Graham catching his breath after month at ASU
Arizona State football coach Todd Graham just celebrated his first month on the job. Given his jam-packed schedule, we're fairly certain he's not aware of the milestone. It's all he can do to remember to breathe.
Graham was just wrapping up a meeting with Sun Devil Club executive director Stephen Ponder when we arrived for an hour-long interview last Friday. Four assistants paced the hallways outside his office, waiting for a word. Former Scottsdale Saguaro coach John Sanders was also waiting to discuss a possible position on Graham's staff when two other athletic department staff members arrived with additional questions. Before any of them got a chance, Graham fielded a call so important that he stepped into a nearby supply closet and closed the door, lest he be overheard.
Despite the chaos swirling around him and a need to get to the airport within a half-hour after our interview concluded, Graham felt anything but harried once we settled into a pair of plush arm chairs inside his office. Gracious, candid, energetic, charming and fully engaged in the conversation at hand, Graham bore no resemblance to the man so vilified and categorized upon his arrival at ASU.
ASU's football program has been dragged through the mud the past of couple months. Between a five-game losing streak to end the season, Dennis Erickson's firing, a disorganized coaching search and Graham's nomadic past, there was plenty of ammunition for the critics.
But like the 2011 season, that's all in the past. And with the Devils' forward-focused coach as our guide, we've vowed to base any further judgments on what we see and hear from this point forward. Graham deserves a fair chance to rally this program from its worst four-year stretch since the 1940s. And he deserves a chance to win the trust of the ASU community without preconceived notions.
Based on Friday's meeting, we're convinced he at least has the energy and the will to do just that.
FS Arizona: What have you gleaned from your first month on the job?
Graham: That there's just enough time in the day. It's been fast and furious. Obviously, with where the calendar is right now, recruiting is dominating our time, but I want to emphasize that existing players have been our No. 1 priority. Not recruiting, but developing those relationships and starting to work to earn their trust.
We did get a chance to have a couple meetings with the players. You're limited on that by the NCAA, but I made a commitment to the 2012 seniors. I told them, 'Hey, I want you to understand I'm not going out and recruiting my guys and then we're going to win. I'm committed to you.' I'm excited about those guys, because I think there's a lot of talent there.
FS Arizona: Have you had much of chance to meet with the fans, boosters and former players?
Graham: A little bit. We've gotten out and met quite a few of our boosters and supporters and met a lot of former players. I've invited them to come by and meet me. But as soon as recruiting is over on February 1, we'll have 100 days that we're going to be out in the community. There's 1.5 million Sun Devil fans in the Valley. I'm anxious to get out there and meet them.
I want the fans to know that I'm going to compete for their support. We're going to put a product on that field that they can be proud of with character and class. I understand that they work hard for their money. I know that there's been a lot of frustration, but I'm going to be doing what I call speaking victory. I believe there's great power in what we speak out of our mouth. I'm asking them to join with me and be positive, and let's work hard to get this thing going where it needs to be.
FS Arizona: How do you mend fences and build enthusiasm with a fan base that's become a bit apathetic and jaded? Winning is the obvious solution, but what do you do in the short term?
Graham: First of all, I don't believe that it's just 'win and they show up.' As the head football coach, I represent this community, I represent this university, I represent this student body. How do I represent them if I don't know what they're all about? I really believe in getting out there and talking to them and meeting them. I believe it's very important that you connect with the people. That's where I have to start, and then you put a product on the field they can get excited about -- an explosive brand of football that's exciting to watch. Everything that we do is going to be about representing this community. This is a special, dynamic place, and the program needs to match that.
FS Arizona: Do you buy the 'sleeping giant' theory at ASU? If so, why has it been sleeping?
Graham: I hate using that term, but I'll say this: I think there's unbelievable opportunity here, but obviously there's a lot of work to be done. I believe we're a great fit for this place because I believe these kids are hungry for that personal relationship with their coaches. They're hungry for discipline. They're hungry for structure. This program has been close, but I personally believe those are things that have kept them from getting where they want to be.
The other thing is: What type of young people are we trying to bring here? Where are we going with this? I'm a teacher. I spent half my career coaching and teaching high school football. I want young men that want to be somebody, that want to do something with their life, that want to do right.
FS Arizona: How do you know you've got the right kind of kid?
Graham: I'm a big look-you-in-the-eye guy. Your eyes are the window to your heart and soul. I believe there's bright-eyed people and there's dull-eyed people. There's people who think they're entitled to something and there's people who know that they've got to work for everything they get. That's who I want.
FS Arizona: You have talked a lot about discipline. How would you have handled a player like Vontaze Burfict?
Graham: It would be disrespectful for me to talk about that. Coach Erickson is a Hall of Fame coach. I can tell you moving forward that the standard will not lower for anyone. I would rather lose than make exceptions. Don't get me wrong -- I want to win. We're going to win or get fired, but Tom Landry said if you allow exceptions on your team, you end up with a team full of exceptions.
