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ASU Football: Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez share respect from afar despite in-state rivalry

Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez go way back, and entering 2016 they both have work to do.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

College football has a different relevance than it did five years ago in Arizona.

There's good college football played here—not to say there wasn't before. But it's better now. More appealing now.

There's an expectation now.

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez are the reasons why.

Within a four-year span, the state's rival programs have combined to produce two Pac-12 South Division titles, two Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards, three 10-win seasons, three consensus All-Americans, and 67 total wins, including five bowl victories.

This isn't Steve Spurrier vs. Bobby Bowden. It's not Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll, or even Jimbo Fischer vs. Dabo Swinney.

But while Graham-Rodriguez may lack the nihilistic verve or historically successful programs with which many popular rivalries operate, it's intriguing in a different manner.

This one goes way back.

It started in 1993, when the two first competed as coaches against one another in the NAIA title game—Graham as the defensive coordinator of East Central (Oklahoma), and Rodriguez the head coach of Glenville State.

Graham's team was victorious, 49-35. Rodriguez's zone-read offense was at the cutting edge side of innovation as far as schemes were concerned then, but Graham found a way to stop it.

In 2001, Rodriguez would hire Graham as his linebackers coach at West Virginia before promoting him to co-defensive coordinator in 2002. Graham parlayed his role on Rodriguez's staff into an assistant head coach and defensive coordinator gig with Tulsa the following season.

They wouldn't meet again until they were at the helm of their current respective teams, in a 2012 matchup which Graham's Sun Devils won 41-34. ASU outscored Arizona 24-7 in the final quarter.

The blood boiled that day, as it always does for one day every year. Since their first meeting, Graham has gotten the better of Rodriguez in three of their four bouts.

But aside from that day, there's not much if any resentment for one another.

"We don't like each other once a year for three and a half hours, but other than that we're friends," says Rodriguez.

It's been over 20 years since their first encounter, and although their career arcs have steered them away from one another for over half of their time coaching, it's almost befitting that they end up in the same state on a relatively similar course, facing similar issues and breeding similar success.

Graham has an overall coaching record of 34-19 at ASU. Rodriguez has an overall record of 33-20 at Arizona.

With ASU, Graham's highest appearance in the AP Poll has been at No. 7. With Arizona, Rodriguez's highest ranking has been No. 8.

Both have had to fend off out-of-state, elite programs for top in-state recruits, and both eventually have managed to regularly field top-25 recruit classes.

The two are contracted to continue to compete for in-state supremacy through at least 2019, as part of their long-term, multi-million dollar deals.

Each has turned a middling program considered to make little to no noise in the conference into a legitimate threat to the powers of the Pac-12 every season.

Their ties even extend to their understanding, or stance rather, of their so-called relationship.

"It really hasn't grown," Rodgriguez said. "It grew when we were recruiting a kid from his school when I was at Clemson, and then I hired him out of high school (to West Virginia)."

"Obviously, we work at rival schools, so there's not a lot of communication," Graham said. "Got a lot of respect (though)."

The connection between Graham and Rodriguez is evident in their coaching philosophies, but even their opposing views can be understood from comparing their coaching staffs.

This offseason, they each had to replace key members of their coaching staffs on sides of the ball that didn't earn them the respect they have today.

Rodriguez added a coach with personality; Graham strictly looked for one who fit his system.

"When I hired (defensive coordinator) Marcel Yates, I wouldn't hire on scheme, per say. I was hiring a personality. I was looking for a certain kind of of enthusiasm and energy, a type of consensus builder kind of guy that could get the whole staff together. I'm gonna give you the parameters, but you're gonna coach it, teach it, develop it."

-- Rich Rodriguez on hiring defensive coordinator Marcel Yates

"When I wrote down what I was looking for as a (offensive) coordinator, I wanted a guy that we're not starting over. I wanted a guy that learned in our system, knew our system, believed in our system, I didn't have to convince about our system. Minimal change as far as terminology and learning curve for our players. And we had a new quarterback, so I wanted a guy who was a developer of quarterbacks. So it was pretty clear cut who we were going to hire as the coordinator..."

-- Todd Graham on hiring offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey

That said, for every difference they may share, they are as much alike.

Graham is a genius in his own right having co-authored a hurry-up, no-huddle attack that uses a defense's tendencies against it, as well as an aggressive, heavy-attacking defense that has raised hell in the desert the last five seasons.

Rodriguez is an original mastermind of the zone-read offense, spreading opponents out through the use of tempo and speed.

"As head coaches, we've two jobs: get the right guys and develop them. Everything else is irrelevant."

-- Rich Rodriguez

"Really, my secret is just teaching, educating."

-- Todd Graham

The two don't trade advice anymore, yet still echo comparable principles.

"We talk ball a little bit," Rodriguez said of their conversations nowadays. "But only to a standpoint where you're not gonna talk about what you're gonna do or what he's gonna do. We don't go out and vacation together, or anything like that because he's our rival now."

This is a rivalry built on mutual respect, even though it's from afar, somehow despite being housed as close as imaginable some 110 miles away. From Graham's point of view, it's a rivalry founded in gratitude, as well.

"He gave me an opportunity back at West Virginia and that's something I'm very grateful for, and really appreciate him doing," Graham said.

"Todd and I go way back," Rodriguez said. "He's always had good success."

Good success, Rodriguez says, comes when one is committed to their craft through hard work and belief.

However, entering this offseason, neither is expected to enjoy the success that comes through their hard work. This offseason, the Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South by the media; the Sun Devils fifth.

Still, the two aren't the least concerned with one another or their lowly standing. They would rather obsess over their respective programs, working to fine tune and correct their mistakes.

When they talk about their school, the name of the rival or the face across from the sideline doesn't matter to them.

Until they meet again on Nov. 25, the priority will be to win football games; having to compete with a former colleague for a stronghold of the state is almost an afterthought.

And that's just how they'd like their friendship to stand both publicly and privately.

"We don't FaceTime each other, or send emojis, and happy emojis and play Pokémon (Go) or whatever the hell that game is," Rodriguez says. "But we're good friends."

Good friends who understand that until they meet each other again as enemies on the field, they are never too worried about.