by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

If a book were to be written about how not to hire a football coach, Arizona State might qualify as both the author and publisher. Especially after an embarrassing exercise last December that left reputations scarred, bridges burned, and more than a few with egg on their face.

All sadly, however, part and parcel for what has happened over the past several years to what was not long ago considered one of the most-dynamic gridiron programs within one of the high-profile athletic departments in the nation.

Oh, for the good old days in Tempe!

It’s been anything but lately, however, in the Valley of the Sun.

Rewind to last December, when a once-promising gridiron campaign had again unraveled for the Sun Devils. The final chapter of the five-season run of HC Dennis Erickson, whose ASU regime had commenced with such fanfare in 2007, had already been authored, with five straight losses at the end of the regular season denying the Sun Devils a chance to win the first championship of the South Division of the newly-expanded Pac-12. Instead, ASU, which had looked so good early in the campaign (when, among other wins, it blasted Southern Cal by a 43-22 count) and was dreaming about the BCS, was instead relegated to the Las Vegas Bowl, where it was destroyed by Boise State, 56-24. After three previous bowl-less seasons on Erickson’s watch, it was once again time to find a new head coach, as ASU had done so often over the past few decades.

The Sun Devils were not the only regional entry horse in the find-a-coach field, however. Conference foes Washington State and hated rival Arizona were also in the market for a new mentor, and both managed the process smoothly, as the Cougars enlisted former Texas Tech HC Mike Leach, and the disliked Wildcats had no trouble going high-profile, either, nabbing ex-Michigan and West Virginia HC Rich Rodriguez. Meanwhile, ASU was striking out as often as Dave Kingman as it swung and missed for Houston’s Kevin Sumlin and Southern Mississippi’s Larry Fedora, who instead opted for jobs at Texas A&M & North Carolina, respectively.

ASU then thought it had its man, SMU HC June Jones, and had progressed to the point where Jones’ agent, the one and only Leigh Steinberg, believed he had a deal. But Jones’ name set off an alarm somewhere in the Sun Devil booster community. Before anyone could say Frank Kush, or God Bless You, word came to AD Lisa Love and school prexy Dr. Michael Crow that whatever they did, they were to make sure it didn’t include a contract for June Jones.

(We won’t even speculate in this space as to why Jones’ name was such a red flag, other than to say we have a pretty good idea what was going on, which makes it incomprehensible that Lisa Love didn’t know as well.)

With the coaching search seemingly dragging on almost as long as Barry Goldwater’s career in the US Senate, it was suggested that the Sun Devils might have to settle for the offensive coordinator at Scottsdale Community College as their new football supremo. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but in retrospect, it might have caused less of a fuss than what Love eventually offered.

Meet Todd Graham, who has rewritten the definition of flight risk in the coach’s dictionary, bumping aside names like Dennis Franchione, Larry Brown, and Lou Saban in the process. Graham jumped at ASU’s offer like a large-mouth bass after a piece of big, juicy bait, leaving Pitt in a lurch just eleven months after stealing him away from Tulsa. Which, a few years earlier, had heisted Graham away from Rice after just one year on the Owls job.

Okay, we’ll concede Graham that Rice-to-Tulsa move, as he was merely returning to the Golden Hurricane, which he had served as offensive coordinator before taking the job with the Owls (and leading Rice to its first bowl in 45 years). But the Graham employment track record reads almost like baseball pitcher Livan Hernandez’, with ’ol Todd now working on his fourth head coaching job in seven seasons, and fifth different coaching assignment in eight years.

So thrilled was Pitt at Graham’s abrupt departure that some angry boosters reportedly wanted to block the Fort Pitt tunnel out of town rather than let Graham skip out on his commitment to the Panthers without facing them. Graham, however, had vaporized out of the Steel City even quicker than the hometown Penguins’ defense had disappeared in the recent Stanley Cup playoffs vs. the Flyers.

Maybe hiring that offensive coordinator from Scottsdale Community College would have been a better idea after all.

