The 8-5 record does not tell the true story of the transformation Arizona State has undertaken through one year of Todd Graham’s regime. Following a 5-7 season in which the Sun Devils dropped six of their final seven games, Graham’s team managed to rank second in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and total defense while closing the season on a three-game winning streak.
We caught up with Graham to talk about the investment his program is making in recruiting, the investment the Pac-12 as a whole has made into becoming a football superpower and his thoughts on America’s best high school stadium.
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1) We thought your hiring of former LSU director of player personnel Sherman Morris was one of the best moves of this offseason. How important is his hiring to getting your program established? How were you able to pry him away from LSU?
Sherman is the best that I’ve been around as far as having a passion for recruiting. He’s not a guy that wants to coach or anything like that, he wants to have the best recruiting in the country, period. He’s very dynamic and a guy that has has a high school coach’s background, which is something that I like. He understands the process.
I think the key for us luring him away was just relationships. We got to know him and we talked to him about all the attributes that Arizona State has to offer, being out here in the Valley of the Sun. We have a new AD, a new football coach. We have a commitment here, building a new stadium. We’ve got a lot of positive things going on and this is a chance for him to have a blank sheet of paper. This is a place that has tremendous attributes and the chance to put together something special when it comes to recruiting. I think Sherman would tell you he had a chance to make a name for himself. He’d done it at LSU, had top five classes almost every year there, but I think he wanted a new challenge and I think our relationship was the key.
2) Your son Bo is your running backs coach. How special an opportunity is it to work with your son every day?
He’s grown up in a fieldhouse. I coached him at Allen High School, then he coached the running backs for me there at Tulsa. He’d tell you it’s probably a lot more difficult for him than it is for me. He has a great knowledge for what we’re doing, a great passion, so it makes you feel good that he’s gone in the same profession that I’m doing. It’s nice to go to work, go to game day, run out the tunnel and share that with your son. It means a lot. It’s a special deal.
3) Anyone who spends time on the Arizona State campus can’t help but notice within their first five minutes what a vibrant student body you have. How prominent of a role does that play in your efforts to get kids from California and Texas on campus?
It’s a great atmosphere here, a great student life. You have one of the largest enrollments in the country, you have one of the top cities in the country. People come from all over the country to visit here. It’s a resort city, 320 days of sunshine and all that. What we recruit to is our program, and that’s our academic program being in the top 100 in the country, then our football program from our tradition and where we’re going and moving forward from here as an up and coming program. We get a person on an official visit, they like the atmosphere. Where our players live are almost like resort living, like you would see staying in a condo on vacation or something. Everything’s fully furnished and it’s really nice. How they live, you walk around the campus it’s sunshine, palm trees, it’s beautiful.
4) When you step into a recruit’s living room, what’s the top bullet point you’re selling him on why he should come to Arizona State?
The single most important thing, you look at how we develop players. That’s one of the things we really talk to our recruits about. You look at a guy like Will Sutton that quadrupled every stat that he had in one season. Brandon McGee is the same way. Carl Bradford is the same way. Obviously we look at the development, like we developed Taylor Kelly as a quarterback and what he was able to do. Marion Grice, D.J. Foster, we had two Freshmen All-Americans. I think that’s a selling point. Our staff are teachers. This is a development sport. Where can you go where coaches are going to develop you and help get you better? Obviously everybody talks about that but it’s nice when you can point and say, ‘Look, here’s statistically what we were able to do in one year’ and I think that’s something is what people look at our program and see. Our staff, our coaches, are great teachers and the ability to develop players is the key to our success.
5) You tried to bring Chris Thomsen on staff when you first got to Arizona State, and then hired him again after he left Texas Tech, first as your running backs coach and then transitioned him to the offensive line. Clearly this is a coach whose talents you value, so what makes him so important to finally add to your staff?
