TEMPE, Ariz. — Just days before one of the biggest games of his coaching career, Todd Graham can’t help but feel a little nostalgic.
Saturday night, Graham won’t just be looking to become the first coach to lead his team to victories over USC and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks, he’ll be looking to make a statement in the state where his career started.
Graham’s roots as a coach date back to 1988, when he served as an assistant at Poteet High School in his hometown of Mesquite, Texas for three seasons.
From there, he moved on to Oklahoma, where he spent three seasons as a defensive coordinator at East Central University and one season as the head coach at Carl Albert High School.
But ASU’s second-year head coach admitted Monday that his professional maturation didn’t really begin until 1995, when he came back to Texas to take over the football program at Allen High School — located 45 miles away from where his team will play Saturday.
“That’s probably the coaching position that I had the most growth,” Graham said at his weekly press conference Monday. “I had been a high school coach at Carl Albert High School in Oklahoma City for a year, and then took the job [at Allen]. I was the eleventh person offered the job.
“They hadn’t won a 5A game since they joined 5A, I don’t know a couple years. I think we had 28 or 32 kids on varsity. When I left, I think we had 287.”
Although it didn’t appear to be the most desirable stop on his career path, Graham more than made the best of it — program made five playoff appearances in six years — and along the way learned what it took to be a successful head coach.
While he’s now seven jobs and 13 years removed from his days at Allen, Graham wasn’t shy about reminiscing about what that experience meant to his overall career.
“Being there, I developed a relationship with Coach [R.C.] Slocum and the staff there [at Texas A&M], said Graham. “That’s how I met Coach [Tim] Cassidy. It was just about learning, getting in a spot where you could really, really learn. It was just incredible.
“I worked for a superintendent that was really dynamic there, Barbara Irwin. She taught me a lot about leadership. It was probably the place where I experienced the most growth.”
Dallas, the host city for Saturday night’s Shamrock Series with Notre Dame, also holds a special place in Graham’s heart.
As a teenager, Graham made a little extra money working Sundays at Texas Stadium.
“I was in high school, and I had to work to make money,” Graham said. “So I worked the Dallas Cowboys games. It was called Smith’s Security, and you would work in the portholes at the old Texas Stadium. I would work the games. You’d just stand there and be a security guard. That’s kind of interesting to go back there.
“The other thing I did in [high school], I worked for Mercury Painting. I painted the structural steel in the top that went into the columns that they tore down.”
Odd jobs aside, ASU’s non-conference clash with Notre Dame isn’t just another game for Graham.
Saturday’s nationally-televised contest against a program 10 months removed from the BCS title game is about more than strengthening the brand and impressing potential recruits.
For the man who built his coaching resume by winning meaningful games in the Lone Star State, it’s about paying homage to his past.