I don't want to comment specifically on any situation, but since I've been here, I've made one indefinite suspension (Junior Onyeali). That's hard for me to do because I feel like I've failed when I do it, but it doesn't matter who it is. We will have a standard, and we won't move that standard for anyone. Discipline is something we do for them, not to them. It's about teaching self-discipline. It's a choice you make every day. So if we're 12-0 and we're going into the national championship game and our starting quarterback violates the standard, he won't play.
FS Arizona: Are there any specific rules you can tell us about that involve conduct or appearance?
Graham: I'm an old-school guy. There's no earrings. There's no bandanas. There's no filthy language. I ask them not to do that. I don't come in yelling and screaming and being a jerk. I'm all about relationship, and I have explained to them why we do what we do. I believe young people will meet whatever expectations you set for them.
And they need to remember this is a privilege. This is higher education. You're a student-athlete. I know it's a multimillion-dollar business, too, but I believe that's the key to winning. We live in a world of eight chances. I ain't giving eight chances. We're going to have 100 percent accountability in this program. 'I'm sorry' doesn't work. 'He didn't mean to' doesn't work.
FS Arizona: How much of an emphasis will you place on local recruits vs. national recruits?
Graham: Our plan is to win and get the best and brightest in Phoenix, then the best and brightest from Arizona. That doesn't mean we won't recruit anywhere else. It's about priorities. To me, the key to recruiting is relationships and knowledge. So if a kid's right down the street here at Chaparral, we're going to know more about that kid. People in the community are going to know everything about him. The further you move away, the more margin there is for error.
Can we nationally recruit? Can we go to Texas, my home state, and recruit? You're darn right we can, and we will. But you've got to hang your hat on something, and I think football in this state is really good. I'm looking at the film. The kids we're recruiting here right now are difference makers, not just for Arizona but for the whole country.
You have to look at it this way: What separates us from USC and Oregon? We're in Phoenix. That's what separates us, so I want to focus on Phoenix and Arizona, and then the next place we'll go is southern California and northern California. Obviously we'll go into Vegas, into Colorado, into Texas, Oklahoma, and maybe recruit a few kids from Florida. You can recruit nationwide, but our focus is going to be here.
FS Arizona: Where would you say your staff's greatest recruiting ties exist in terms of regions?
Graham: Obviously, it would be Texas. I've got strong ties there and in Oklahoma where I've worked. But if you look at the makeup of my staff, they cover important areas. You look at Chris Ball and Bob Connelly, who used to be at UCLA. Both those guys won Pac-10 championships at Washington State. Del Alexander is from L.A. and played at USC. Joe Lorig is from Central Washington and a great southern California recruiter as well. It was important to have a staff with different ties.
FS Arizona: How much time have you had to evaluate your personnel on film?
Graham: Maybe it's force of habit because I'm an old defensive coordinator, but I've spent a lot of time watching the quarterbacks. They're really the key on football teams. Not just their physical talents but more importantly their intangibles -- their character, their leadership.
FS Arizona: How hard did you work to convince Brock Osweiler to stay?
Graham: I think we made it a tough decision for him. We had several very thorough meetings where we showed him what both the options were and all that we envisioned for him if he stayed. He was prayerful about it, he made his decision and I celebrate him for it. I hope he made the right decision. I would have loved to have a chance to work with him.
FS Arizona: What have you seen from your remaining QBs?
Graham: Character. I talked to everyone in the building, and they talk about their tremendous character. When it comes to character, work ethic and discipline, they've got to be at the top, and all three of those guys are. We have a good problem. We have three really talented guys who can flat spin the ball.
FS Arizona: Not to beat a dead horse, but you've been criticized for not meeting with your players at Pitt to tell them you were leaving, choosing instead to inform them via text message. Can you take us through that period, step by step?
Graham: Here's how that thing went, and as I've said before, the time frame was the biggest issue there. The search firm called me that night at like 9 o'clock. My wife and I talked and prayed about it and decided we wanted to look at it. Her parents were here. It was a dream job.
Well, when I asked Pitt, they said no, they didn't want to give me permission. That's kind of unusual. That usually doesn't happen in this business, so the only way I could look at the job was to resign. I resigned my job at 10:30 at night, and Arizona State wanted me here the next morning, so there wasn't time from 10:30 at night to leaving for the airport at 6:30 the next morning to go talk to my football players. Plus, I wasn't the head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh anymore, so I didn't have the authority to do that.
FS Arizona: Why not ask ASU for a day and then have the players over to your house or meet them at an off-campus location to explain your position and to reaffirm your oft-stated commitment to character and honor?
Graham: I did. I told them, 'I need a day.' I asked the search firm, but they said there was no time. ASU wanted me here the next day. I didn't control the process. I wasn't even talking to ASU. I was talking to the search firm. That's how these things often work.
And remember, I didn't have a job.
I have never not talked to my players. I talked to my players when I left to go from Rice to Tulsa. I talked to my players when I left Allen (Texas) High School to go to West Virginia. I talked to my players when I left West Virginia and when I left Tulsa to go to Pitt. But we don't control these processes, although they control our employment and our livelihood.
Again, I didn't have a job. It's kind of a scary place to be, and we took a giant leap of faith. These things don't always work out, and I just gave up a pretty big job. I wanted time to talk to my players, but I don't control the process, and I don't think a lot of people realize how these deals work with search firms. I had to come here the next morning.
