When Arizona State coach Todd Graham benched standout junior Devil backer Carl Bradford following a sideline altercation late in the third quarter of Saturday’s 30-17 home win over Oregon State he provided the perfect emblem to contrast how he’s different than the regime he replaced in Tempe, and why it’s noteworthy.
Rewind three years to Oct. 4 of 2010 when I happened to randomly bump into then-ASU coach Dennis Erickson in the hallway following his weekly Monday press conference. It came a day after I wrote that starting ASU sophomore middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict needed to be benched for his destabilizing impact on the program.
After exchanging pleasantries I asked Erickson if there would be any punishment for Burfict’s antics at the end of the previous game’s loss to Oregon State, in which he head-butted Oregon State’s quarterback, pushed teammate Max Tabach in the defensive huddle, and engaged with fans in a derogatory manner.
Inexplicably, Erickson said he wasn’t aware of the interaction with Tabach or the Oregon State fans.
In the ensuing days it would be revealed that Erickson had decided to bench Burfict for the first quarter of the team’s next game, on the road at Washington. The Sun Devils won that game to improve to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Pac-10 but as it became clear in the next year and a half, the action wasn’t nearly significant enough to fix the program’s festering problems under Erickson.
The Sun Devils were one of the most penalized and undisciplined teams in the country in Burfict’s final two years and he was the lynchpin. His laziness, petulance and emotional outbursts were overlooked or explained away, emboldening teammates to engage in similar behavior and creating a culture in which others were distracted by it.
Burfict underachieved and so did the Sun Devils. Some of his teammates felt coaches were inconsistent with metering out discipline, allowing Burfict and others to get away with things that less talented players couldn’t. Others lost their confidence in their coaching staff, or their desire to be completely invested in the program and team-centered.
The following season, ASU got out to a 6-2 start (4-1 in the first year of Pac-12 play) but it wasn’t tough, couldn’t handle adversity. It missed three field goals on the road at UCLA on Nov. 5, including a potential game winner, and gave up a third-and-29. Emotionally, ASU was done. It folded like a cheap suit. Finger pointing, bickering and apathy took over, even with the season’s goals still in reach, even amongst members of its coaching staff behind closed doors.
The Sun Devils would go on to lose their last three regular season games and Erickson was fired before the team was blown out by Boise State in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl.
Erickson had a well-earned reputation as a players’ coach, but that lackadaisical approach was his undoing, as the Burfict example pervaded the culture and took hold, rotting the program to its core. The coach thought his players would self-police one another, but didn’t consider what might happen when their lieutenant was leading a revolt.
Burfict is plenty talented. We saw it last season when he led the Cincinnati Bengals in tackles as an undrafted rookie. Of course that came when he was forced to shape up, or ship out of football for good, with a professional environment no doubt helping as a catalyst.
With Graham, none of that is even a possibility. Bradford’s actions – getting into an argument with star defensive tackle Will Sutton that spilled over into a loud exchange with Graham — were anomalous, as he’s one of the nicest, most team-oriented players on the ASU defense. But that didn’t matter to Graham; nor did it matter that the game was still in doubt with ASU leading by just one touchdown; or that Bradford’s replacement wouldn’t be anywhere near as athletically capable.
To Graham, the answer was obvious. Bradford had to sit the rest of the way, not because it was the best move for ASU win the game, but because it was the only move given Graham’s perpetual insistence his team be disciplined and accountable.
The Sun Devils went from one of the worst penalized teams in the country to one of the least penalized in Graham’s first year, and has a turnover margin as impressive as any in the Pac-12. It doesn’t shoot itself in the foot, something that could never be said of the Erickson-era.
ASU hasn’t won a truly meaningful game against a quality opponent on the road in seemingly forever. It has lost in its last six attempts in Southern California dating to Nov. 10, 2007 when it beat UCLA 24-20 to improve to 9-1 overall in Erickson’s first year.
But that was before Burfict, before ASU’s maladies under Erickson took hold, before Graham.
Maybe this time will be different. ASU’s intestinal fortitude certainly will be.