TUCSON — Underneath the field at Arizona Stadium, adjacent to the visitors’ locker room and a few feet off of the stadium’s main concourse, sat Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham late on Friday night.
Badly beaten by the Arizona Wildcats - the team’s archrival who entered the day winless in conference play - an obviously saddened and frustrated Graham opened up to the media on hand.
And for the first time all night, he did something right. He took responsibility.
“It starts at the top with me,” said Graham. “We did a poor job preparing defensively and played absolutely atrociously. We obviously have some things we need to get straight.”
And now, with the season all but over (there is a small chance that 5-7 Arizona State could still be invited to a bowl, but that is looking unlikely), just one question remains for the Sun Devils: Will Graham be given another chance to get those things straightened out?
Seven weeks ago, with the team sitting at 5-1, entertaining the possibility that Graham would be let go by the school was a ridiculous notion. But things are much, much different now.
The 56-35 loss suffered in Tucson on Friday marked Arizona State’s sixth straight loss, all but one of which have come by 13 points or more.
The latest defeat was the worst one, as a 2-9 Arizona team rushed for a school record 511 yards against a miserable Sun Devil defense. Defenders were giving up on plays early, and hitting opponents well after the play had ended on others. There was very little effort, very little passion, and all of this makes one wonder whether Graham will be back on the sidelines at Sun Devil Stadium next August.
“We’ve never given up that many yards,” Graham said after the loss. “We let down the seniors tonight. Having them go out like this is disheartening.”
Athletic director Ray Anderson met his football coach as he was walking off the field Friday, pulling him close for a word of encouragement ahead of what is sure to be a rough week-plus of speculation surrounding the program.
“It’s going to be alright,” said Anderson after Graham apologized for the loss. “Stay calm.”
The Maroon and Gold athletic director is already on record saying that he wants Graham back next season, but a vote of confidence from your boss is rarely a sure thing in this sport.
This sport demands you win on the field, and not just off of it.
This sport demands you don’t get blown out by a rival for their only league win of the season.
This sport demands that the boosters who flood money into the program get to talk about their team with pride when conversing with rival alumni at their offices and country clubs.
Noticeably absent from Graham’s postgame press conference were the deep-pocketed fans who usually drop in on the coach’s pressers after games up the road in Tempe. Anderson decided he had somewhere else to be as well.
No one really knows where those people stand, and so the waiting game begins.
To Graham’s credit, things weren’t exactly set up for him to succeed this season. With a backloaded schedule and injuries on top of injuries, five or six wins was to be expected in what was a bit of rebuilding year.
But some coaches don’t survive after ending a season with six straight losses, this coming just one year after Graham talked about winning a national title before ending with another losing season.
For a long time, Graham used to be known in coaching circles as someone who always liked to be on the move. A coach whose mindset was always that the grass was greener somewhere else. In fact, he only stayed for a total of two years at two of his first three head coaching stops.
But Graham has found a home in Tempe, slowly changing the culture of the program after taking the job in 2012.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges, but that’s football and that’s life,” Graham said. “I’m pretty motivated to go to work and get things where they need to be.”
Graham clearly wants to be a Sun Devil. All that remains to be seen is whether or not Anderson still wants him as well.