6:58 a.m — It's two minutes before Arizona State's daily meetings begin, but every player on the roster is already seated in their assigned seats at the Dutson Theater inside the Carson Student-Athlete Center. It's early for a typical college kid their age — some players still donning bed hair and heavy eyes — but just about everyone has a pen and a notebook tucked in their arm and look ready to learn and work. You won't find a single cell phone here, or even for the next several hours — the team has banned cell phone usage completely within the athletic facilities.
The assistant coaches slowly file in one by one and occupy the last two rows of seats in the theater. Finally, Arizona State coach Todd Graham is the last to enter the room, and the set of double doors close behind him. With no delay, he stands in front of whiteboard to commence his morning address.
"Eyes up here!" Graham barks.
Graham starts by pointing out that some of his assistants haven't looked as focused as his players. It's an encouraging sign that the players are soaking in every detail, but Graham has a plan that everyone needs to buy in.
Since Graham took over as the Sun Devils' head coach in early 2012, Arizona State's goals every year have been to win a Pac-12 Championship and eventually a national championship. The Sun Devils' have fell short every year, but Graham's reign has seen nine wins in 2012 to consecutive 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. Now in his fourth campaign, he knows he's close with a defense returning nine of 11 starters and an offense with several veterans.
But to get there, Graham knows he has to turn his players into championship thinks well before their Sept. 5 opener against Texas A&M in Houston. To get to 15 wins, Graham said it requires mental toughness and player-to-player accountability.
Today's theme is elite, dominant, thinkers. It goes hand-in-hand with this season's overall motto of elite, dominant, playmakers, but for the next 40 minutes, Graham plans to discuss strictly on mindset and the great power of mind. The motivational lecture ends up being something that could rival a TED Talk.
In this case, "elite" means thinking differently than others. To Graham, a player with "elite" thinking has already won the game well before he takes the field. All throughout his speech, Graham barrages his players with hypothetical questions that provokes their thoughts with an hour before practice starts.
"What do you believe?" Graham asks. "What is your mindset? Have you gotten better every day?"
Graham's speech is filled with stories and anecdotes, whether it's by commending what someone did on a particular play in yesterday's practice or something completely unrelated to the team. He warns about outside distractors that could derail the team's mentality. Graham admits he once took part in the "college lifestyle," but adds there's "no way it can make you elite." He recalls his favorite story from last season of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing through the 2015 NFL Playoffs with a torn calf muscle. He challenges players to stand out and lead in every session.
Graham's intensity was more than motivating, but it costs his voice as it almost disappears by the end. He reminds his players they're given a great privilege, and it could all be over sooner than they know it. The Sun Devils have 26 practices left in fall camp before their opener.
"How do we have fun? By kicking ass," he says.
7:40 a.m. — As half the room leaves, Shawn Slocum gets ready to deliver his special-teams presentation to every player who's eligible to play on his personnel. The intensity from Graham's address doesn't fade at all.
"Get your pads out!" Slocum yells. "Next guy that comes here without pen and paper gets fined $1,875!"
Meet Slocum. After serving the Green Bay Packers for nine seasons as a special-teams coach, the 50-year-old joined Arizona State over the offseason as a coordinator to address the team's most infamous Achilles heel. Of course, he'll use film from past NFL games as a valuable part of his teaching, but not before holding the players to NFL-level accountability.
Of all the assistants on the staff other than Graham's son Bo (who's also ASU's running backs coach), none have more similarities to Graham than Slocum — at least at first glance. Graham and Slocum have similar builds and hairstyles, share the same intensity levels and both hail from Texas. Graham also calls Slocum's father, R.C., as one of his mentors. Slocum is still adjusting onto the program — he apologized in the middle of his presentation for forgetting one of his players' first names — but his goal is to be completely personal with the team as quickly as possible.
It didn't take long for Slocum to piggyback off Graham's morning message — he addresses "elite, dominant, thinking" right away in his presentation and challenges his players to be an "alpha male."
"Beaten, but never defeated," Slocum says.
To communicate this message, Slocum presented two clips from his Green Bay days: one of a rookie running back whose hesitance led to him being trampled while being on punt coverage, and another of a veteran defender wisely anticipating a returner's change of direction to make a perfect tackle.
