TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham doesn’t sound like Todd Graham lately. There is a noticeable lack of bravado from Arizona State’s football coach when he addresses the media or the Sun Devil fan base.
Most outsiders assumed it came in response to athletic director Ray Anderson’s infamous talk less, deliver more edict, and that is partially true. After talking with Anderson in the offseason, Graham came to the conclusion that he doesn’t need to sell his program any more to the outside world, even if his message to his team remains the same.
“I haven’t said a single thing to our team that’s different from what I have been saying all along. Our expectations are what they are,” Graham said Tuesday evening, his voice hoarse form a work day that began at dawn and ended at 8 p.m. “Our goal from the time I got here was to be champions on the field and off the field and we haven’t compromised.”
Some believe Graham’s toned-down public approach is a helping of humble pie that he was forced to choke down after lofty preseason predictions in 2015 gave way to a 6-7 season (his worst in Tempe), but there is a different dynamic at play; a quiet, fist-clenching resolve that would seem to run so counter to Graham’s personality that you can almost imagine him biting his bottom lip bloody to keep the words from flowing freely.
“You’re always motivated to win but yeah, you’re really motivated when you fall short of where you want to be so I would say that’s accurate. I would say it’s burning pretty strong inside of me,” Graham said. “We’re playing in an extremely competitive league and we’re not the only program it’s tough on, but we believe in what we’re doing and we’ve laid a strong foundation. We have a culture of discipline and work ethic and expectations, so what you’re going to see from me is my continued belief in our program.”
Graham didn’t learn humility last season. Life delivered that lesson long before he arrived in Tempe. Graham’s father left the family without so much as a goodbye when Todd was a kid, Rice football player Dale Lloyd II collapsed during a conditioning workout in Graham’s first year as college head coach and died a day later, and there have been trying seasons on each stop along the way.
“It’s not my first time to be through all this,” he said. “This setback we had last year? That’s just life. It happens. You can’t avoid it, but when it happens, you find out what you’re made of.”
Graham knows he is facing numerous challenges this season with an inexperienced quarterback, four new starters on the offensive line, a rebuilt secondary and a lack of depth in some areas, but he has faced similar issues before and he has a wealth of experiences he’s drawing on as he enters the season opener on Saturday against Northern Arizona.
The closest parallel he can find to last season’s disappointment came in his third season at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane was coming off back-to-back Conference USA titles but slipped to 5-7 in 2009.
“We lost four or five games we could have won for a lot of the same reasons,” he said.
Included in those losses was a 28-21 loss to No. 6 Boise State, a 28-24 defeat at UTEP and a 46-45 loss to No. 15 Houston.
“It was kind of the same thing, so after the season, you reassess and reevaluate what you’re doing,” Graham said “We did it at Tulsa just like we did it here.”
ASU lost three games by a total of nine points last season, and led Utah heading to the fourth quarter before a late collapse.
To weather this latest setback, Graham said he leaned heavily on his family, his faith and good friends like offensive line coach Chris Thomsen, whom he calls, “one of the best people I know,” but a rough offseason also provided him with some new opportunities. The loss of multiple assistants to other programs allowed Graham the chance to revitalize, and in his opinion, upgrade his staff with five new assistants: offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, receivers coach Jay Norvell, defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing, defensive line coach Joe Seumalo and running backs coach John Simon.
Graham likes the new voices and fresh approach those men have brought to his program. He likes the energy they have injected and he believes it will have a tangible impact.
ASU was picked to finish fifth in the South Division in the preseason media poll and Graham knows there are many who question whether the Sun Devils are still moving forward under his guidance, despite three prior seasons of relative success.
“I don’t worry about that,” he said. “When you have expectations, that’s what you want people to say and they’re right to be disappointed. But people who know me know I still have those expectations, I’m still confident and trust me, I’m highly motivated this season.”