What steps Kenny Dillingham needs to take for resurgence of Arizona State football
For the second time in three months, the Arizona State Sun Devils have a new head football coach. Only this time, there is no interim tag.
The hiring of former Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham is step No. 1 on the road to rebuilding ASU into the premier football program in the state and a Pac-12 Championship contender year in and year out. Now comes the hard part.
But to fully grasp and comprehend the new direction Arizona State is headed in, one must take a look at the current state of the program and what the near future may look like.
The Sun Devils went 3-9 in 2022, setting a record for the most losses ever in a single season in school history. The three wins were also tied for the fewest in a full campaign since World War II, with ASU going 3-8 in 1994 and 2-2 during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
And while impending sanctions for alleged recruiting violations by the previous coaching regime are still looming, the first domino in restoring Arizona State football to prominence has fallen with Dillingham.
Sun Devil fans can look to other quick turnarounds from college sports programs that went from tumultuous situations due to off-the-field issues and returned to national prominence thanks to the appointment of a new head coach. Two good examples of best-case scenarios are what the likes of Matt Rhule did at Baylor and Tommy Lloyd did with Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball.
Rhule may have gone 1-11 in Year 1, but he followed that up with a 7-6 season and took Baylor to the Sugar Bowl in Year 3. Meanwhile, Lloyd took over for Sean Miller and won the AP Coach of the Year and led the Wildcats to an outright Pac-12 title and Sweet 16 run in Year 1. Obviously, football takes a little bit longer to rebuild than basketball.
And as Dillingham continues to fill in the rest of his coaching staff, including retaining Shaun Aguano and reportedly adding Charlie Ragle and Vince Amey, the first order of business needs to be recruiting the players currently on the roster who may be looking to enter the transfer portal.
On the offensive side of the ball especially, that includes players such as wide receiver Elijhah Badger, running back Daniyel Ngata, tight end Jalin Conyers and quarterback Trenton Bourguet, who is an Arizona native that graduated from Marana High School in Tucson.
“I am a firm believer in the transfer portal,” Dillingham said Sunday. “I am the number one advocate for it because what happens in recruiting is you have a whole bunch of people tell kids what they want to hear for two-three years. And in the past, those kids would get told what they wanted to hear and they’d get stuck and trapped.
“Now, you better be the person you say you are. You better come through with those promises.”
Local ties and those who have deep roots at ASU have been and continue to be a focal point in the new direction university president Michael Crow and vice president of university athletics Ray Anderson want to take the football program in.
That became evident not only because of the appointment of Aguano in an interim role, but also the hiring of Dillingham followed by Amey and Ragel. Amey is the only one who actually played for ASU from 1994-98, while the other three all have previous experience on Arizona State’s coaching staff.
All four have also coached at the high school level in the Valley, with the three new hires all having served time at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. The Sun Devils now boast two of the Valley’s best high school football coaches over the last 15 years in Aguano (Chandler 2011-18) and Ragel (Chaparral 2007-2011), which should help in the battle of recruiting the state of Arizona.
Dillingham iterated how aggressive the program will be in both the NIL and the transfer portal, with the possibility of Oregon players following the coach that recruited them to Eugene.
“I am a firm believer in the transfer portal right for that reason: It gives the power to the kids and that’s who needs the power in this deal,” he said. “That’s who this is all about. It’s about the players. It’s about the kids and for me, we’re going to attack the transfer portal. Attack it.
“Attack it with everything we have and there’s going to be balance. Hopefully in the future, we can attack it a little bit less and a little bit less and a little bit less. But there’s a lot of kids throughout this country who want to live in Phoenix, Arizona.”
Dillingham also called on the Valley — which he called the country’s “fourth-biggest village” — to aid ASU’s Sun Angel Collective that helps student-athletes monetize and profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL). He also talked about building relationships in the community that go as deep as Pop Warner football, including hosting youth clinics.
And with the portal open Dec. 5 to Jan. 18, we could see just how big of an effect the new head coaching hire has had only one week in for prospective transfers and current players who are unsure about staying in Tempe.
“We’re ready when everybody’s ready. We need everybody. It can’t be, ‘Oh, thank you. OK, that’s good.’ We just got $1 million dollars. That’s unbelievable right there,” Dillingham said of Nap Lawrence’s donation. “Where else is it coming from? He did that to inspire everybody else. What are you doing?
“You may just buy season tickets. You may just buy season tickets to hockey or baseball. You may show up to wrestling, whatever that is. What can you do? For this program, not just football. What can you do for this university? Because this is the flagship. This is the flagship. So from that standpoint, it’s getting the Valley all in. If we get the Valley all in, the sky is the limit.”