Meanwhile, those misadventures of Lisa Love turned out to be among her last ones in Tempe, as she was unceremoniously moved aside in late March in favor of Steve Patterson (shown in the photo at right, shaking hands vs. Dr. Crow), who had not long before been enlisted as the caretaker of the Sun Devil Sports Group. The Graham hiring fiasco was the last straw in a succession of bad decisions by Love that had included extending former football coach Dirk Koetter’s contract for another year before firing him 11 months later, costing the school a cool $2.8 million, not to mention the recent contract extension for balding hoops HC Herb Sendek, who was in the midst of another miserable season in which one player was dismissed from the program (G Keala King) and two others were disciplined, and that was all before the leading scorer, Trent Lockett, decided to transfer to Marquette once the season concluded. Moreover, Love’s 2007 hiring of Erickson, while looking good for a year, eventually didn’t bring ASU football out of mediocrity.

Add in two years of NCAA probation for lack of institutional control, the baseball program being hit with seven major violations, plus ongoing apathy from a once-rabid fan base that has been staying away from Sun Devil Stadium and Wells Fargo Arena in droves, and you have to wonder what on earth took the school seven years to pull the plug on its AD.

Indeed, a leadership void seems to be a constant theme in Tempe over the past few decades, traced back, some believe, to legendary football HC Frank Kush’s forced ouster halfway into the 1979 football season. The Pennsylvania-born Kush, a taskmaster to the nth degree, had of course helped put ASU sports on the map with a series of explosive and successful teams dating from days in the late ‘50s in the old Border Conference and into the creation of the WAC in 1962.

The gridiron Sun Devils, who rose to prominence in the mid ‘50s under Dan Devine, didn’t skip a beat when Kush took over in 1958. Kush’s ASU never had a losing record until 1976, with a collection of high-powered offensive artillery led by the likes of RBs Charley Taylor (who would go on to a HOF career as an NFL Redskins wide receiver), Tony Lorick, Gene Foster, Larry Walton (another future NFL WR with the Lions), Malone twins Art and Benny, Monroe Eley, Brent McClanahan, and Woody Green, plus WRs Ben Hawkins, J.D. Hill, Morris Owens, and John Jefferson, and QBs Danny White and Mark Malone.

By 1980, the ASU athletic program was as state-of-the-art as any, its stadium having been expanded to over 70,000 seats and hosting its own bowl (Fiesta), facilities the envy of practically every school in the country, and an active, deep-pocketed booster group (the Sun Angels) that was the prototype for many imitators across the land.

Thirty years later, however, the Sun Devil facilities, while still impressive, haven’t changed all that much. What was once the ultimate college sports paradise is now only one of many. The college sports world has caught up to, and in many cases surpassed, ASU. While it can be argued that a transformation in the Valley to a pro sports marketplace (the NBA Suns, NFL Cardinals, NHL Coyotes, and MLB D-backs all arriving in the Valley long after Kush was winning big) has caused more competition for the local sports dollar, the Phoenix metro area has also grown almost ten times in the past fifty years. There is plenty of local gold for ASU to mine, and there is no reason that Sun Devil Stadium, still one of the top football venues in the country, and all of the nearby eateries and watering holes on Mill Avenue, can’t be hotbeds of excitement on Saturday nights in the fall as they once were.

(Sun Devil Stadium, by the way, could be do for some extensive renovations, including a new rolling roof, according to just-named AD Patterson. If approved, the Devils might have to relocate to the Cardinals' nearby U of P Stadium in Glendale for a season or two while refurbishments are undertaken. Stay tuned for further updates.)

ASU football has emerged occasionally in the post-Kush era, with Darryl Rogers, John Cooper, and the late Bruce Snyder each fielding some successful squads (the latter pair two leading ASU into its only two Rose Bowl appearances), but sustaining the Kush-like momentum has proven difficult.

Now, the Sun Devils enter the fall with a controversial new coaching hire, a completely restructured staff, new schemes offensively and defensively, and a roster that has endured extensive turnover. All working under a new athletic administration.

So, is Todd Graham going to be the answer?

Many Sun Devil backers are not yet convinced, and already are wondering about the dynamics of Graham, yet to coach a game in Tempe, working for an AD who didn’t hire him.

