Graham’s firing puts ASU’s pie-in-the-sky expectations on display
The powers that be at Arizona State wanted improvement in the football program in 2017.
They got it — a 7-5 regular-season record, wins over two ranked teams and arch-rival Arizona, a second-place finish in the Pac-12 South and a bowl bid after a one-year absence.
None of it was enough to save Todd Graham’s job.
Graham delivered on many of the promises he made when he arrived on campus in December 2011. He was visible in the community. He reconnected disenfranchised alumni to the program. He was instrumental in the refurbishing of Camp Tontozona. He instilled discipline into the football program, both on and off the field.
Oh, and he won a lot of football games.
Still not enough.
“From the moment he arrived in Tempe, Todd helped change the culture and emphasized the student in student-athlete here at Arizona State, elevating the program to unprecedented heights in the classroom and strong citizenship across the board,” Anderson said in a statement issued Sunday morning.
“However, our athletic department, university and community expect our football program to compete on the field for Pac-12 titles, be competitively consistent and qualify to participate in major bowl games on a regular basis. In evaluating Todd’s body of work over a four-year period, it became clear that a change is necessary.
“We are committed to turning Sun Devil Football into an elite program and competing nationally on a consistent basis.”
You can certainly debate whether or not Graham should have been fired — I personally believe he should have been retained — but there’s a much bigger and more poignant question that arises after reading Anderson’s statement.
Why in the world does Arizona State believe it can be an “elite program” that “competes nationally on a consistent basis”?
It’s been 40 years since the Sun Devils joined the Pac-10. Never in those 40 years has success been sustained. Not by Darryl Rogers. Not by Bruce Snyder. Not by Dennis Erickson. Not by Todd Graham.
The late Frank Kush built something in the desert. He built a program based on discipline and toughness. His Sun Devils won a lot of games. Kush had 19 winning seasons, won six bowl games — including four Fiesta Bowls — and finished in the top 15 of the AP Poll five times.
The vast majority of that success was prior to ASU’s inclusion in the Pac-10. When Kush started his desert construction process, the Sun Devils were members of the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association, with the likes of Hardin-Simmons, UTEP, New Mexico State and West Texas A&M.
They later moved into the WAC — a step up, but certainly not one of the nation’s premier conferences.
Kush only coached 17 games while ASU was a Pac-10 member. In ASU’s first season in a big boy conference (1978), the Devils went 9-3 and won the Garden State Bowl. Kush was fired five games into the 1979 season, so we’ll never know if his blueprint would have continued to work.
What we do know is that nobody that has followed him as ASU’s head coach has been able to sustain success.
But it’s not just an Arizona State problem. No program in the current form of the Pac-12 has had perennial success over a two-decade span. USC has probably come the closest, with 16 consecutive winning seasons. But the Trojans have only played in one major bowl game since 2008.
Washington, now the class of the conference, was winless as recently as 2008.
Oregon, backed by the deep pockets of Nike magnate Phil Knight, is just 11-13 over the last two seasons.
The point is, it’s incredibly difficult to build an elite football program anywhere, let alone in the Phoenix metro area — a market saturated with professional sports options for consumers.
Arizona State has financial hurdles in that it can’t compete with the salaries handed out to the top coaches in the sport. Graham was the 34th-highest paid college coach in 2017, according to the USA Today Coach’s Database. He’ll also receive a $12.3 million buyout, according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell.
Sure, ASU’s football facilities are top-notch now (interestingly enough, Graham put a lot of his own money into the project), but in the arms race that is college football, it’ll only be a short time before another program builds a new palace to make the setup in Tempe look pedestrian.
I fully understand the ASU leadership wanting to be the best. I want to eat filet mignon and lobster every night on my yacht.
History and current reality say that’s not going to happen.