If Arizona State football has another big season, Sun Devil fans may find out whether those questions about Todd Graham‘s history of wanderlust are cause for concern.
When Graham accepted the head-coaching job at ASU in December of 2011, it was his fourth stop at four different colleges in a span of just seven years. His longest stay was at Tulsa, where he spent four seasons.
The 2015 season will be Graham’s fourth in Tempe.
The program Graham inherited at ASU hadn’t had a winning record in four years, but he went 8-5 in his first season. He followed that up with back-to-back seasons with 10 wins, the first time that had been done in 41 years. And his 28 wins in his first three years on the job set a new school record.
He was also named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2013, the year the Devils won the Pac-12 South Division, and has led his teams to three consecutive bowl appearances.
One thing he hasn’t done yet is win the Pac-12 Conference title.
Should he achieve that in the coming season – and the 2015 squad looks like it could have the ability to pull that off – there would be little more to cross off his bucket list in Tempe. A national title is probably still wishful thinking at this point. However, the 2014 Devils were in the hunt for a berth in the four-team national championship playoff when they lost their final game of the season to rival University of Arizona before beating Duke in the Sun Bowl.
If they were to get back to that level again this year and finish with a top-10 national ranking, Graham would once again be the target of other schools in need of his kind of results. His stock would be at an all-time high.
Some of that attention was already coming his way last season. When the prestigious head-coaching job at the University of Michigan opened up, Graham was included on a list of potential candidates published in the Detroit media, a list that included well-known names like NFL coach Jim Harbaugh (who got the job), Les Miles from LSU, David Shaw at Stanford, and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma.
Inclusion in that group says something about how far Graham has ascended. The next step on the ladder would have to be somewhere else than in Tempe.
Consider this: When the Super Bowl came to Arizona last year, Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots head coach and one of the most respected coaches in the NFL, gave Graham a big boost during Media Day. He explained that he personally takes scouting trips to Tempe to check out Graham’s players.
“I love Coach Graham,” he offered. “Coach Graham does a great job. He’s a good friend of mine. I really respect the job he’s done with this (ASU) program.
Talk about pulling in the mother load of endorsements!
But Belichick wasn’t exactly going out on a limb for his friend. Graham has earned the praise.
The 50-year-old native of Mesquite, TX, has enjoyed a meteoric rise since taking his first college coaching job in 2011, when he was hired as the linebackers coach at West Virginia. Ironically, the head coach who hired him and gave him his first college opportunity after spending 12 years as a high school coach was Rich Rodriguez, now his rival at Arizona.
When he got his first head-coaching job at Rice in 2006, he was quick to prove he belonged in that position. In his only season at the Texas school, he led the Owls to their first bowl game in 45 years and was named the Conference USA Coach of the Year.
He moved to Oklahoma to take a similar position at another small-school program, at University of Tulsa. During his four years at Tulsa, he posted three seasons of 10-plus wins and took his teams to three bowl games. His 2008 team led the nation in total offense with 570 yards per game.
Graham left Tulsa to move up the career ladder, taking over as the head coach at Pittsburgh – but for just one season before jumping again to ASU. That season at Pitt didn’t produce the kind of results Graham had enjoyed in the past. His team went 6-6, but it was likely related to the fact that Graham didn’t really want to be there. He reportedly grew disenchanted as the season progressed and was looking for another job even before the season ended.
Despite his nomadic journey that kept him moving from school to school, ASU was impressed enough to hire him as its 23rd head coach.
From all appearances, he and his wife are very happy in Tempe and he has often expressed his desire to make ASU a final destination; his original contract has already been extended, so the feeling is obviously mutual. But how many other coaches have made similar claims before moving on to greener pastures – green, as in the color of money.
Happy or not, it would be hard to believe his loyalty to his current employer wouldn’t be challenged by the right offer. Perhaps Notre Dame, a program that recognizes his worth since his teams have beaten the Irish both times they’ve met, or how about one of the big Texas programs, a tempting offer for a coach born and raised in the Lone Star state.
One of those Texas schools is going to provide a national stage for Graham and his 2015 Sun Devils. ASU will play Texas A&M on the road on Sept. 5 to open the season with a nationally-televised game.
A win over the Aggies would be an early reminder to other schools that there’s a head coach out here in the desert who might be swayed by the right offer.
Not a comforting thought, if you’re a Sun Devil fan.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)