While Graham has mostly won, occasionally big, in his stints at Rice, Tulsa, and Pitt, there is a school of thought that Graham’s biggest asset has been an ability to hire good assistants (not the worst trait for a coach, we might add). Graham’s supposed offensive expertise has flourished most when decorated coordinators such as Gus Malzahn (now Arkansas State’s new HC) and Chad Morris (now Clemson’s decorated offensive mastermind) were on staff. Graham’s spread offense last year at Pitt, while admittedly having some bad luck with injuries (such as RB Ray Graham’s midseason knee injury ), was hardly a juggernaut, ranking in the 80s nationally in both total “O” and scoring, far cries from his Tulsa days. It is not lost upon Graham’s critics that he was working without either Malzahn or Morris with the Panthers a year ago.

Instead, he has brought along his most-recent o.c., Mike Norvell, from Pitt. Norvell had previously worked on Graham’s Tulsa staff and before that at Central Arkansas, under the progressive Clint Conque, a noted spread offense devotee. Though well versed in the spread and spread-option, Norvell’s credentials are yet to match those of Malzahn (also, by the way, a Conque disciple) or Morris.

What Graham inherits in Tempe is a squad whose aforementioned collapse down the stretch last season not only prompted the Erickson dismissal but also motivated jr. QB Brock Osweiler to get out of town before his pro prospects could be damaged any further. Instead of being in one of the many-colored ASU uniforms this fall, Osweiler will be carrying a clipboard for the Denver Broncos, who ostensibly drafted big Brock to watch and learn from Peyton Manning for a few years before hopefully taking over down the road.

Rather than the one-back spread preferred by Erickson and his o.c. Noel Mazzone, Graham and Norvell will be utilizing a fast-paced, no-huddle spread option in Tempe, which means the QBs are going to be expected to do business with their feet as well as their arms. (Not a bad idea, perhaps, for Osweiler to bail out when he did.) Now all Graham had to do is find a trigger-man for his uptempo attack.

The post-Osweiler pecking order would suggest that holdover soph Mike Bercovici (right), Osweiler’s backup in 2011 who took the majority of snaps in spring, will be in the starting lineup for the September 1 opener vs. Northern Arizona. With a big arm, Bercovici could satisfy the aerial component of the Graham offense, but he’s no dancer, so he might not be the protoype needed for the spread option to work best. Graham is waiting until fall camp to name his starter, because Bercovici didn’t distance himself enough from contenders Taylor Kelly, a soph with background in the spread option from prep days, and imposing 6'5, 242-lb. RS frosh Michael Eubank, the gem of last year’s recruiting class with many of the physical characteristics of Cam Newton. But he’s the most raw candidate of the bunch, and Graham might not be excited for Eubank to undergo on-the-job-training with the new offense.

The Graham spread option will be more run-oriented than any of Erickson’s attacks, which could mean good news for sr. RB Cameron Marshall (left), a compact, 5'11, 223-lb. slasher who rushed for an impressive 1050 yards and 18 TDs last fall. But he’ll still have to fight for carries, as backup sr. James Morrison had a terrific spring while Marshall idled following minor ankle surgery, and true frosh D.J. Foster, a local Scottsdale (Saguaro High) product who scored a state-record 60 TDs (60 TDs!) as a senior last fall, might be hard to keep out of the lineup.

Junior Kyle Middlebrooks, soph Deantre Lewis, and touted juco Marion Grice will also be looking for chances to contribute as the Graham offense will often add an extra third-down back who will work out of the slot and shift outside to a receiver spot if necessary.

But Graham's inherited offense returns only four starters and does not feature many accomplished components at the wideout and line spots. Three of the top four receivers from last season have departed; WR Jamal Miles (right) is the only returning starter, although he was used more out of the slot in the Erickson offense and gained barely six yards per reception on his 60 catches. He’s elusive, however, and gained better than 8 yards on a handful of carries, and returned three kicks (two kickoffs and one punt) for scores last fall. The Graham offense has to find ways to get Miles the ball in open field, at least better than the Erickson/Mazzone offense from a year ago. Although the WR crew as a whole does not have much experience, it does possess plenty of downfield speed with Miles and jrs. Kevin Ozier and J.J. Holliday. Whether they can hook up with the QBs on deep routes remains to be seen, but the longball threat with such speedburners should at least, in theory, stretch opposing defenses.

