If this was, in fact, going to be Todd Graham‘s final regular-season game as the Arizona State head football coach, he definitely made the most of it. Yesterday’s 42-30 victory over rival University of Arizona capped off a 7-5 record, the first winning season in three years.
He even offered the fan base a story-book ending, rallying from a 14-0 deficit to start the game and then dominating the third quarter, scoring 21 points to erase a 10-point halftime deficit and holding the Arizona offense in check the rest of the way to claim rights to the Territorial Cup trophy.
But, as it turns out, it wasn’t enough to save his job.
ASU Vice President of University Athletics Ray Anderson announced this morning that Graham’s six-year tenure with the Sun Devil program has ended. He and his staff will coach their final game when ASU gets its bowl bid.
After last night’s game, Graham told reporters he expected to be back next season. But he knew his chances were 50-50 at best after posting 6-7 and 5-7 records the last two seasons. He needed to show marked improvement this year and, as Anderson told him going into the season, Graham would need to show it would be sustainable and not just a one-time thing.
That was the way it looked when Graham took over the program. In September of 2014 Graham was just about to begin his third season in charge of the program and riding pretty high after posting an 8-5 inaugural season in 2012, the first winning regular-season record in five years; beating rival Arizona; and posting the first bowl win in seven years. The next year he won 10 games, claimed the Pac-12 South championship, and was named 2013 Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
The euphoria lasted one more year, as Graham’s 2014 squad went 10-3 and was division runner-up.
But back-to-back losing seasons followed and the Texas native found himself on the hot seat going into his sixth season. The tenuous nature of his future in Tempe was further confirmed last June when his five-year contract was not given an extension, something that had become pretty common in the past.
Graham’s contract had been given one-year extensions each year since 2013 – but not this year. That was the first red flag. Anderson, who didn’t hire Graham since his own tenure didn’t begin until January of 2014, pointed out that the extension was not an automatic provision in the contract and didn’t necessarily need to be rolled over.
Graham is under contract through 2021, but the annual extensions kept the length of his original contract consistent at five years. But, by cutting off a year, ASU will now save a considerable chunk of money upon his release. He will have to be paid the remainder of the contract obligation for the four remaining years and, since his annual salary is $3.2 million, the school will save that much by not extending it before the season began.
A lack of consistency has been a major factor to a disappointing 2017 season. And that can be attributed in large part to an unusually high turnover in the coaching staff. Graham has had three different offensive coordinators in the last three years and has had to break in five new assistant coaches this season and last. That means the players are constantly adjusting to new position coaches.
That, and numerous injuries to key players, have really watered down the effectiveness of recent teams. But that’s never an acceptable excuse for a football coach on the bubble.
Nor do past accomplishments do much to save a program on the decline. When Graham posted consecutive 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, he was the first ASU coach in 40 years to accomplish that feat, and the Pac-12 South title was the school’s first.
And Graham is truly invested in this ASU program – in more ways than one. In September of 2014, he and his wife, Penni, joined with Anderson and his wife, Buffie, to make a major contribution to the fundraising campaign for Sun Devil Stadium. Each couple contributed $500,000 to the drive.
He has also returned old-school discipline to the program and restored tradition, most notably taking the teams back to Camp Tontozona for the annual pre-season camp that Frank Kush began back in the ’60s.
Anderson acknowledged Graham’s contributions to the program in today’s announcement that the coach “has been relieved of his duties” – but not so much his on-field success: “From the moment he arrived in Tempe, Todd helped change the culture and emphasized the student in student-athlete here at Arizona State, elevating the program to unprecedented heights in the classroom and strong citizenship across the board.
“However, our athletic department, university and community expect our football program to compete on the field for Pac-12 titles, be competitively consistent, and qualify to participate in major bowl games on a regular basis. In evaluating Todd’s body of work over a four-year period, it became clear that a change is necessary.”
Graham appeared to sincerely love being at ASU and has repeatedly said this is where he would like to finish his career. And that comes from a coach who has been somewhat of a nomad during his career. When he accepted the job in Tempe, it was his fourth head-coaching gig in seven years.
But this time, the decision to move on wasn’t up to him.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)