(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
He's already in office, but ASU head coach Todd Graham is aggressively campaigning for community support, and it's the absolute right move.
Todd Graham has it all backwards. He also has it right.
Common sense dictates that once you actually take office, the need to campaign gets shelved.
But for Graham, his hiring as Arizona State's head football coach was just the beginning of his work to win the hearts and minds of his Sun Devil constituents.
Given the rift that has emerged between the community and the Sun Devils over years of mediocre teams and frequent disappointments, this is an extremely daunting task. Yet, true to character, it is one that Graham is taking head on in "high octane" style.
Over the years under Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson, the relationships with fans, media members, alumni and former players all suffered. The general attitude took on a "my way or the highway" feel. The regimes determined to operate as they saw fit, and if people hopped on board, that was a bonus, but by no means a necessity.
A cursory scan of the record books, media coverage and attendance figures illustrate the success of that approach. Whoops.
The manner in which the 2011 season ended beat those bonds down to the canvas, and the ensuing chaos of December's coaching search threatened to deliver the kill shot.
Graham's surprising hire on December 14th brought about a brief stay of execution, as most were too busy asking "Who?" and "Why?" to get too angered. That placed a lot of pressure on Graham when he spoke at his introductory press conference.
He began by saying that he wanted to be part of a program that is "relationship oriented". To the former players he said "I need your support. This is your program. You built it." To the fans, he promised that "I'm going to work hard to earn your support and your trust." Graham expressed his eagerness to reach out to the community "one handshake at a time."
Sweet. This guy talks a great game. Most coaches do at their first press conference. But will he deliver on those promises?
Glad you asked.
In his three months at Arizona State, Graham has made constant efforts to not only mend fences, but to build a legitimate foundation. When the 2012 recruiting period ended with National Signing Day on February 1st, he began speaking victory with them in a big way, and four events in particular highlight the work he is doing.
In early February, Graham met with a group of 73 former players, some whose playing days dated back all the way to the 1950s. He wanted to hear their concerns, answer questions and ensure they knew they were a valued part of present and future of Sun Devil football. The reaction from the former players was extremely positive.
"I sense this guy is the real deal," said Ron Pritchard, an ASU player from 1966-1968 and a Sun Devil Ring of Honor member.
His next task was repairing the sometimes contentious relationship that the program has had with the local media.
On February 22nd, Graham hosted a luncheon for local media members. It was an informal affair, with Graham and his coaching staff getting to know those in the media, fielding questions asking what they can do as a program to make the media's job easier.
That last point has earned the new regime a lot of respect, as they are making good on their desire to be far more than a weekly press conference and some post-game quotes. This move indicates that the staff understands the mutual value that a positive relationship brings to the table, and the power that the media can have in accomplishing Graham's goals.
Later that same day, Graham took part in an unprecedented move.
He hosted a conference call with season ticket holders in which he answered their questions directly. This personal engagement was a revelation, and something previously unseen in ASU history. Joined by senior linebacker Brandon Magee, they created more goodwill between the fans and the program in that one hour than the Erickson era had generated in its entirety since the 2007 Holiday Bowl. Most importantly, it was a major sign that Graham is walking the walk.
At the heart of any team's fanbase is the students, a fact not lost on Coach Graham. Last week, Graham enlisted a few players and made a tour of ASU's various campuses around the Valley. Given the sheer size of the Tempe campus, Graham would have made a significant wave had he just met with students there. But that wouldn't be a high-octane method of student outreach.
"I'm not just going to sit in my office and say, ‘You should show up to the games.' I want to go out and know people. We're all about relationships. I want the fans, I want the students I want the faculty and staff to know who their coach is, and I want to do something special," told Graham The State Press.
Students? Check. Season ticket holders? Check. Former players? Check. Media? Well, you get the picture.
AH, but won't somebody think of the children?!
Don't worry, Graham did. He is putting on a free children's football clinic at Sun Devil Stadium later this month. Leave no Sun Devil left behind.
The reality is that a successful program ultimately is not judged by how many hands are shaken or how many season ticket holders renew. It's by the win-loss record alone. Todd Graham may do and say all the right things, but if the losses mount, we'll be welcoming in another coach wrapped in swagger and optimism in five years.
Over the last several years, the hope at ASU has revolved around an impressive coaching resume, the promise of an up-and-comer, gaudy playcalling wrapped up in Nike uniforms and topped off by a hearty dose of standoffishness.
Not only have those approaches resulted in two coaching changes since 2007, it also left the program isolated from the community, and the very foundation perilously weak.
Coach Graham knows that. He sees the serious issues both now and in the future, and has built his platform on fixing that.
Like anyone on the campaign trail, Graham has his share of catchphrases and music-to-my-ears promises.
Unlike most of them, he's making the moves, pulling back the curtain and going to work to and make sure that his words become reality.
And for now, that's good enough to get my vote.