Three starters must also be replaced on a forward wall that was plagued by inconsistency last season, although Graham was reportedly pleased that the new OL was seamlessly adjusting to the different schemes and assignments in the new offense which will focus on pounding the ball between the tackles much more than did Erickson’s air show. Senior RG Andrew Sampson, a 304-pounder, is one of the two returning starters and an honors candidate, although there are depth concerns should injuries arise. Graham is also looking for more consistency from soph PK Alex Garoutte, who hit on 15 of 22 FG tries in his debut a year ago.

The “D” was similarly strafed by graduation and departure, as like the offense only four starters return. Not included in the 2012 mix is diva LB Vontaze Burfict, who opted to skip his last season of eligibility for the NFL instead, eventually inking a FA deal with the Bengals after attitude concerns contributed to his name not being called at Radio City Music Hall in late April. Pac-12 sources suggest his absence might not be a bad thing, considering his divisive nature.

On the plus side, Graham and co-d.c.’s Paul Randolph and Ron West get a bonus with the return of sr. WLB Brandon Magee (left), whose 2011 campaign was ended prematurely by a ruptured Achilles tendon. It’s worth noting that former d.c. Craig Bray had pegged Magee, and not Burfict, as the most important cog on the stop unit prior to his injury. Touted juco Steffon Martin, from Arizona Western College, will be given a chance to succeed Burfict in one of the spots in the middle.

While the offense was busy installing a new system in the spring, so was the defense, which is apt to use a variety of different looks (4-3, 3-4, even 3-3-5) as situations warrant. Randolph and West also figure to make liberal use of hybrids at the “Devil” (part DE/part LB) and “Spur” (part LB/part safety) positions as situations warrant.

The prototype “Devil” will be a speed rusher from the edge, with the ability to drop off in coverage as needed, and 6'0, 237-lb. soph Carl Bradford (right, in the No. 52 jersey, vs. Colorado last fall) displayed in spring the sort of burst, range, and closing speed to fill the role. The “Spur” is likely to be 6'2, 212-lb. Jr. Anthony Jones, who also impressed in spring with his ability to blitz and transition into coverage.

The defensive front could be augmented considerably by jr. DE Junior Onyeali (remember another great “Junior” Sun Devil defender from the Kush days, Junior Ah You?), who was the then-called Pac-10 Defensive Frosh of the Year in 2010 but has run into nothing but trouble since, and was suspended from the team in spring. His status for the fall might not be determined until August.

Soft coverage in the secondary was an ongoing issue last season as ASU sunk to 108th (a whopping 273 ypg) in national pass defense stats. Injuries (including one to star CB Omar Bolden, a 4th-round draft pick by the Broncos) were a problem a year ago but at least gave now-jr. Osahon Irabor (left) a chance to get his feet wet at the corner, and he and sr. Deveron Carr (with 21 career starts) return as the starting CBs. But replacing standout safeties Clint Floyd and Eddie Elder remains a concern.

ASU’s pointspread pattern become bipolar as the Erickson era came to its conclusion; the Sun Devils were 10-2 vs the line in 2010 but sunk to 4-9 a year ago. Moreover, the Devils alternated extended hot and cold stretches vs. the number on the road and at home in a curious pattern that is unlikely to continue. Graham’s past teams have occasionally emerged as spread overachievers, especially as an underdog, a role in which his Pitt and Tulsa sides covered 9 of their last 10 chances.

Summary...ASU is one of several wild cards in the Pac-12, with enough potential playmakers on both sides of the ball to suggest the Sun Devils could be a surprise package. But we’re reluctant to expect as much with the new QBs running a complex new offense that, among other things, subjects its signal-callers to extra punishment. Indeed, there’s an awful lot of “new” in Tempe (coach, QB, starters, offensive and defensive systems, not to mention the AD), so even with a manageable schedule (NAU and Illinois, also with a new coach, provide chances for wins out of the gate at Sun Devil Stadium), and plenty of question marks in most Pac-12 locales save Oregon and USC, this looks like an adjustment autumn in Tempe. About the best we can reasonably expect from Graham’s first ASU edition is a very minor bowl invitation.


Return To Home Page