Todd Graham improved his team’s conference won-loss record from 2–7 to 6–3. He won his rivalry game. He has run, by the admission of the man who fired him, run a clean program and paid the proper amount of attention to academics. But listen to this statement from Ray Anderson, the vice president of athletics at Arizona State:
“Our athletic department, university, and community expect our football program to compete on the field for Pac-12 titles, be competitively consistent and qualify to participate in major bowl games on a regular basis. In evaluating Todd’s body of work over a four-year period, it became clear that a change is necessary.”
Even though anyone familiar with how Graham screwed over his former employers at Pitt is chuckling vindictively at how this turned out for him, a reality check is necessary. Witness the following:
1. Graham finished with a won-loss record of 44–30. The last coach who left ASU with a better winning percentage was John Cooper, who left for Ohio State in 1988. The Sun Devils have played in four January bowl games since 1980. They have won three Pac-10 titles since joining the conference in 1977. Whatever expectations Mr. Anderson may have for his program are about as realistic as when Roy Moore goes to the mall.
2. Four Pac-12 schools spent more on their football programs than Arizona State in the 2015–16 school year. So essentially Graham was being asked to produce champions on a budget that was…average.
3. From 2015 through 2018, the state of Arizona produced a total of eleven players in the ESPN Top 300 ratings of top high school football recruits. This is less than one percent of the top football players in the country, and ASU has to compete with another in-state school for these players. This is not surprising to anyone who has been in Arizona in August or September, where the climate is more conducive to chess than football. Unlike his competition in the Pac-12 South, Graham must recruit almost exclusively out-of-state to build an elite program.
4. In US News and World Report’s ranking of the top 50 public universities in America, Arizona State was ranked 53rd. If the academic program was rated by the same standards as the football team, you would expect massive firings of professors, right? Nope.
5. The ASU men’s basketball program has won three NCAA tournament games in this century. Their last conference championship came in 1974. Herb Sendek was given nine years to correct that trend before he was fired in 2015, more than twice as long as Graham got. Bobby Hurley, who replaced Sendek and has a 12–24 conference record in two seasons, received a contract extension through 2021. So… football is expected to contend and basketball isn’t?
It’s not as though Arizona State is the only delusional program in America. Texas A&M last won a conference title in 1998, but Kevin Sumlin got fired after going 51–26. There is some logic to this, as the Aggies think they have a realistic shot at Jimbo Fisher and are willing to spare no expense to win. Fisher has a good gig, though, and has proven he can win big there. If he goes to A&M he would be expected to win or else in a division with Alabama, Auburn, and LSU. Fisher would also be dealing with an alumni base that likes to meddle and thinks of this program as one of the five or ten best in the country. That has led to some scandals in the past and probably will in the future. Look for Fisher to stay at Florida State.
Tennessee fired Phil Fulmer nine years ago after a 5–7 season, even though he had won nine or more games in five of the previous seven years. Since Fulmer left, the Volunteers are 53–50 under five different coaches, but they still think Jon Gruden or some other superstar coach is going to leap at this job. They backed away from hiring Greg Schiano after massive protests, which began more as “is that the best we can do” and then morphed into a protest over his conduct at Penn State after that seemed like a more effective tactic. At this point, nobody who has a secure job is going to take on this dumpster fire, so Tennessee needs to hope they can get lucky with a coordinator or Group of Five Coach. Otherwise, they need to take a retread who just got fired, which they already have in interim coach Brady Hoke. Whether they will decide to be realistic before all the good candidates are taken is the real question. No evidence of that so far.
We could go on and talk about Arkansas and a few others, but you get the point. The reality is that there’s only one champion every year, and a couple of other teams that come close. When your conference has 13 or 15 other teams that also expect to win on a regular basis, basic math dictates that the idea of contending on a regular basis is a pipe dream for 80% of the programs in the country. For those teams, eight or nine wins is an achievement, especially now that everyone plays nine or ten conference games. If a program can consistently reach that level and find a way once a decade to catch a couple of stud recruits and catch lightning in a bottle, it should consider itself a success.
Schools like Iowa get this. Kirk Ferentz doesn’t play on January 1st every year, but he runs a clean program and he doesn’t chase every open job. When he has a team with an experienced core and a few guys develop into NFL-caliber players, he contends for a conference title. His bosses realize that is as good as they can do and don’t fire him when they have a down year or two. The sooner some of these schools realize this and stop throwing money after lost causes, the better off they will be.