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Madden: Todd Graham’s future with ASU may hinge upon Territorial Cup result

The sixth-year head coach is less than a week away from a career-defining game

Arizona State v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Following the conclusion of Todd Graham’s press conference Saturday night in Corvallis, the sixth-year ASU head coach muttered a few words as he got out of his chair and headed toward the locker room.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Graham was probably sick of the sub-40 degree weather, the line of questioning regarding last year’s territorial cup and sitting in a facility that likely reminded him of his greatest failure as a head football coach.

Or maybe he wanted to get back on a flight to Phoenix as quickly as possible, wanted to prepare for what shapes up to be the most important game of his tenure at Arizona State, one that may decide if it will continue.

With just one game left in the regular season, ASU has wrapped up third place in the division — a commendable effort by Graham given the personnel departures, season-long uncertainty regarding his job security and the newness of his coaching staff.

But commendable won’t do the job or secure one for Graham, not anymore.

Graham had a spectacular run when he took over for the Sun Devils, but perhaps he flew too close to the sun, providing fans unrealistic expectations he would eventually fall short of in the years to come.

He’s now succumbing to the same fate many ASU head coaches before him have created the blueprint for, and the same force that eternally rotates the coaching carousel for middling power five programs: mediocrity.

After starting off his ASU career with 11 and nine wins, respectively, Bruce Snyder failed to win more than six across his next three years and was fired in 2000.

Dirk Koetter managed eight wins in 2002 and nine in 2004 before winning just seven for the next two years and being fired in 2006.

Then came Dennis Erickson, who won 10 games during his introductory season in 2007 before managing no more than six wins across his next four campaigns.

Graham is on track for three straight seasons with less than seven wins — the well-demonstrated formula for a coaching change in Tempe — unless, of course, he defeats Arizona in the Territorial Cup.

Graham hasn’t lived up to his benchmark win totals this season that were set during his second and third years with Arizona State, so another seemingly mediocre year in 2017-18 is unavoidable. The key now, for Graham, is demonstrating that his program is moving in the right direction.

There are a few things to consider here, some more fair than others.

Often, programs are evaluated by the way that they stack up against in-state rivals, which, at the moment, doesn’t project well for Graham.

University of Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez had similar success to Graham during the first few years he took over, winning at least eight games each campaign before managing a total of 10 victories across his last two. Now, Rodriguez has guaranteed at least seven wins and possibly eight, as the likely-favored Wildcats visit Tempe next weekend.

This season marks the fifth time U of A has managed at least seven wins dating back to 2012 — Graham has done this just three times during the same span, with the most recent being in 2014.

Graham’s well-established road struggles and losses in key divisional games pale in comparison to the frustration that emanates from the fan base and the administration that comes with being out-classed on the field by your cross-state rival, a supposed “basketball school.”

Rodriguez has righted the ship in Tucson and made his program a contender in the conference, while Graham has merely feigned the appearance of one.

But, why not wait until next season to see if the program can manage seven or maybe eight wins and finally get a victory in that big game?

Because that’s an experience the athletic program has endured the past three years, and is likely growing tired of.

Expectations were sky-high for Graham’s fourth year in the desert after winning ten games and managing one of the greatest ASU victories in the decade over Notre Dame in 2014. The Devils would go on to get blown out in Houston against Texas A&M and embarrassed by USC — a program Graham is 2-4 against, with the average margin of defeat hanging around 25 points.

The program consistently preaches that it strives for conference titles each and every year, but routinely falls apart during the games it so desperately needs to ascend to the next level.

The cycle of struggles has a lasting effect, making it more and more difficult to recruit at a high-level or convince the masses that you’re capable of breaking out of it. Around and around it goes until, finally, something stops it, at least for the time being.

Graham has a chance to do just that, put a tentative end to mediocrity, speculation concerning his employment and the direction of the program next weekend against Arizona in Tempe.

If ASU falls to U of A, however, the administration will have an opportunity of its own to put an end to the situation surrounding Todd Graham, albeit it one with a more permanent solution.