It takes a rare breed of fiasco to make a month-long losing streak that snatches away a division title and chance to play for the Rose Bowl seem like just a glancing blow. But that's exactly the kind of trauma sustained by the Sun Devil faithful this past December.
Following the dismissal of Dennis Erickson, hope was initially prevalent among the followers of Arizona State football. Given the tragedy that was the team's on-field performance in November, any positivity was somewhat remarkable.
However, like the Sun Devil's Rose Bowl dreams, that optimism was short lived.
Only masochists and Wildcat fans care to recount the details of the disaster that was ASU's subsequent coaching search, so there's no sense in rehashing the gruesome specifics. Suffice it to say, the efforts of the administration alienated the vast majority of fans, alumni, former players and boosters.
When a hire was finally made on December 14th, the overall reaction was a mix of "Who?" and "We waited for this?" This was kicking a devil while he was down.
Tack on a swift and brutal reaction from the national media, a promising recruiting class disintegrating, a toxic culture of the program, valuable assistant coaches bolting for a division rival and the two most prominent players forgoing their senior seasons to head to the NFL, and the situation for new head coach Todd Graham was as bleak and dire as could be imagined.
Yet a funny thing happened on the certain Sun Devils' journey into football purgatory.
A ray of hope broke through the gloom. Then another.
A jolt of optimism struck the Sun Devil collective conscience. Then another.
With each passing day and each new report, the once impenetrable wall of negativity surrounding the Arizona State football program began to slowly erode. Suddenly, people were actually looking forward to the 2012 season. To call that transformation "amazing" is shortchanging the efforts of Graham and his newly assembled staff.
While the on-field changes will be significant, the greatest challenges and the most pressing priorities for the new regime are not found between the sidelines.
They are found in the broken culture of mediocrity that has encompassed the Sun Devils for the last five seasons. They are found in the living rooms of Arizona's top high school recruits that have never seen an ASU coach. They are found in the hearts and wallets of a fan base that has become jaded with empty promises and unfulfilled potential.
On each front, progress is made every day.
The prior atmosphere of complacency has been aggressively cast aside for one in which dedication, hard work and accountability reign. Whether its small things such as the banning of profanity or in-season tweeting to major initiatives like mandatory 6:00am weightlifting and intense workouts, his changes are having a positive impact on the players. Need proof? Just look at the Twitter feeds of any ASU player. You'll find that the praise for these workouts and changes is decisive.
While the current players are hitting the weights and learning the new ASU way, the next generation of Sun Devils is being aggressively pursued, and the biggest revelation has been ASU's efforts their own backyard.
Running back D.J. Foster of Scottsdale Saguaro has garnered most of the major headlines, but the work of Graham and staff go far beyond the four-star prospect. Local recruits, largely ignored in recent years, have been diligently pursued since the beginning of Graham's regime. Knowing that rebuilding the relationship between the university and local high schools is both critical and daunting, each member of the staff has been given local high schools for which they are responsible. Graham is also looking further into the future. This weekend, ASU will host eight local high school juniors, an aggressive move. For players and coaches here in Arizona, this is a most welcome development.
These efforts with both present and future players are helping to win the third--and most challenging goal--giving Sun Devil Nation reason to believe.
The mentality of a Sun Devil fan is an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, there is the devotion to the team and their alma mater. From that springs the hope of success and the belief that the team is capable of making a play or winning a game. Yet, over 30 years of mediocre play, dashed hopes and staggering blunders have conditioned fans to expect the worst. It's not if a crippling mistake will happen, but when it will come up to cost the Devils.
Thus, winning over the fans is a task not easily accomplished. It takes more than slick catchphrases, an acclaimed offseason or a run to a quality bowl. Graham has not coached the Sun Devils for a single down. They've not yet scored a touchdown or won a game.
But he's given the fans reason to believe that the future is no longer just a prolonged setup to a series of losing punchlines. Graham's building a foundation of a winning program on principles, sweat and grit. Rather than flash and hype, his approach aims to provide a far more lasting and effective solution. Seeing how it has resonated with the fans and supporters of the program has been a terrific development after such a dark and dreadful December.
Whether or not Graham is the cure to what has ailed Arizona State for decades will not be known for a few years. Just because a solid foundation is built doesn't mean what is built upon it will be any good. But it's a start, a very promising, substantiated and needed start.
If this start is indicative of what's to come, ASU will no longer be "speaking victory". They'll be living it.
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