poor coaching. Maybe it’s just a cosmic alignment of evil forces and bad luck. Maybe it’s all of the above.
Whatever the reasons, Arizona State alumni can’t recall a time when the school’s highest profile sports were mired in such an unmitigated funk.
“It really is the perfect storm,” said Hod Rabino (‘94), the website publisher at DevilsDigest.com, “but in a really negative way.”
The road to rock bottom started in early November when the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee upheld penalties imposed by the NCAA the previous year, rendering Arizona State's baseball team ineligible for the 2012 NCAA Tournament due to major violations and lack of institutional control.
Then the football team went 0-4 in November, erasing a 6-2 start that had it on the brink of the Pac-12’s first conference title game, and coach Dennis Erickson on the brink of a contract extension.
Then the basketball team opened 2-4.
After that the blows came in staccato fashion.
Nov. 28: Erickson is fired.
Dec. 2: Arizona State announces it is no longer pursuing Houston football coach Kevin Sumlin for its vacant post, but a source close to Sumlin says Sumlin isn’t interested in ASU because he views the athletic department leadership as “chaotic.”
Dec. 7: Talks with SMU coach June Jones break down at the signing table. Arizona State president Michael Crow later insists Jones was never offered the job. Leigh Steinberg, Jones' agent, says otherwise in a series of revelations via Twitter.
Dec. 8: Despite a last-place finish in the Pac-10 the previous season, and a significant number of players transferring out of the program, basketball coach Herb Sendek gets a two-year contract extension through 2016.
Dec. 14: Arizona State hires Todd Graham as its next football coach, bringing Graham to his fourth head coaching post in six years.
Dec. 17-21: The basketball team loses consecutive games in gut-wrenching fashion to Northern Arizona, Southern Mississippi and Fresno State.
Dec. 19: Defensive end Junior Onyeali is suspended for the Las Vegas Bowl (and later, indefinitely) for a verbal altercation with Erickson in which he insults Erickson’s coaching ability.
Dec. 22: Boise State humiliates Arizona State, 56-24, in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Jan. 3: Disappointing middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict declares for the NFL Draft, forgoing his senior season.
Jan. 5: Sendek suspends Keala King, Chris Colvin and Kyle Cain for "unacceptable conduct."
Jan. 6: Quarterback Brock Osweiler declares for the NFL Draft, robbing Arizona State of a senior quarterback and leaving the program with three untested underclassmen.
Jan. 8: Sendek dismisses King, the team’s leading scorer, from the team.
Following a home loss to Oregon on Thursday, the basketball team stands at 5-11 and is headed for its second consecutive losing season and third straight season without an NCAA Tournament berth.
The football team posted its third losing record in the past four seasons; it hasn't finished better than .500 since 2007 (Erickson's first year).
Sun Devil Nation is not taking it well.
“I think people are pissed,” said Arizona State alumnus Chris Karpman, the publisher of ASUDevils.com. “How can you have this sort of sustained run of not getting good results from your revenue sports?”
That depends on your perspective. There’s a case to be made for any of three factors.
THE CASE FOR POOR ADMINISTRATION/LEADERSHIP
— When athletic director Lisa Love announced Erickson’s firing, she noted that head coaching experience would be important in the next candidate, but it would by no means override a chance to hire an up-and-coming coordinator. Then Crow appeared to counter that assertion at Graham’s introductory press conference when he said “we were first after a sitting head coach who had been able to manage as the, in a sense, the chief executive of a football program, the entire package.”
The moment seemed to underscore suspicions born out in the pursuit of Sumlin that there were too many cooks in ASU’s decision-making kitchen, namely Crow, Love and athletic department COO Steve Patterson.
— When Love was asked how long it would take to compile a list of coaching candidates for football, she insisted she already had that list, and that it would include a variety of candidates from head coaches to coordinators. Yet as the process unfolded, it became painfully apparent to those covering the story that Arizona State had no such comprehensive list, or else it wouldn’t have arrived at Jones so quickly.
— The department’s wooing and subsequent distancing from Jones made it clear how out of touch it was with its fan base. Karpman’s fan-centric site ran a poll asking Arizona State fans if they were in favor or opposed to the Jones hiring. More than 95 percent opposed it, and those same voices finally appeared to reach Crow’s ear at the 11th hour to prevent a P.R blunder.
— Sendek’s extension was puzzling in its timing. Coming off a dismal season and mired in another, many Arizona State fans asked the logical question: What’s the rush? Sendek earned some cache with three consecutive 20-win seasons, but he was still under contract through 2014. Why not wait?
THE CASE FOR POOR COACHING/PLAY
— While transferring has become a norm in college basketball, Sendek’s transfer and defection problems have become an epidemic. King is the ninth player with eligibility remaining to leave the program since 2009. Arizona STate's lack of clarity in its recruiting process and its lack of homework on some of its fallback options have left the program in this mess.
— For the third straight season, Erickson’s team led the conference in penalty yards per game. That lack of discipline was embodied by the combustible Burfict, who the staff never could rein in long enough to get the most out of his obvious talents.
— Even after it lost a heart-breaker in Pasadena to UCLA, the football team had a good chance to clinch the Pac-12 South by winning two its final three games. But the Sun Devils botched every opportunity. Was that a product of poor coaching, poor senior leadership or both?
THE CASE FOR BAD LUCK
— As noted, Sendek posted three straight 20-win seasons, yet was snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee in two of those three years. How much different would the basketball program look if Arizona State had won one more game in each of those years or earned NCAA invitations? If that had happened, even with James Harden gone, Sendek wouldn’t likely be in the sorry state he’s in now.
— What if kicker Alex Garoutte had made one of three missed field goals on that fateful night in Pasadena? Arizona State would have moved to 7-2, clinched the Pac-12 South, Erickson would have his extension and that preseason marketing blitz would have looked like a stroke of genius — money well spent.
Of course, none of that happened, but Arizona State's sorry state doesn’t mean the future is hopeless.
“I’m a firm believer that things are never as good or as bad as they seem,” Karpman said.
On that note, both Rabino and Karpman see positives in the recent emphasis on local recruiting by Sendek and Graham.
Regardless of how you feel about Graham’s approach or past, there is no denying his energy level and work ethic, which has already caught the attention of numerous local high school coaches.
And, of course, point guard Jahii Carson, Sendek's top recruit who is academically ineligible, should be playing next season for the Sun Devils, giving this turnover-happy team a floor general who can push the pace.
Will those factors turn the tide and lift Arizona State out of this morass? Time will tell if they’re enough or there are greater systemic problems that must be solved.
But it’s hard to imagine things getting any worse.
“I sure hope not,” Roque said. “This is probably the worst crisis at Arizona State since 1994 and the point-shaving scandal.”