FS Arizona: You have said that going to Pitt was a mistake. Could you elaborate?
Graham: It was not a good fit for my family. They were not happy there.
When I was at Tulsa, our president was going to retire, and that was not going to be good for me. I had three (job) opportunities, and I made the decision for football alone. It was a better job. I had three kids attending Tulsa. My daughter was a freshman cheerleader, but it was something we felt we needed to do because of what was happening at Tulsa with the president.
All three of my kids went to Pittsburgh and said, 'I don't want to live here, dad.' It wasn't because of the people. There were great people there, we worked our tail off and did some great things. I'm proud that they asked me to take over a program that had been on the front page of Sports Illustrated with the most criminalities in the country and we did some good things there, but they just didn't like it there.
(ASU) was a deal that I did not plan. It was an opportunity of a lifetime that just came up for me. I've got a responsibility to my family to take care of them.
FS Arizona: Some people have characterized you as a great salesman who can energize a fan base. Others have characterized you as a snake-oil salesman who will say what a crowd wants to hear. Why do you think both perceptions exist?
Graham: When you leave a place, people will always say things like that. I can't do anything about that. People said the same thing about Nick Saban. All you can do is just prove yourself every day. The world we live in with the exposure and Twitter and everything, it compounds those things, but all I can do is genuinely be who I am. Am I good at communicating? Well, if I wasn't, I probably wouldn't have the job that I have.
FS Arizona: Does it bother you that your job hopping is a persistent topic even though people in this business leave their jobs for better opportunities all the time?
Graham: Nobody has ever asked me what kind of deal I got here versus what I had (at Pitt). Nobody's asked me what kind of commitment I had there -- half the commitment I have here. Who would not take that opportunity? Everything about this made sense if you sat down and looked at it for your family, for your future, for your finances. Everything. There was no comparison.
And then you have to remember that we wanted to be here pretty bad. That's the scariest thing I've ever done -- to resign my job. I'm not making a minimum-wage job. I took a great risk and I could have ruined my whole career. You're never going to please everybody, but when I look in the mirror every day, I know I did what was best for my family, and I've tried to do things the right way everywhere I've been.
FS Arizona: How does your 'high-octane' offense differ from what Noel Mazzone ran last year?
Graham: The tempo is probably faster, but we are much more of a run-first mentality or a run, play-action team. We want to be able to establish the run. We were fifth in the country in 2008 rushing the football. We were 15th in 2010. We were leading the country through six games last season until our tailback got hurt at Pittsburgh. There are similarities, and they did a very good job here offensively last year, but there will be a little more run in it, because if you pass the ball every down and you're going fast, your defense is going to play 80 plays. Our desired balance is 80-plus plays on offense, 65 plays on defense.
FS Arizona: In your introductory press conference, you said you would shift between a 3-4 and a 4-3. Can you clarify your defensive plan?
Graham: We'll be multiple defensively. It looks like, with our personnel, we'll probably start off a little more with four down linemen. We've got a lot of good defensive tackles, so you'll see us playing a lot with two defensive tackles. We'll attack and take the issue to the offense, and I think that's what people want to see when they come to watch a football team. I think that's what kids want to do, too. That's why I'm so big into speed and explosive power.
FS Arizona: Have you settled on the roles/positions for the coaches you have hired?
Graham: Mike Norvell will be our offensive coordinator. He's one of the most dynamic offensive coordinators you'll find. Bob Connelly will be our run-game coordinator guy. And I've probably just said some things I'm not supposed to say. We're going to announce the rest of the titles later, so bear with me.
FS Arizona: How close is your staff to being complete?
Graham: We've only got one left to hire.
FS Arizona: Have you made a decision on whether the team will resume its training-camp tradition at Camp Tontozona?
Graham: We've got to go take a look and see what's possible, but I'm very open to it. The former players talked to me about it. It's a tradition, and I'm a traditionalist. I have great respect for this game and tradition and our former players. If it's important to our former players, I think it's important.
FS Arizona: How long would you stay?
Graham: It could be a week or longer. I'm not a fan of going up there for just a couple days. Again, we haven't made an official announcement we're going, but when I was at Tulsa we took them down to Fort Gibson and the old Army barracks down there. I like that kind of deal, getting them away. It might be a good idea in the first year to connect and build those relationships.
FS Arizona: Can you promise ASU fans that, if you do not get fired, you will stay for at least the duration of your five-year deal at ASU?
Graham: If you come out and say that people will just say, 'Oh, he's full of it.' Look, we knew we would get our head kicked in for doing this -- for coming here and leaving Pitt. But every day I wake up, my wife's happy and I look out on these mountains and I'm thinking 'Sheesh, I'm blessed to be here.'
If you look at my contract, you'll see it would cost me a lot of money to leave here. From a competitive standpoint, I want to win a Pac-12 championship and I want to win a Rose Bowl and I want to win a national championship. But I know that's all talk. Let's just see what happens. We're just going to have to work to earn that trust, and the only way I can earn that is over time.