By James Romo for DieHardDevil.com
It has long been opined that the ASU football program is a sleeping giant. No coach since the great Frank Kush has been able to wake this program up from its Rip Van Winkle-like slumber in mediocrity. In fact, many close to the program will contend that even the 1996 undefeated season that resulted in an outright Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl appearance was nothing more than a brief yawning and stretching since the program was unable to build any sustained success in the following years. The fan base has also become complacent and content with the on-field play and the lower-tier bowl games that resulted.
The 2011 season ended in disaster after a promising start, and ASU found itself with a new sheriff in town. Enter Head Coach Todd Graham. He touched down in the desert on a December morning immediately slinging around words and phrases like “high octane”, “left lane”, “trust”, “respect”, “accountability”, “old-school”, and oh yeah…”Discipline”. He’s never met a microphone he didn’t like. He’s smooth-talking, but genuine and sincere. He’s got the work ethic and personality of a door to door salesman in west Texas…Complete with the Southern drawl. He spits more clichés than a politician running for office. But he’s already put his “clean-cut” fingerprint on the program, and I wanted to see it for myself at spring practice.
I got to Bill Kajikawa Field to read for myself what the pages in the latest chapter of Sun Devil football were going to contain. The team, as a whole, looks like they’ve already put in the time on the conditioning fields and in the weight room. The pace of practice will have your head spinning. No one walks. Not a single coach, player, ball boy, or trainer. Hell, no one even jogs. It’s dead sprinting from one position drill to the next. Coaches yell out instruction and insert themselves into drills to demonstrate technique. And then there’s Graham coming over to let his assistant coaches know that apparently break-neck speed is still not fast enough. He encourages as he scolds, and lets them know that he needs to see more speed in order to get in more reps.
During the scrimmage portion of practice, it is almost impossible to keep up with which player is doing what. Whole groups of players sprint onto and off of the field making us observers feel like we are dead square in the middle of a bison stampede on the South Dakota plains. I won’t mention any names, but a few guys who are considered to be the most dedicated to conditioning have put their mid-day meal on display from pure exhaustion. I even chuckle at the kids running the chain gang on the sideline, as they too break into a serious sweat while trying to keep up.
As each new day comes and goes in the new Graham era, program-wide optimism is running deep. A few of the veteran players I’ve had a chance to speak with have embraced Graham’s way of doing things after having been in Erickson’s system for the majority of their careers. Culture shock seemed inevitable, but it’s a testament to their character that they have embraced such a differing style of coaching. While most major college football teams are run much more like an NFL squad, Graham takes an old-school, almost high school approach to his discipline style and practice intensity. Only time will tell if guys continue to buy into it, but be certain of one thing: This coaching staff would rather strap on some gear themselves and line up than allow any one player to be bigger than the program.
I suppose all we can do is take a wait and see approach as to whether Coach Todd Graham can finally awaken this proverbial sleeping giant…But that giant better be SPRINTING as long as he’s between the white lines.
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