I hired him when I first got here. I knew him back when he was a head coach at Abilene Christian (FCS – TX), I’ve known him for 20 years. He’s got head coaching experience, obviously led Texas Tech in the bowl game there as the interim head coach, and again fits right into our staff. A great teacher and a great football coach and a great person. Just like Sherman, if I’ve done anything well, I’ve been able to hire good people. He really is a great fit for us. One of the great things about it that most people don’t know – he coached Coach (Mike) Norvell. Those relationships that go back like that we think are very, very strong. Obviously Mike’s one of the most dynamic offensive coordinators in the country and I’ve worked with some great ones like Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris. Having a guy like Chris where there’s that total trust with Mike Norvell and they have that long relationship with both of us was very, very key for us. We’ve already seen improvements up front and seen improvements with our offense. Not only is he an offensive line coach, but he’s a guy that really assists me as an assistant head coach and really helps me in those regards because he’s been a head football coach as well.
6) You’ve been working with Overtime Software on a customized app for your program. Can you tell us what’s on the app and how you plan to use it?
They’re doing an app for us. We’re just working on ways that we can market and promote our program out there. They obviously do a great job in that regard. They’re doing an app for us where a guy can click on it and see everything about our program. It hasn’t been launched yet so we’re still waiting to see everything that’s on it.
7) Your program is adorned with Rose Bowl material all throughout the football facilities. Is that something you started as soon as you go to Tempe?
It’s the standard. It’s the benchmark. It’s what every team in the Pac-12 wants to do. Our goal is to win every day and win every game, and why would you have any other goal? We obviously work our guys on the training aspect, you talk about development and the strength program and their speed development program and our football program, our standards are the very highest. How can we work harder than anybody else in the country and have any goal other than to win every day, win every game? When you walk around here you look at the 1987 Rose Bowl champions and that’s the most prominent picture when you walk in the door here. And then you see the ’97 Rose Bowl team that was conference champions and that were a 1:19 from winning the Rose Bowl. That’s the benchmark. We talk about winning and winning a Rose Bowl, that represents winning every day, every rep, every practice, every classroom, on the field, off the field, in the classroom, in the community, winning every day. That’s our standard. I would be surprised if not every team in the Pac-12 has the same goal but that’s definitely the benchmark here.
8) Your program is doing some work on Sun Devil Stadium, and seemingly every other Pac-12 program has some major facilities or stadium upgrade either in the works or recently completed. Can you recall another time when an entire conference was making such a significant investment all at once?
It’s unprecedented when you look at the Pac-12 and every single program is investing major in their program. Washington just built a new stadium and Cal renovated theirs as well. USC built a new football facility, you just go on and on and on. We’re obviously in the process of redoing our entire stadium here as well. If you look at the SEC, it’s probably what they did years ago. You’ve got to be in the ballpark when it comes to that. I think the key if you want to win – you’ve got to invest. That’s what you’re seeing in the Pac-12. We want to be the best in the country and you’re seeing programs that are investing to do that.
9) Do you feel like this could be a “rising tide lifts all boats” time for the Pac-12 when your program benefits not only from the investment you’re making, but also from the investment at Stanford, Washington, etc.?
No question. You look at the Pac-12 and the respectability that our conference has. The key to our success is being strong from top to bottom and being competitive from top to bottom year in and year out. That’s what we want to be. We want to be the best conference in the country, and winning breeds winning. When you have one school excelling, that brings everybody forward. You look at the SEC’s had winning national championships every year, that obviously helps their conference. The Pac-12 Conference, I think, is one of the most dynamic, difficult conferences when you look at the diversity of the offenses in this league, the skill player talent you see, even look at the Draft you’ll see there’s some tremendous players in this conference. I think that this conference is dramatically improving right now. You look at the improvements last year, and it’s only going to get better this year. I think this conference is moving forward to the top.
10) You were the head coach at Allen High School in Texas before jumping into the college game. Have you gotten a chance to see the stadium that many have called the best high school stadium in the nation?
I was there six and a half, seven years, my son graduated from there, I’ll always be an Allen Eagle. I’m very proud to go back there, have my name up on that building there. It was actually the dream of a guy named Bob Curtis and Dr. Barbara Irwin, who was the superintendent there. Most people don’t realize that stadium is just part of it. That high school, the education, the fine arts facility, is unbelievable. That’s got to be the best high school facilities from top to bottom, academically, fine arts, football, baseball, you name it, it’s a tremendous, tremendous place. I’m very proud of it. It’s got to be the best high school stadium in America.