How time flies. One year ago Arizona State hired away Pitt head coach Todd Graham to “restore order” in a program many thought needed a makeover from top to bottom.
Today, Graham is preparing his team for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl December 29th against Navy (7-4) in San Francisco. His first season (7-5, 5-4 in Pac-12 play) has been filled with highs (beating in-state rival Arizona in Tucson) and lows (last-second losses to Missouri and UCLA), but said overall he’s happy with progress of the program and stresses some of those “issues” he inherited may have been blown out of proportion.
“It hasn’t all been easy, with the structure and the discipline,” Graham told Pros2Preps.com Thursday. “But young people want that because they want to win and they want to be successful. Yes we changed the culture…but was it difficult? Not as difficult as I thought it would be because what I found was a group of great young men. There were very few people mis-representing the university.”
He’s not only had to convince players from the Dennis Erickson era and this year’s freshmen class to “buy in” to his philosophy, but also high school coaches around the state, some of whom became disconnected with Erickson towards the end of his time at ASU. Graham spent over ten years as a high school coach and feels he can relate through that mutual bond they share.
“The key is just time,” Graham explained to Pros2Preps.com. “Getting out and seeing them. Going out and spending time with them building trust. So many people from the Valley have moved from somewhere else so to create that allegiance is all about relationships. It’s just ‘one handshake at a time’ is kind of my approach to building those relationships. I think they know how we treat our players and you reap what you sew.”
Graham was quick to point out the success of landing keys local recruits (DJ Foster, Jaxon Hood) and implementing a new scheme both offensively and defensively can be attributed to the work of his staff, particularly offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph.
“I think [Norvell] did a phenomenal job,” Graham said. “We were 20th in the country in scoring points in our first year with a first year quarterback. Taylor Kelly is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in our league and in the country. I knew what I had in Coach Norvell. He does a great job with our guys. Defensively, we’ve gone from being one of the worst defenses…108th in the country in pass defense to being in the top 10 or 12 in the country. One of the top teams in the country in getting takeaways and interceptions. Second in the Pac-12 in total defense.”
Graham then played professor and started handing out grades to not only his top assistants, but himself, as well.
“I’d give them an ‘A’ and I’d give me a ‘B’ because if we could have blocked that field against UCLA we would have been playing in the [Pac-12] Championship game because that’s what our program’s all about,” he said. “We’ll always look to this group and to this year for the guys that laid the foundation for the championships we’re going to win in the future.”