ASU’s Kenny Dillingham, Colorado’s Deion Sanders show new thinking with coaching hires

Sep 14, 2023, 7:51 PM

Kenny Dillingham...

Head coach Kenny Dillingham of the Arizona State Sun Devils reacts during the second half of the NCAAF game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Mountain America Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State took a calculated risk in hiring the youngest head coach in a Power Five conference.

Kenny Dillingham had a solid record as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator, yet had never been a head coach on any level.

In the past, Dillingham’s youth — he’s 33 now — and lack of head coaching experience might have prevented him from being hired.

Conventional wisdom has shifted.

“There’s not in this day and age any detriment to hiring someone who is perceived as a ‘young’ coach,” former Arizona and Washington State athletic director Jim Livengood said. “What might have seemed young 10 years ago is not young today because of the vast amount of experience.”

The Pac-12 has three new football coaches. Any hire has its risks, but Stanford’s Troy Taylor appears, at least on paper, to be the safest move.

The former Cal quarterback served as co-offensive coordinator at Washington State, was the offensive coordinator at Utah and revitalized Sacramento State’s program from 2019 to 2022, leading the Hornets to a 12-1 record last season.

Dillingham and Colorado’s Deion Sanders were considered riskier moves.

Sanders was a star athlete, a football Hall of Famer and the only person to play in the Super Bowl and the World Series. He started coaching in the high school ranks, first at his own Prime Prep Academy, and was named the head coach at Jackson State in 2020.

Sanders proved to be an adept recruiter, landing top overall recruit Travis Hunter, and went 27-6 in three seasons at Jackson State.

Doubts swirled when Colorado hired Sanders to resurrect a program that went 1-11 last season and again when he overhauled the roster, bringing in 86 new players.

Sanders has silenced the doubters on the field and off, turning Boulder into the epicenter of college football with wins over TCU and Nebraska.

“This team hasn’t scratched the surface of what it’s capable of,” Sanders said.

Arizona State needed someone to jolt the program back into relevance after the Herm Edwards experiment failed after 4 1/2 seasons. Dillingham was the youngest coach in the Power Five at 32 when he was hired yet had plenty of experience before arriving in the desert.

Dillingham’s rise started in the high school ranks in Arizona, then continued at Arizona State, his alma mater. The energetic coach quickly established himself as an rising offensive coaching star, moving up to offensive coordinator at Memphis in his third season.

Dillingham went on to serve as offensive coordinator at Auburn and Florida State before taking the same job at Oregon, where he led one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

“Coaches now who might have been perceived as too young, maybe in their mid to late 20s or early 30s, I don’t think so now because they’ve been around the game, they’ve been exposed to so many things,” Livengood said. “If they can fit into the right fit, place and time, it can work. The age has very little to do with that.”

Dillingham said and did all the right things after arriving in Tempe, adding a level of discipline to the team while creating excitement in the community.

The Sun Devils have not burst into the national consciousness like Sanders’ Buffaloes.

Arizona State played a good first half against Southern Utah in its opener, stumbled around in the rain during the second half after a weather delay to win 24-21. The Sun Devils again had another solid first half against Oklahoma State before another second-half letdown led to a 27-15 loss.

“We’ve got to do a better job as a staff,” Dillingham said. “That starts with me.”

Two games are by no means a good measure of what the new coaches will do with their programs.

Colorado could continue to surprise the rest of the college football world, level off or fall back. Arizona State may pull things together this season, maybe next year, maybe not at all.

“The most inexact science, in my opinion, known to mankind is the hiring of coaches,” Livengood said. “It’s an art form. It’s art and science all tied into one. There are times that it looks like it’s going to work, there are other times where it’s exasperating.”

Finding the right coach — football or otherwise — is about the right fit, the right place and at the right time.

And only time will tell if a coach matches all three.

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