Like many of you Sun Devil followers and supporters, I've been looking forward to The Tillman Story being released to select theaters. Based on reviews and some lead-up stories, it's not your typical documentary, which only intensifies my desire to go see it.
It reminded me once again of how much I loved watching Pat Tillman play football, but moreover, it served as a reminder of all the seemingly larger than life characters who played on those Sun Devil football teams with Tillman. As the college football season kicked off on Thursday night, I thought about those teams and how distinctly different they were from recent Sun Devil squads. Bottom line is Sparky needs a jolt of life, adrenaline ... something to make Sun Devil football truly relevant again.
Tillman was just one of several players who, at times, was a lightning rod for his team. Of course, you had the QB, Jake Plummer, who had become the face and voice of ASU football during his time on campus, but he wasn't alone. Juan Roque, the big gregarious offensive tackle who was always quick with a smile. In fact, the majority of that offensive line was a bit like a comedy troupe. Grey Rugemar and Kyle Murphy provided plenty of comedic relief, not to mention a nasty streak on the field that was second to none.
Defensively, Tillman led a group that had the likes of Derek Rogers, Shawn Swayda, Vince Amey, Derek Smith and Mitchell Freedman. There were just so many different personalities, yet they meshed together in way that created this unmistakable aura that you felt if you were around them for any period of time.
I had the good fortune of hosting the Sun Devil Radio pregame and postgame shows, so I did spend a lot of time with the players, coaches and fans and it's something I'll never forget. In sports, sometimes you just know that you have something special and that's exactly what I felt with that group. No, they weren't all top recruits who came in with all the typical blue chip background, but I think because they weren't, they forged a bond very quickly among one another.
Of course, most know by now the story of Tillman's football career path at ASU. From walk on to Pac-10 Defensive POY, Tillman embodied the team's spirit and fight. He was an intriguing figure even back then for none of the reasons that people are enamored with him now.
While I haven't had any direct involvement with ASU football in quite some time, one doesn't have to be that close to see that an institution this size and with the state-of-the-art training facilities at their disposal that the Devils have has fallen well short of where they should be. I remember thinking back in '96, as they prepared for the Rose Bowl and a shot at the national championship, that this is how it's supposed to be every year for ASU. Great campus, great players, strong staff -- you just felt like they would be an elite program from that day on.
Mediocrity is unfortunately what's transpired, for the most part. Since the 2000 season, the ASU football team has gone 66-57 along the way, with a 2-4 record in bowl games.
The Dirk Koetter experiment was a miserable failure and to date Dennis Erickson hasn't lived up to all the hype that followed him to Tempe. True, he debuted with a 10-3 record, but he's followed that with 5-7 and 4-8 marks. Throw in a bowl loss, and you can see how critical 2010 is shaping up to be, not only for Erickson, but ASU football as a whole. In today's tough economic climate, universities rely more than ever on a football team's success to help set the table financially for the rest of the sports. When football is successful, it sets the tone across the board.
For years, the Sun Devils had the attention of the Valley football fans, as a result of the Cardinals' failures. Playing in the same town that's home to an NFL franchise is no easy task and because the Cardinals couldn't get out of their own way for the first 15 years, they were. That's all changed now, of course, with the Cardinals playing in a state-of-the-art facility and turning themselves into a consistent winner that came within seconds of capturing a Super Bowl title.
With the days of Trojan dominance now over in the Pac-10, the battle for the conference elite spot is wide open. If Dennis Erickson is the coach his resume suggests he is, then it's time to see some results. And not just one season results. As I alluded to earlier, this university is too big with too many assets to be a middle of the pack football program. Fans and administrators can no longer accept six- and seven-win seasons. Bowl bids are given out like Halloween candy, so you can't just say making a bowl game is the benchmark of success.
If the Utes, Horned Frogs and Broncos can deliver consistent winners then ASU fans should be asking the same of ASU. Different conferences, I realize, but at the end of the day, these programs are finding the kind of players that remind me of the Tillmans and Plummers of the world. Guys who have an insatiable appetite to succeed and they'll grab everyone else by the short hairs and drag them along for the ride.
Here's hoping the Devils have more than a few of those kind of characters on this year's club. The Devils must find a way to become relevant in their own backyard and the only way you do that is to win and win consistently.