Since Ray Anderson was announced as Arizona State‘s new Vice President of University Athletics on Jan. 9 of 2014, he has had to make a ton of decisions that would have a significant impact on the future of the school’s sports programs.
In the nearly four years since his hire, the former NFL executive has supported and helped negotiate the move from Nike sponsorship to a $38 million apparel agreement with Adidas, guided toward completion the renovation of Sun Devil Stadium, relocated the baseball team from the aging on-campus Packard Stadium to new digs at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, brought back men’s tennis and added four more varsity sports, and is riding herd on the development of a 330-acre athletic district that was designed to greatly increase revenue for his programs while creating a world-class urban community adjacent to the Tempe campus.
His plate has been overflowing.
He has also replaced more than a dozen varsity coaches. Some left on their own terms, some on his. And it’s in that area of his job description as athletic director that he may soon be facing one of the most difficult decisions during his time in Tempe.
His football coach, who was hired by Anderson’s predecessor, has two games left on the regular-season schedule and his 5-5 team needs to win one of them to become bowl-eligible. But far more important to Todd Graham is the need to win them both to avoid going three straight years without a winning season.
The Sun Devils play Oregon State this Saturday and then close out the schedule with the annual rivalry game against University of Arizona. Oregon State is 1-9 and under the direction of an interim head coach, so a win against the Beavers is expected. Arizona is 7-3 and one of the hotter teams in the country right now after finding a quarterback that has led them to five wins in the last six games.
So bowl eligibility is well within reach, but Arizona will be a high hurdle. Fortunately, the game is in Tempe this year.
But a win over either wouldn’t be a stunning upset like the Oct. 14 victory over then-No. 5 Washington, the kind of win that would help a coach keep his job a little longer.
It’s that win over Washington that factors into how difficult this decision on Graham’s future will be. The Sun Devils are a good enough team to pull off a major upset but, on other occasions, struggle against inferior opponents. They’ve beaten teams that no one expected, but then lost to other teams they should have beaten.
The Devils this year are averaging 429 yards of offense a game. They’re averaging 30 points a game – but giving up 32 points to opponents.
A lack of consistency has been a major factor to a disappointing 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. It has been a significant decline since Graham, now in his sixth season, posted consecutive 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, the first ASU coach in 40 years to accomplish that feat. He was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after leading that 2013 squad to the Pac-12 South title, 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.
The Texas native who began his coaching career in 1988 as an assistant at a Mesquite high school runs a clean, well-disciplined program that is envied by other schools and coaches for its adherence to those principles. Numerous former assistant coaches under Graham are now enjoying success at major football programs around the country. His coaching philosophy is being spread by his disciples.
Graham is a good football coach, and Anderson knows that. But Anderson also knows that fans and alumni are growing impatient. An athletic director’s job often hinges on how well his major sports programs do, with football at the top of the list. In that respect, his job is also on the line.
If Graham wins these last two games, and then brings home a bowl trophy (Which Graham once described as the minimum expectation for the program), it might make Anderson’s decision a lot easier. He will have a football coach showing some progress, enough to maybe give him another year to continue climbing back toward another 10-win season.
If Graham loses these last two games, the decision will be even easier.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)