ASU coach Todd Graham fired after six seasons
Arizona State on Sunday cut ties with Todd Graham, firing the sixth-year coach just hours after the bowl-eligible Sun Devils beat rival Arizona to wrap up the regular season.
In a news conference, Vice President of Athletics Ray Anderson thanked Graham for his efforts cleaning up the program off the field and in the classroom. But on the field he made it clear that Graham had fallen short of expectation.
“We want to compete for championships and we want to win consistently across the board in all of our sports,” Anderson said. “In football, we have not done that in the four years that I have been there. Not consistently. We have been average. (A record of) 7-5 and second place in a riddled Pac-12 South is not our aspiration. We deserve more.”
Anderson said he will not use a search firm to help identify ASU's next coach. Instead, he will lean on his contacts in the industry. A former NFL executive and agent, Anderson declined to identify anyone specific, but former coaches Tony Dungy and Herman Edwards are believed to be among them.
YOUR TAKE:Readers sound off on Todd Graham's firing
Graham, 52, went 46-31 during his time in Tempe. He led the Sun Devils to the 2013 Pac-12 South title and posted the program's first back-to-back 10-win seasons in more than three decades. But the final three seasons were a struggle, mostly because of poor defense, shaky recruiting and staff turnover.
After the strong start, ASU went 18-19 over the past three seasons, forcing Anderson's decision. The athletic director informed Graham in a meeting Sunday morning. He then met with staff members and the football team.
In his own news conference, which unfolded about 30 minutes after Anderson's, Graham said he had no regrets. He was proud that he had raised program expectations, and he didn't hesitate when given the opportunity to coach the Sun Devils in their bowl game, most likely the Dec. 29 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
“That was the first thing that entered my mind – I want to finish,” Graham said. “I told Ray and the administration that we would do everything in our power – I would – to help in that process. It won't be uncomfortable at all for us.”
This move is costly. According to terms of his contract, ASU owes Graham the balance of his contract, which runs through June 30, 2021. That puts his buyout north of $12 million. Anderson offered few details on how it will be paid. It's possible the athletics department could borrow from the university.
“Through our own athletic-department generated revenues and new ticket sales, whatever we have to do, that's my problem to fix,” said Anderson, adding that the buyout wouldn't negatively impact the athletic department's other projects. “There's no state money. No student fee. No handout we're expecting from anybody to fix our problem. That's on us.”
This is a sour ending to what initially seemed like a perfect fit. After firing Dennis Erickson in 2011, ASU needed someone bold and ambitious. At times, Graham took it too far, talking openly about championships and proudly boasting that he had the best team of his career. While it annoyed some, his “speaking victory” approach reinvigorated a stale athletic department.
Graham brought back the Camp Tontozona tradition. He also was instrumental in raising funds needed for the reconstruction of aging Sun Devil Stadium and construction of the new football facility. On Sept. 15, 2014, he donated $500,000 of his own money to the cause, a sum Anderson matched. While the $300 million stadium rebuild won’t reach completion until 2019, the facility opened this season. Graham’s touch is all over it.
And it should help the program in the future.
“There should be no question in anybody's mind that the things we have here can attract,” Anderson said. “... We should be top 3 in the Pac-12 in my opinion every season. There's no reason we shouldn't be every year top 15 nationally, if we do what we're supposed to do here.”
Anderson said his decision was based on an evaluation of not just this season, but the previous four. He identified recruiting, player development and staff retention as main areas where the program had fallen short.
In recruiting, Anderson expects ASU to effectively recruit Arizona and California, signing more elite prospects. In terms of development, he wants recruits to look at ASU as a place that can help position them for a future in pro football. Over the past six years, ASU has had 10 players drafted, but three signed under Erickson.
“You cannot have a year where none of our players gets drafted into the NFL and only one player, a kicker, gets (invited) to the Combine,” Anderson said.
Moving forward, Anderson likely will move quickly to secure a replacement, in part to ease the transition but also to save ASU’s 2018 recruiting class, which has 15 known commitments. The early signing date runs Dec. 20-22. Considering most prospects commit to coaches, not schools, it will be difficult for the Sun Devils to keep their class together.
Anderson said he prefers someone with head-coaching experience. He also expressed the importance of having some sort of continuity, suggesting it was possible that some of Graham's assistants might work for the new hire. Over the past two years, ASU has lost 10 assistant coaches to other schools.
“In my view Billy Napier has done an outstanding job with our offense,” Anderson said, referring to the first-year offensive coordinator. “In my view, Phil Bennett has helped us make progress with our defense. I made it very clear to both of those guys that we want them to have the opportunity to come back. And in fact, any head coach who comes in here who doesn't see that value is not the guy for us.”
Although Anderson has made high-profile hires – including men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley and baseball coach Tracy Smith – this will be his first football hire, probably the biggest he will make during his time at ASU.
“Some folks are OK with going to the Cactus Bowl and even the Sun Bowl, which is the fifth-ranked bowl among the Pac-12 contracted bowls,” Anderson said. “That means you're the fifth-best team in the conference. It's good for the experience of going and getting those extra practices, but if anyone here is satisfied with that, I don't understand it. I'm not.”
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Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller. Get the latest Arizona State sports news by downloading the ASU XTRA app for iPhone or Android.