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December 6, 2013

Commentary: Rare opportunity for Graham, Sun Devils

Nationally and locally, the term sleeping giant has been frequently tossed around about Arizona State for at least three decades. The program's 10-2 regular season record and Pac-12 South championship this year do not mean the program has already reached the potential so many have envisioned possible.

It does, however, show that under second year head coach Todd Graham, the long-sleeping Sun Devils are stirring.

What happens next will determine if the program does in fact reach its potential.

ASU has flashed its potential multiple times since it joined the Pac-10 conference some 35 years ago. In 1986 it won the Rose Bowl under John Cooper but he departed for Ohio State after just one more season in Tempe and by 1991 his replacement Larry Marmie was dismissed after eroding any positive momentum with his 22-21-1 record in four seasons.

Bruce Snyder then took over and while his rebuild took five seasons and led to an undefeated season and return to the Rose Bowl, ASU fans remember how that ended. ASU won nine games including a 6-2 Pac-10 record the following year and then was a preseason Top-10 team in 1998. But Snyder was never able to solidify the program's rise to prominence and ended his tenure with three seasons of mediocrity leading into a new millennium.

Snyder's replacement, Dirk Koetter won eight games and lost in the Holiday Bowl in 2002 and ASU finished 9-3 and won the Sun Bowl in 2004. Koetter lasted two more seasons and was noted for impressive offenses, frustrating defenses, and forgettable bowl appearances.

Koetter was then replaced with Dennis Erickson, and the Sun Devils went 10-3 in his inaugural 2007 season, losing to Texas in the Holiday Bowl. It would be the last winning season Erickson would have in Tempe and after the 2011 season Erickson was let go and the Graham-era began.

Graham's way of doing business resonated quickly in the Valley. Unlike previous coaches he actively engaged media, boosters and quite frankly anybody who would listen. It became apparent early in the 2012 season that Graham had changed the culture in and around the program. Gone was the undisciplined play that was blamed on Erickson but quite frankly had been present in the program since the final days of Snyder.

The results on field did not come as quickly as the cultural shift, but followed in relatively short order.

ASU was a mild surprise during the 2012 campaign but a close loss at home to UCLA ended its chances of winning the South and it wasn't until a fourth quarter rally in Tucson to beat Arizona and then a blowout win versus Navy in the Kraft-Fight Hunger Bowl that the apathetic nature of much of the ASU fan base seemed to start changing.

ASU entered the 2013 season as one of the favorites to win the South but after multiple letdowns of recent years many fans and media were still in prove it mode. A controversial win against Wisconsin and losses to Stanford and Notre Dame early in the season caused many to question whether ASU would take the anticipated step toward prominence or again stumble.

When ASU dismantled Washington at home it was a surprise even if the Sun Devils were the Las Vegas favorite. It wasn't as much the fact ASU won it was how convincingly it did so and how well its defense, which had been predicted to be stellar, finally played to that level. From that point on the Sun Devils have played at a consistently high level and went on to win road games at Washington State, Utah and UCLA.

How did ASU and Graham get here? While his modus operandi definitely had a significant impact on the program it also benefited from a combination of quality Erickson players who, under Graham, lived up to their promise and Graham recruits who made an immediate impact.

The level of talent currently in program is the highest it has been since Snyder's 1996 Rose Bowl team. That team had nearly two dozen players who were eventually drafted or played in the NFL. While this team may not reach that level it is easily the most talented squad since.

Graham motivated Erickson's players to new heights and capitalized on the opportunity that existed. He found players to fill in the gaps on the roster right away and when few thought he had one, identified a holdover quarterback in Taylor Kelly who fit his offensive scheme and personified his ideology perfectly, a stroke of luck.

For ASU the promise of quality program to be widely admired has always been there but it has been a rare occurrence for so many high level players to be on the roster at the same time. That challenge has been broadly under-appreciated.

The key for Graham moving forward is to recruit players who will be able to play at the same level as Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Chris Young, Marion Grice and Jaelen Strong. If that happens ASU will more than likely not be waiting another decade to have a nationally relevant season. Graham has already clearly demonstrated what he can do when he has talent, an answer to a most important question.

In-state recruiting has been a focus since it began to slip under Koetter and nationally prominent programs raced into the Valley to exploit the burgeoning local talent base. A stellar 2014 class in Arizona has largely decided to leave the state for college, a sure sign of previous staffs' failings as opposed to any shortcoming under Graham.

Much like Sun Devil Stadium, when Graham arrived at ASU the foundation of in-state recruiting was cracked and needed to be rebuilt. Graham went to work literally from day one on the job. He did hundreds of interviews and speaking requests but also visited the high schools, looked people in the eye, shook their hands and told them of his plans.

Whether literally true or not, it's not inappropriate to jest that Graham probably visited more local high schools in his first weeks on the job than Erickson and Koetter did during their combined tenures. Many local coaches certainly felt that way. His staff was just as evolved. He had a tough fight dealing with the perception of ASU locally combined with media attention he received for his departure from Pitt, a noose around his neck he's now deftly removed and cast aside.

Winning cures a lot in sports. Graham has won at ASU early. The Sun Devils are 18-7 since he arrived -- the third best mark of any BCS program who hired a coach following the 2011 season behind Ohio State and Texas A&M -- and with 10 wins still have two games remaining. Local media now love Graham. Perceptions are changing, albeit maybe too slowly for fans who want to see ASU land several of the top local prospects this year.

Doubts still linger and understandably so given the well established pattern exhibited over the last three-plus decades. That's why the next phase of Graham's tenure at ASU is so important. He has to keep the momentum. Graham has certainly earned leeway with fans but for local recruits, seeing ASU fall back to a seven win team again over the next few seasons will only reinforce the well embedded cultural perspective that they need to go out of state to have a chance to compete for championships.

The victory over UCLA was the high profile meaningful victory that the program needed. It bought a lot of legitimacy to Graham and ASU nationally and locally. The dominating win over Arizona, as Graham pointed out, was important to the fans but as Graham pointed out the next one is the one game they want.

The next games will decide a lot with the perceptions of Graham and the program. If ASU defeats Stanford it will have won an outright conference title for the first time since 1996. A trip to the Rose Bowl is enough to build on the momentum moving forward and have the type of recruiting capital that will last well into next year and perhaps beyond.

A loss to Stanford will be viewed as a missed opportunity and then whichever bowl game the Sun Devils end up playing in will not have nearly the same cache, regardless of how remarkable the accomplishment. There is a reason 2007 is not held nearly in the same regard with 1996 and the other great ASU seasons.

Graham has rebuilt the foundation locally. The Pac-12 championship game in Tempe presents a tremendous opportunity for ASU to prove to recruits locally and nationally that under Graham ASU truly can win the Pac-12 and compete for national championships.

The future is now for ASU.


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