Arizona State Vice President of University Athletics Ray Anderson made the decision to fire Todd Graham as the head coach of the football team on Sunday morning.
On its surface, the decision makes sense.
Graham was in Tempe for six seasons, with his second three worse than his first three. He missed a bowl game in 2016 after losing the final six games of the season, including a blowout loss to rival Arizona. This year, the Sun Devils were average, once again, going 7-5 and tying for fifth in the Pac-12 overall.
But in the aftermath of the firing, it’s important to look at what Graham meant to ASU, both as a football program and as a university. He helped make the Sun Devils nationally relevant again and laid the groundwork for the new student-athlete center.
In fact, one of the first things out of Anderson’s mouth was praising the place in which Graham has the Sun Devils compared to where they were when he showed up.
“ASU and ASU football are in a much better place today than it was six years ago when Todd Graham took over,” Anderson said. “And it’s in a better place than it is four years ago when I arrived here. Coach Graham has done a marvelous job and we will applaud and thank him forever for having led in that effort.”
The problem is, it doesn’t feel as though Anderson values how much better the university actually is. It seems as though Anderson believes Graham walked into a program ready-made for success. In fact, it was the exact opposite.
When Lisa Love fired Dennis Erickson, the program was a mess on and off the field. There was very little discipline both in the classroom and when it came to penalties... I mean Vontaze Burfict was a face of Arizona State.
Graham changed that. He’s cut down on penalties and ASU ranks close to the service academies year in and year out when it comes to drawing flags. He’s also increased the team GPA to 3.0, something unthinkable six years ago.
Anderson is of the somewhat popular opinion that this football program is a sleeping giant. A place that can, once the stars align, harness its might and become one of the best in the nation.
What have the Sun Devils ever done to make anyone believe that it can be a consistent winner?
The program has won the conference three times, including a split title in 2007, since joining the Pac-12 in 1978. In that time, no coach other than Graham has three eight-win seasons at Arizona State. With a bowl win, Todd Graham can have four. Speaking of bowl games, Graham is the only coach to miss one in one or fewer of his years in Tempe since John Cooper, who was only in Tempe for three seasons.
But please, tell me more about how this program should be consistently winning nine games and ranked in the top 15.
That’s not to say he’s wrong in wanting those things. Every program in the country wants to consistently compete for national championships, but firing the coach that got you the closest you’ve been in over 20 years doesn’t seem like the way to get there.
Some people will point to the lack of consistency as a fault of Todd Graham’s. He can’t keep assistant coaches and they’re always going other places. You know why? They’re getting better jobs.
Mike Norvell left to become the head coach at Memphis and took people with him and gave them promotions. Is it Todd Graham’s fault? What about Chip Lindsey, the Alabama native who went back home to make more money as the offensive coordinator at Auburn?
So sure, keeping a consistent staff is ideal, but what person, in any field, isn’t looking for an advancement in their career? And who is Graham or Anderson to stop someone from doing that?
During the press conference, Anderson noted that he hoped the new coach would at least consider retaining offensive coordinator Billy Napier and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, both of whom just finished their first season at ASU and were hired by... Todd Graham.
“I want someone to come in with an open mind and see what Napier and Bennett have done for us in terms of progress,” Anderson said. “We don't want someone to come in, throw a grenade and say I want all my own guys.”
But if you’re moving on from a head coach, why keep the guys who he decided should be here? And if you think they’re doing a good job, aren’t you also admitting Graham is doing a good job?
In the end, Anderson’s message was essentially this; we want what Graham brought, but we don’t want him.
My question is this: why?