Emotion Runs Heavy on Graham Firing

Story by Justin Toscano 

It was a heavy afternoon in Tempe after Arizona State Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson fired Todd Graham, ending the coach’s six-year tenure.

Anderson and Graham met in the morning when Anderson broke the news. Anderson then spoke to the media hours later before Graham did the same.

Here are some takeaways from the day and things to think about moving forward:

  • You’ve heard talk about wins, losses, money, etc. Let’s get personal. This job meant the world to Graham and I don’t believe you’d even have to cover the program closely to get a sense of that. He mentioned multiple times Sunday how he put his heart and soul into improving ASU football. He’d done so in the past. Each time, he seemed genuine.
  • On the same note as my last point, Graham did more than develop players on the field. ASU football entered this semester with a cumulative 3.0 GPA, the first time the first such case in school history. He emphasized discipline and character, too. He always talked about how he wanted his players to be good sons, husbands, fathers, etc. That’s important, in my opinion. Many coaches say they emphasize it, but how many actually do?
  • Ray Anderson seemed as confident as could be when talking about the decision to fire Graham. Sure, that’s what you’d expect from someone in his position. But he had a powerful punch in his voice. He was sure of himself. This wasn’t someone scrambling when questions were asked. He had points he felt were valid. Most of all, he spoke of how the program “was average.”
  • Anderson said he wants his new coach to be a dynamic recruiter. He wants that person to walk into homes in California, Texas and elsewhere looking to sell a vision. He wants to bring in 4-and-5-star recruits.
  • Regarding the last point, that won’t be enough. Anderson wants to see those guys developed. He wants Sun Devils to be drafted. He talked in a harsh tone about Zane Gonzalez being the only ASU player selected in last year’s draft. He made it clear that something like that can’t happen.
  • Anderson said he believes ASU should be top-3 in the Pac-12 each season and top-15 nationally. Those are lofty expectations.
  • If you want my opinion (maybe you do, maybe you don’t), that last point is a lot to ask of a coach. Tempe is a difficult place in a way. It isn’t Los Angeles. ASU isn’t a traditional power. Sure, it has the resources to compete. The Sun Devils needed the right guy. I don’t think this can be a place where you don’t have consistency.
  • On that last note, I felt Graham had a staff who was ready to help him turn things around. He lost assistants in years prior, something that was somewhat concerning. However, it also meant he hired good coaches. I thought Billy Napier and Phil Bennett made improvements with the offense and defense, and Anderson said that himself. That said, I felt Graham would have been the right guy to lead the program. Anderson had his points, though.
  • My main concern with Graham’s firing was the timing. If Anderson would have done it after the loss to Arizona last season, fine. Go ahead. Not many people bat an eye after such an embarrassing defeat to a hated rival. But this season seemed like progress. Anderson said 7-5 is average and the Sun Bowl isn’t acceptable. I’ll give him that. That should not be the standard. But with what Graham had to work with, it seemed like an impressive coaching job.
  • I wholeheartedly agree with Anderson when he talks about the need to recruit more effectively. That’s a must. ASU needed to do a better job. That’s on Graham. But, going back to what I mentioned in another takeaway, Tempe is a difficult place. The weather is beautiful, but the program isn’t a traditional powerhouse. It didn’t have the facilities of Oregon, either. But Graham saw his vision of the Student-Athlete Facility become reality. I truly believe that will help recruiting. The only problem? Graham won’t be around to see how it could’ve helped him sell his vision. That seems wrong to me.
  • Graham was so incredibly happy in the postgame interview after the win over Arizona. That’s as joyful as I’ve seen him in my two years covering the team. It looked like he felt a sense of relief, too. He beat Arizona four times in six tries. Many people wondered whether it was enough to save his job. It wasn’t. It’s a business, but as a human being, I feel bad for him.
  • Looking ahead, I would expect Anderson to hire someone pretty quickly. It seems he had his mind made up — the win over the Wildcats wasn’t going to affect his decision. That’s partially because he said he evaluated Graham’s body of work. But to me, it also means Anderson had a few names in mind. Kevin Sumlin was fired by Texas A&M on Sunday, too. His name has been thrown into the mix by pundits. Anderson has NFL contacts he will use, too. Regardless, he said he is aware of the new December signing period in recruiting and knows he must move quickly so the hire doesn’t negatively affect recruiting.