When the University of Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State hired Todd Graham this past offseason, both programs expected immediate results from their new head coaches.
The days when college football coaches had the luxury of building a program from scratch have gone by the wayside. Today, expectations have risen and head coaches must pick up the remaining pieces and change the culture, and results, of a team right away.
In Tucson, the Wildcats charged Rodriguez with implementing his spread offense principles to replace the outdated approach of Mike Stoops. In Tempe, the Sun Devils asked Graham to completely rid the program of all traces left behind by Dennis Erickson and rebrand Sun Devil football in its entirety.
Low and behold, Rodriguez and Graham had nearly identical seasons through their first eleven games at the helm. The Wildcats started fast with marquee wins over Toledo and Oklahoma State (Yes, a win over 9-3 Toledo qualifies as marquee), but couldn't quite get over the hump against top-notch opponents. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils shot out to a 5-1 start, but lost four consecutive games against ranked opponents.
The programs' near-identical starts left just one game to decide whether or not their respective coaches could consider their first season a pleasant surprise or a disappointing letdown.
Ultimately, the Territorial Cup would provide the best measuring stick for the progress each coach made in his inaugural season. The Wildcats hosted a "red-out" and looked determined to pick up their first eight win season since 2009. The Sun Devils set out to prove that they could make 7-5 look a whole lot better than, well, Arizona's 7-5.
Notorious for narrow outcomes and thrilling finishes, the 2012 installment of the Territorial Cup did not disappoint. The Arizona State Sun Devils scored a 41-34 victory after exploding for 24 fourth quarter points. Even though each team finishes the regular season with a 7-5 record, every citizen in the state of Arizona knows which team reigns superior.
The Sun Devils' Territorial Cup win defines their season. While Arizona State faced adversity at times, they overcame challenges and exceeded expectations. Many fans viewed bowl eligibility a long shot. Most analysts chose the Wildcats over the Sun Devils. With their backs against the wall, the Sun Devils performed admirably and cemented their legacy.
In a battle of two new coaches rebuilding two meddling programs, the Territorial Cup was more than just an average rivalry game. The winner of this game had the opportunity to seize the state of Arizona, and claim what each program believes to be rightfully theirs.
In Arizona, there's only room for one powerhouse.
The last time both the Wildcats and the Sun Devils accumulated eight wins in the same season came in 1986. For over a quarter century, the rivals took turns sharing the spotlight, but neither team gained a definitive edge over the other. Each team has notched a few 10-win seasons, but for every glimmering hope exists an elongated spell of mediocrity.
Neither school may realize it now, but the Territorial Cup victory has the potential to turn the tide in the Sun Devils' favor. The state of Arizona has become a notable hotbed for polished recruits, and its time for Arizona State to take advantage.
When Todd Graham hoisted the Territorial Cup trophy above his head, the Arizona sideline was so quiet that you could hear the pens drop. Those pens belong to the high school football players in the state of Arizona.
The Sun Devils' victory not only forces in-state recruits to take note of Graham's program, it may provide the inspirational spark that compels them to join in. For years, top-flight recruits have left Arizona to pursue their dreams elsewhere. As these athletes prepare to sign elsewhere, their pens, and interest in leaving their homes, might drop as they ponder competing back home.
According to Rivals.com, only four of the top 15 recruits in the state of Arizona have committed to an in-state institution. Recruiters from UCLA, Washington, and Notre Dame have poached the best athletes and gotten away with highway robbery.
The Sun Devils aren't blind to the ugly results. When the UCLA Bruins engineered a two-minute drill that broke hearts in Tempe earlier this season, Chandler High graduate Brett Hundley was the man calling the signals. The freshman quarterback scrambled away from the Sun Devil defense just a year after he scampered away from the Arizona State recruiters.
When Arizona State hired Todd Graham, the Sun Devil football program underwent sweeping changes. Graham preached discipline, attitude, and results. So far, he's backed up his words.
As Sun Devil players looked around the field after Friday's victory, they saw teammates who revitalized a program in less than a year. When Graham peeked around, he saw the foundation for something special.
In June of this year, Arizona State learned of the verbal commitment of four-star linebacker Chans Cox. A standout at Blue Ridge High, Cox saw Graham's visions of a bright future far before most Sun Devil fans could. The No. 1 ranked recruit in the state of Arizona turned down offers from the likes of USC, UCLA, and Notre Dame to become a part of a movement that might soon take hold.
Cox's verbal commitment sets a precedent for other prep players to follow. The state's No. 2 recruit, Priest Willis, and the No. 4 recruit, Devon Allen, have yet to announce where they intend to compete in college. Arizona State has seen far too many talented players slip away to join superior programs. Under Todd Graham, the Sun Devils finally have the chance to be a superior program.
College football has changed drastically over the last 25 years. For example, Southern Miss hired Ellis Johnson last year and he has already been shown the door. Auburn won a national title under Gene Chizik two seasons ago, but he no longer produced the results the Tigers' brass wanted to see and has been let go. Coaching offers very little job security nowadays, but both Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez are out to prove that they belong.
Recruits don't want to play for a losing team, so why should a school keep a losing coach?
For Graham and Rodriguez, the only way to maintain job stability is to post consistent results. Each coach knows the Territorial Cup affects more than just their record, it affects their livelihood.
Friday night's showdown not only displayed the progress the Sun Devils have made, but the direction in which Arizona State is headed. The victory gave the Sun Devils an opportunity to showcase their talents on national television, and they had the time of their lives.
The Arizona State players swarmed Coach Graham as the clock ran out as they saw all of their hard work come to fruition. Meanwhile, high school football players throughout Arizona took notice of the Sun Devil celebration.
Under Graham, Arizona State looks like its headed in the right direction. Under Graham, recruits have an opportunity to play for their hometown school and for a coach who doesn't see losing or mediocrity as viable options. Under Graham, the Sun Devils have the chance to dominate in their home state.