With a bible on his desk and a picture of Tom Landry on the wall, Todd Graham calls himself a teacher first, but his current job description, arguably, is that of salesman. Arizona State University’s new head football coach is trying to sell the idea of a rejuvenated program to fans, recruits and boosters – a program mired in mediocrity and thuggish behavior during the five-year reign of former coach Dennis Erickson.
Graham – whose excited Texas twang is a dead-ringer for President George W. Bush – is himself no stranger to controversy. The 47-year-old coached only one year at the University of Pittsburgh before coming to ASU. Earlier in his career, he left Rice University after one season to take a more prestigious job at Tulsa. Both departures drew criticism from jilted boosters and journalists. But as the Sun Devils prepare for their August 30 season opener against Northern Arizona University, the Dallas native insists he’s here for the long haul.
How do you like living in Arizona?
I’m absolutely loving it – the mountains, the desert. We bought a house out in DC Ranch, and it’s our dream house. I go home every night, sit in my swimming pool and look at the stars. It’s a relaxing and almost therapeutic lifestyle. I also love hiking with my son in the McDowell Mountains. I’m an outdoors guy.
What do you say to frustrated fans that now expect disappointment?
You never get there by having a negative mentality. You’re never going to turn it with a doom-and-gloom attitude. It’s never about one coach or some magical scheme. We’ve come with a plan to build from the inside out. Every alumni that graduated from here – this is their team. I tell our fans that we’re going to represent you with character, and class and discipline on that field – the way the university deserves to be represented.
You’re holding ASU training camp at Camp Tontozona near Payson for the first time since 2007. Why?
I love the traditions of the game. The night after my [introductory] press conference, I met with a bunch of former players, and resoundingly, [Tontozona] was the tradition that meant the most to our former players. It really means a lot to fans, too. On top of that, my top priority coming in is to build relationships. In the age of all the luxuries like the iPhone and iPad, I like the idea of going up with none of that – the coaches too – and just straining them and training them and having that tradition.
What’s your top priority in the revamping of Sun Devil Stadium?
Redoing our football complex. Building a new weight room and locker room and getting ourselves up to being competitive with the USCs, Oregons and Stanfords. We have to start with the football complex first because that impacts the training and development of the players we have now, and it helps us with recruiting.
Why should ASU fans trust you?
I sat down with [ASU president Michael Crow] and made a decision that I knew would be controversial. But people have no idea what my situation was... I was not happy in that situation, and I think I made a mistake going [to Pittsburgh] in the first place. Here’s what I’ll tell ya: If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed at Tulsa, and I think I would still be here at ASU.
What’s important when you’re courting elite recruits?
Perception: Is this a big-time program? What’s been happening is that the top local recruits have been going elsewhere, and I think that’s all about the perception of the program. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been out in the community so much and trying to build these relationships. Through those relationships, people get to know what you’re about – and that changes perceptions. It’s been positive, and people are excited. They know when you have a real plan.
How much has technology like Facebook changed recruiting?
You just have to work at it. Sometimes coaches say they’re old-school and they won’t get on Facebook. I tell them, “Good luck.” I’m going to talk to them 100 times and you’re going to talk to them once. I basically operate and communicate like an 18-year-old. I’m on Facebook all the time, but I’m only friends with players, recruits and my family.
What do you think it will take to get fans on your side?
Obviously, our toughest year is going to be our first year. But I have a great belief in this football team. We have to be successful and compete to be the best in this league. Our goal is to win every game and win a championship. This program is going to be about winning championships on the field, off the field, in the classroom and in the community. I think that’s what’s been missing here. I don’t think you can just win on the field. I think it’s how you do all those little things that make the big things happen. I think a championship would make the fans very happy.
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