Graham working to rehabilitate ASU program -- and own image
Todd Graham took the Arizona State job after less than a year at Pittsburgh
Graham has said he made a mistake leaving Tulsa for Pitt in the first place
He's also working to perform an extreme makeover on the football team
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Lora Borup keeps the coach's calendar on Microsoft Outlook, which is probably a very good thing. It is a complicated, constantly evolving matrix, with engagements being added, appointments stacked atop each other, appearances accumulating. Borup has been the administrative associate for Arizona State head coaches going back to the late Bruce Snyder, so she knows the drill: These guys are busy. But there's never been anything quite like the task of managing this PR blitz by new coach Todd Graham. "His calendar keeps me extremely busy," said Borup. "I spend a lot of time on it."
Since his arrival a little more than five months ago, Graham has made 111 public appearances. Actually, that might not be correct. The number was current through late May, through his first 107 days on the job. No one, least of all Borup, would be surprised if a few more had been added to the total since then. Each appearance -- anything and everything from speaking engagements, eating lunch with students, schmoozing with boosters, even sitting down with reporters -- represents another few handshakes, give or take a few dozen. The goal, by kickoff next fall, is 74,000, or roughly the capacity of Sun Devil Stadium.
"Just chipping away at it," said Graham. And surely his peers everywhere who prefer to conduct their business in walled-off seclusion are shaking their heads, hoping the trend never catches on. Of course, most of them aren't involved in the kind of extreme makeover Graham is attempting to perform on the Sun Devils football program -- and yes, on his own reputation as well.
It's an ambitious project, but by late last month, Graham had made a pretty good dent. In addition to country clubs and donor functions, he had spoken at fraternities and sororities and eaten lunch with students at each of Arizona State's four campuses in the Phoenix metro area. Student attendance last season averaged 11,000; Graham hopes to double it. The day he sat in the Memorial Union with two engineering students and a woman studying molecular biology is as good an example as any. The message he delivered: "Hey man, come out to practice. And let me know how our guys are doing." He talks about competing for fans' support. And he says he and his players need to "reach out and touch people."
Of course, there's also a bit of image repair necessary, too. Enthusiasm has never been an issue; Graham could probably sell heaters in the Sonoran desert. But we all recall how Graham came to Arizona State, calling it a "dream opportunity." If not, here's a recap: Last December, less than a year after leaving Tulsa, he bolted Pittsburgh -- which he had called his dream job. He informed the Pittsburgh players of his departure by text message. He says he wanted to stay and talk with the players, but the Arizona State search process moved too fast.
Here's Graham's explanation: He made a mistake -- when he went to Pittsburgh in the first place. His family never settled in; several of his children remained in Tulsa. He took the Pittsburgh job because it was a move up, but the football fit never felt comfortable. "I made a rash decision when I went to Pittsburgh. That was a mistake," Graham said. "Two wrongs don't make a right, and all that. But on the other side of it, I see this as a premier job."
Never mind that most people would concede at least part of the point: Arizona State, in the Pac-12, is a better gig than Pittsburgh, in the Big East but headed to the ACC. There's fertile recruiting territory in his new back yard and a few hours away in California. But the perception is of a mercenary who's always looking for the next promotion. When people ask how long he'll be at Arizona State before the next opportunity, this is Graham's answer: "There's really nothing you can say. ... All I can do is prove to the people here that I'm gonna be here."
And maybe he can personally convince each of them. But the coach's marketing campaign isn't so much about Graham's personal reputation as drumming up support for Arizona State football. The Valley of the Sun has a population of more than four million. But the football program's average home attendance in 2011 was 59,004. Thus all the reaching out and touching. "Perception is reality when it comes to college football," Graham said. "What is the perception? ... If you meet me, at least I've got a chance to have a favorable impression. It's the same with fans. It's not just win and they'll show up."
So Graham has accepted invitations to meet and greet almost anyone, almost anywhere. You want to come out to practice? You're welcome. And if you can't get there, they'll bring practice to you, sort of.
At least one assistant coach is wired for every practice. We don't mean amped up, but mic'd up. It serves dual purposes. Bits and pieces of the audio and video will be used for clinics and training sessions. And some of it will make it onto the football program's website, www.thesundevils.com. In addition, in another attempt to connect, either Graham or an assistant provided a brief recap of each spring practice online.
"Nobody else is doing that," Graham said. "It's an opportunity for me to let everybody know how that day went. I like how we report how we're doing" -- and here, he smiles -- because it's always better than how everybody else reports it."
Graham plans to be mic'd up for each game. He did it last season at Pittsburgh. The hope is to capture moments like this one against Louisville: During a timeout, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell suggested a play. Graham wanted another. Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri came up with a third option. "We go with Tino's call and we score a touchdown," Graham said. "We've captured that moment. That's what our fans want to see."
It's designed for recruits to see, too. The Sun Devils have wired up players, and during one practice, they put a camera on a football. It's all part of the sales pitch. Graham wouldn't dispute the notion. He sees marketing as an essential part of the equation in building the program. The impetus came when Tulsa beat Notre Dame in 2010. "Could you imagine if we'd had that (system in place)?" he asks. "Biggest win in school history and we could have documented it."
Looking at the Sun Devils' questions going into the fall -- only nine starters return (four offense, five defense), and a three-way quarterback battle must be decided in August -- it's hard to forecast any kind of similar moment that might need to be captured. Five of ASU's Pac-12 games are on the road; the Sun Devils will also play at Missouri. "Our goal is to win every game," Graham said. "The reality is we have a lot of work to do."
Also, Graham has worked to change the culture. Under Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils became known as talented but undisciplined. Fair or not -- perception, Graham would say, is reality -- the poster child for the program in the last couple of years was Vontaze Burfict, an all-world talent at linebacker who seemed to lead the league in personal fouls and personal fouls attempted. Among the rules instituted by Graham: No ballcaps in the Carson Student-Athlete Center. No earrings. No cussing. Run from station to station during practice. Stuff like that. "Doing the little things right," Graham said.
In all of those whistle stops and meet-and-greets, the coach has heard plenty from fans. "There were a lot of things they didn't like about our reputation here," he said. "It wasn't what it should be." He'd probably say the same about his own. He'll also tell you this: Ultimately, Arizona State's sales pitch -- and everyone's reputation -- will depend on results.
"You can do all the marketing and public relations you want to," Graham said. "If you don't win games it ain't gonna matter. But they all tie in."