TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 14: Head coach Todd Graham of the Arizona State Sun Devils speaks at a press conference introducing him as the new head football coach at Sun Devil Stadium on December 14, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
ASU landed a solid class of 23 new players on National Signing Day, but factoring in how far Todd Graham has taken this program since December, it becomes all the more remarkable.
Their one day of annual use over, the fax machines now lay silent. Signing Day 2012 is over for the Sun Devils. The race to rank the team, identify the immediate impact players and pick over the details of the 23-member class for Arizona State is on.
While the focus is rightly on the players at the moment, another significant question looms: What does this year's class say about head coach Todd Graham?
From an outsider perspective, that question would likely elicit answers ranging from "pretty good" to "underwhelming". ASU landed just two four-star prospects from the high school ranks, one from the juco level, and filled out the rest with the two and three-star players that seemingly form the core of every Sun Devils' class. Critics will point out the nine junior college transfers among the 23 are too high.
There's certainly merit to each one of those points. Normally, that kind of makeup screams C+ or maybe a B- from a generous grader.
But this isn't a normal situation. In fact, it's somewhat remarkable.
From Graham's hire to yesterday's Letter of Intent Day, 50 days had passed. That's it. Just 50. It's difficult enough to generate a quality class with 365 or more days, let along just half a hundred. As if the timeframe wasn't already unfavorable, Graham faced the 16-day recruiting dead period--in which contact with recruits was essentially prohibited--just five days after taking the job.
Oh, but that's not all.
There was the matter of assembling a coaching staff...getting to know his new players...dealing with the fallout from his departure from Pittsburgh...soothing a fan base foaming at the mouth from a season-ending five-game losing streak and a coaching search fiasco...repairing a fractured relationship between the university and local high schools...a toxic culture of indifference and mediocrity that surrounded the entire program...
Other than that, it was smooth sailing.
Graham put on a great show at his introductory press conference, charming many with his infectious enthusiasm and his hashtag-ready catchphrases like "speaking victory" and "high-octane". While other coaches may have been satisfied with a successful presser and then gradually getting to work, Graham put his words into action.
His approach to changing the culture of ASU football was swift and decisive, modeling his high-octane mentality. Strict rules were put in place. "Accountability" reentered the Sun Devil lexicon after a half-decade absence. The players were immediately held to a higher and far more difficult standard than ever before, and instead of being put off by the approach, they have embraced it.
Recently ousted head coach Dennis Erickson had assembled a very nice group of recruits, but after his dismissal, that crumbled. Graham and his newly assembled staff worked tirelessly on the recruiting trail to keep the key players from that group intact, while simultaneously adding their own players to the mix. They kept key recruits from taking offers from programs like Nebraska, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma among many. Going head-to-head with the Oregons, Cals and USCs in living room after living room, Graham and his coaches won new recruits over to the ASU cause.
But perhaps nothing in the last 50 days has been as impressive as his recruiting focus here in Arizona.
Previous coaches Dirk Koetter and especially Erickson made little to no effort to keep the Arizona's ever increasing pool of high school football talent in state. Year after year, the silent ignorance emanating from Tempe cast a loud call out to every blue chipper in the state to look to California, Oregon, Texas for their collegiate futures. But no more.
Graham aggressively set out to reverse this growing problem. Not contently to get to know just the four and five-star prospects and their families, ASU is now connecting with entire schools, their coaches and their faculty. The importance of building an entire network of positive relationships at all levels has been recognized and is now being aggressively pursued.
The commitment of star running back D.J. Foster was the first tangible success of this effort, but it certainly will not be the last. During the final weekend before Signing Day -- the busiest days of the recruiting calendar -- Graham and his staff not only made their final pitches to the 2012 recruits, but they hosted eight top local players from among the 2013 class of recruits in Tempe. To call the difference between Erickson and Graham's approaches is a vast understatement.
All of this must be factored in when looking at what Signing Day 2012 has meant for the Arizona State University Sun Devils.
On its own, it's a class that objectively ranks in the middle of the Pac-12. Yet, it also is a series of 23 distinct victories for a program that has been stuck in a long losing streak both on and off the field. More importantly, it is the first step in a major effort to return the Sun Devil program to its long forgotten place of prominence, both nationally and in the hearts of fans and alumni.
With all of that in mind, Graham deserves an A in my book.