Today, Slocum wants to focus on punting inside opponent territory and from Arizona State's own endzone. If the offense fails to move up field, he actualy doesn't mind being backed up from his team's own endzone — it's a shorter and quicker snap.
There's just one other thing he won't tolerate.
"We don't want touchbacks," Slocum said. "That's not what we do here."
8:00 a.m. — The team breaks into positional meetings. I join safeties coach Chris Ball in his session and follow his players in a small classroom that could fit no more than 20 people. The maroon room is no less decorated than a grade-school classroom, only covered in placard boards with the safeties' goals, the history of the position, a timeline of the school's greatest safeties and a positional checklist.
The meeting begins with Ball and his safeties standing. For 15 seconds, they stare for at another poster hanging above the door that reads "Sun Devil Brotherhood" with a picture of the College Football Playoff trophy. Everyone in the room recites the program's other season motto: "Big Team, Little Me."
"How great would it be if we had the national championship trophy with the stadium in the background?" Ball asks, looking outside the classroom window.
"It'd be pretty great to me," captain Jordan Simone responds, sitting in the front row.
At least in Ball's room, the players are finally put into an environment that is a little more relaxed and intimate. It's only fall camp and Ball doesn't have much game film to show to his relatively young group, so his session will mostly rely on practice footage.
"Did you guys get a chance to watch the whole practice [from yesterday]?" Ball asked, before getting an echo of "Yes, sirs."
Ball uses almost his entire time breaking down each of his players' appearances during installs of yesterday's practice step by step. Ball briefly focuses on freshman Dasmond Tautalatasi, who covered a long distance in a short area on one play. "Don't spazz," Ball warns, rhyming off of Tautalasi's name.
The meeting then gets a quick relief. Ball asks the room of millennials if anyone knew of the movie that had Ben Stiller play a counselor at a fat camp. Simone answers with Heavyweights, and turns around to nod at the older reporters sitting in the back.
As Ball walks through his safeties' decision-making on film, Graham could be clearly heard in the next room drilling the cornerbacks.
9:00 a.m. — It's hard not to make a loud entrance inside the Verde Dickey Dome, a bubble that requires going through two heavy sets of metal, air-locked doors. Ball and his safeties run through the doors cooing like birds, proclaiming the arrival of the "Birdgang."
Today's practice looks to be the most intense the team has had so far in fall camp. While Graham mentioned in his morning address he didn't want guys being on the floor much, the objective was hard to avoid. Defenders were making big hits and ganged up on ballcarriers. Running backs fought back by trucking through tacklers. While studying the defense, Graham grew so frustrated over one error that he tossed his sports drink bottle over to the sideline and marched to the backfield to correct it.
The enclosure of the Dickey Dome creates a noisy environment. Not only are coaches yelling instructions, but players are heard coaching each other as well. Players are taught to respond with "yes, sir" after every order and could rack up a number of push-ups and up-downs for mistakes or poor conduct.
After a two-and-a-half hour session, Graham addresses the players once again, and the team breaks with a prayer. Boards with photos of both the Pac-12 Championship and College Football Playoff trophy stand just five yards from the huddle.
12:20 p.m. — The team takes its shuttles back to the Carson Center for lunch at the student-athlete dining hall on the fifth floor. The players change back into their Adidas training gear they were wearing earlier this morning in meetings and slowly make their way up.
Today's specials are honey mustard pork loins and BBQ chicken, along with the usual salad and fruit bar. The only beverages you can get here are water, fruit juice and sports drinks. Soda is completely outlawed, but there is an ice cream machine next to the beverage fountain.
Players sit with their respective positions on round tables with still no smartphones in sight. At the corner of the room, Graham is slightly slouched back in his seat with a big smile on his face, exchanging non-football stories with his staff and cracking jokes. This is likely the most relaxed you'll see Graham throughout the day.
I thanked Graham after I finished my meal for allowing me and 29 other print, television and radio reporters all-access for a day. With scandals in college football brewing seemingly every week and the divide between athletes and the media constantly growing, giving the media full access to film and practice sessions is the last thing most college coaches want to do.
Not Graham, though.
"I just want people to know that what we're doing is not fake," Graham said.
Graham has a vision that he needs everyone to buy into, including players, assistants, staffers, and most importantly, the university and fans. He wants everyone to buy in now — considering the talent Arizona State has now, and the long journey that awaits them.