The Arizona State Sun Devils had a reputation before hiring Todd Graham. They were an undisciplined team where immaturity and mental lapses undercut what was an incredibly talented roster. Not many people though that a coach with a reputation for quick exits would be able to tame this wild bunch, but the turnaround was immediate in 2012, and Graham’s poise and attention to detail are major reasons why.
The difference between pre-Graham and ASU and post-Graham are pretty dramatic. In 2011, the Sun Devils ranked last in the nation in penalty yardage, averaging 79.77 penalty yards per game. Most of those were dumb penalties that caused a talented group to implode down the stretch. After starting the season 5-1 and rising all the way to No. 18 in the AP poll, Arizona State collapsed down the stretch, losing six of their final seven games against a soft schedule, saw their locker room fracture and their head coach get fired.
Things couldn’t have been any more different in 2012. Last season, the Sun Devils ranked first in the Pac 12 in penalties and No. 8 in the country, getting called for just 34.92 penalty yards per game, and many of those were “effort” penalties. When the team faced adversity last fall, losing four straight games against the toughest part of their schedule, the team rallied and bounced back to win their final three games, including a come-from-behind win against the rival Arizona Wildcats, ranked No. 24 at the time.
That turnaround is thanks in no small part to the discipline and accountability that Graham brought to the locker room. He effectively flipped the culture of the program in just one season from perennial trouble-makers and mentally fragile screw-ups to a tough-minded and physical team that didn’t give in when the chips were down.
And that change in culture has reaped immediate rewards. Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton chose to return to school for his senior season rather than chase the money of the NFL, as most ASU standouts have done in the past. Local prep standout Chans Cox went from not considering ASU at all because of their bad reputation to signing his letter of intent and enrolling early in a matter of months. Most importantly, Arizona State is poised to make a run at the Pac 12 South Division title and push for that elusive Rose Bowl Game berth.
Todd Graham brought a bad reputation with him to Tempe when he was hired away from the Pitt Panthers, but he has brought a mental toughness and discipline to Arizona State. And that has made all the difference in the Sun Devils turnaround in the last year.