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Graham's fast start at Arizona State faces biggest challenge vs. Oregon

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Todd Graham has reined in Arizona State's penalty-prone players during his first season. (US Presswire)  
Todd Graham has reined in Arizona State's penalty-prone players during his first season. (US Presswire)  

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State president Michael Crow was in no mood for small talk when Todd Graham showed up for a job interview last winter. The football program was in shambles. A season-ending five-game losing streak and a spate of discipline issues cut the athletic department's ambitious new marketing campaign off at the knees, precipitating the firing of coach Dennis Erickson.

Adding fuel to fans' ire was a very public -- and some maintain, botched -- coaching search in which June Jones' agent, Leigh Steinberg, was tweeting his client's imminent hiring, play-by-play, before ASU pulled the plug.

In walked Graham, with his catch phrases and sales pitches in tow, ready to bail on Pittsburgh after only 11 months on the job. That fact piqued Crow's interest.

"We focused on the issue of character," Crow said. "I asked quite simply, 'Why are you here in this room? Why am I talking to you? Why are you talking to me, having only been at Pitt for less than a year?'"

The Panthers' fan base probably will never forgive Graham for his early departure and hollow promises, but as ASU prepares to face No. 2 Oregon on Thursday at Sun Devil Stadium, nobody in the Valley of the Sun is questioning Graham any more.

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The Pac-12 made a splash in the offseason with four new coaching hires. The three others -- Washington State's Mike Leach, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and UCLA's Jim Mora -- all had bigger names and flashier résumés. But as the conference reached the season's midpoint last week, Graham's Sun Devils (5-1) boasted the best record.

"He's done everything he said he was going to do," first-year athletic director Steve Patterson said. "We were looking for someone who had been a head coach, somebody who had run an offense that was fun to watch. We wanted far better relationships with our community, its donors, our supporters, the media and high school coaches.

"We wanted somebody that could be a leader and those are the characteristics Todd has shown."

Graham knew he had a tiny window of opportunity this season. His short stints at Rice (2006) and Pitt preconditioned the Valley media and many fans to skepticism. Despite his insistence that this was a much better fit for his family -- Crow said they "are not East Coasters" -- his introductory press conference was more contentious than celebratory.

"I knew I'd get killed for what we were doing," Graham said. "I just accepted that and set about changing people's minds."

But Graham knew there was another factor impacting that narrow window of opportunity: his players.

"I was working as hard as I could because I knew there was no option," he said. "We had to have success early. As you have adversity then people say 'I don't know about this deal' so I think [quick success] was vital."

How has he achieved it? With a comprehensive plan that virtually every new coach preaches but few achieve in such depth. The Valley's high school coaches are in virtual lockstep in declaring their relationship with Graham the best they've had with any ASU coach.

Patterson says interest and, more important, fund-raising are up. The fan base is predictably hanging on the coach's every word and the local media repeat Graham's Texas-drawl catch phrases -- "speakin' victory" and "left lane, hammer down" -- with equal parts amusement and admiration.

Graham will admit he is always selling, but he does it so well that one local reporter quipped he could sell real estate in Chernobyl. Graham also likes to talk. His long-winded, meandering responses have made it paramount to get your questions in early at postgame press conferences, lest you not get one in at all.

"I don't see a downside to that," Patterson said, laughing. "It's always better to try to tell your story than it is to let someone tell it for you. You need someone who is going to sell your program. You need someone who's going to engage your community."

Arizona State needed it desperately. Erickson became more of a recluse in his later years at ASU, eschewing public functions and appearing awkward or small in the spotlight.

His predecessor, Dirk Koetter, had an aversion to boosters, fans and most high school coaches, while he clashed, at one point, with virtually every media member in town.

But whether his voice is too hoarse from yelling at games or his eyes are too tired from sleeping on his office couch, Graham never seems to meet a person with whom he can't share common ground and a robust conversation.

"He's a great communicator," said Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn, Graham's offensive coordinator at Tulsa from 2007-08 and Auburn's OC when Cam Newton led the Tigers to the national championship in 2010. "You've got to set expectations for your program, but here's the thing about Todd, he means it. It ain't just talk. He has a plan, he'll put it out there and he wants everybody, I mean everybody to come on board with it."

Getting his players to buy in is perhaps Graham's greatest stroke of genius. ASU fans have long considered the program a sleeping giant, one that teased the community with the Rose Bowl and national title flirtations in 1996-97, but never established a consistent base.

Erickson's ability to recruit talent was unquestionable. It's evident every time the Devils take the field this season, whether its national sacks leader Will Sutton, impeccable game manager Taylor Kelly or middle linebacker Brandon Magee, who was also drafted by the Boston Red Sox last season.

What Erickson's teams never displayed was discipline. For his final three seasons, the Devils were among the nation's most penalized teams. Now they sit in assigned seats at team meetings, pick up their trash in the locker room, leave their hats and headphones at home and rank seventh in the nation in fewest yards penalized per game (31.33).

"Discipline ain't no joke with him. He'll take you out of the game, he'll take you out of practice, he'll take you out of everything you love," Magee said with a delivery that borders on Chris Rock. "He talks a lot about character and respect and he tries to teach us lessons about life. But to be honest, a lot of it is intimidation, too. He ain't playing around. You mess up, you won't play football."

ASU's record is a difficult read. The Sun Devils have not played an FBS team with a winning record this season, but few predicted such disappointing starts for Illinois, Missouri, Utah and Cal when the schedule came out. The Devils' lone loss, at struggling Mizzou, looks all the worse now that the Tigers are 3-4 and 0-4 in the SEC, including a stunning home loss to Vanderbilt.

On the flip side, that loss represented ASU's first road game with wholesale lineup changes from 2011. Kelly, a redshirt sophomore, replaced quarterback Brock Osweiler, who entered the NFL a year early. The Sun Devils lost their top three receivers, three key offensive linemen, the only four linebackers who saw significant snaps, both starting safeties and two defensive line starters.

Of the four Pac-12 teams that changed coaches, none lost more players than ASU, but Graham still downplays the club's early accomplishments, pointing to Oregon as the litmus test of ASU's progress.

"This is what you work for. This is what you play for. It's why you're at this level, to play in this kind of game with this kind of opportunity because of what they stand for," he said. "To be able to do it in our first year would be monumental. There's no measuring it. That's how big it is."

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