TEMPE — When Todd Graham first took the practice field as ASU’s new head coach, he wasn’t sure if he had all of his players’ attention.
“If they had a vote, I probably got voted off the island,” Graham said during media day Saturday.
Acceptance of a new coach and his staff is not always easy, especially for those who remain loyal to the previous regime.
Graham, though, was patient and his message never wavered.
“When I talked about winning championships last year, I don’t know that everybody kind of believed that,” Graham stated.
And now, after finishing 8-5?
“I think after being so close, I think they’ve seen that we can do that,” Graham said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we have the talent and the ability to be in the hunt. I think our guys; they expect to win a championship. I know that they believe they can. I don’t know that all of them believed they could last year.”
According to Graham, the turning point in year one was how the team responded after the late season four-game losing streak with three straight wins, including beating rival UA and Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
“I think they showed their character,” Graham said. “They believed in what we were doing, and that’s when the buy-in occurred.”
Senior safety Alden Darby feels it happened much earlier, as in after the first game when the Sun Devils routed NAU, 63-6.
“It wasn’t because we put a lot of points on them,” Darby said. “It was just, to see the scheme just work and just be unstoppable. It was like, ‘Man, (Graham) knows what he’s talking about.’ So it was from that point on.”
Regardless of when, the fact is Graham, here on day one of season two, has 100 percent buy-in.
“I think that we are completely different than a year ago,” Graham said. “I do believe it’s our philosophy, I’m hoping it is. I think last year it was my philosophy and they had to do it. This year I believe it’s our philosophy. I think we’re very solid. If you look at what our guys are doing academically, 2.62 GPA, incoming freshman over 3.0 in the summer. I can’t tell you one newcomer that we’ve brought here that I’ve been disappointed with in the first four days of practice. I couldn’t tell you that last year.”
Of course now comes the hard part: Sustaining that success.
“I think it’s much harder to handle success than it is to get something turned around. I think last year was the easy part,” Graham said. “Going 8-5 was the easy part. Winning 12, 13, 14 (games) is a whole different deal, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“The core of our philosophy is competitiveness, so I want those expectations. I want the program and our fan base to expect us to win Pac-12 South and Pac-12 championships.”