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The Desert Devil: Todd Graham Finds a Home at Arizona State (No, Really)

Love him or hate him, the controversial coach has the Sun Devils in the College Football Playoff conversation

Todd Graham of the Arizona State Sun Devils talks to players on the sidelines during the college football game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Tempe, Arizona on November 8th, 2014.Todd Graham of the Arizona State Sun Devils talks to players on the sidelines during the college football game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Tempe, Arizona on November 8th, 2014.

Arizona State's Todd Graham during game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 8th, 2014.

Christian Petersen/Getty

Let us now praise Todd Graham’s headset, for it is a thing of wonder, the kind of minimalistic boy-band communications device that most football coaches would not have the sheer cojones to pull off, let alone a dude who already possesses a flatlined Q-Score in a profession crawling with snake-oil salesmen.

Perhaps you were among the viewers of Saturday’s Notre Dame-Arizona State contest who observed the Sun Devils’ head coach, crew-cut glistening under the desert sun and a pair of Technicolor wristbands on his right arm, one leather vest away from channeling Tom Cruise in Magnolia. And perhaps you thought to yourself “This man appears as if he might attempt to sell me a revolutionary new absorbent towel.

But here is the thing you must recognize about Todd Graham, now that the Sun Devils are in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation following Saturday’s 55-31 victory over the Irish: This is a coach who is not easily fazed by public perception. Maybe you think Todd Graham looks like he is about to deliver a lecture to a room full of self-proclaimed movers and shakers, but the message Todd Graham appears to be sending us with his sideline look is that he no longer gives a shit what you think.

A brief primer: In 2006, Graham got his first head coaching job, at Rice. He went 7-6, which was a minor miracle for a Rice football team back then, and he was named the Conference USA coach of the year. He signed a contract extension, and just a few days later he left to take the head job at Tulsa, so angering the school he’d left behind that the marching band actually played a show called “Todd Graham’s Inferno.”

And then a few years later, he did it again: After jumping from Tulsa to Pitt in January 2011, Graham went 6-6, interviewed for the head coaching job at Arizona State the following December, and, after refusing to even speak to Pitt’s athletic director, informed his players via text message that he was leaving. This after he’d referred to some of his assistant coaches who’d departed for other jobs as “mercenaries.” 

After being introduced as University of Pittsburgh's head coach Todd Graham speaks to the media during a press conference at the training facility on January 11th, 2011.

“We put our trust in him,” said one spurned Pitt player, “and all he could do is send us a text message.”

So this is the history Todd Graham has been working against ever since; this is why he’s been labeled as an innovative coach who oozes with disingenuousness. And Graham is not unaware of this perception: This summer, at Pac-12 media days, I asked him whether he spoke to the players about his own mistakes, and he mentioned how he’d been raised by a single mother in suburban Dallas and then had his first child at the age of 17. He also mentioned that he and his wife had paid off one house in the Phoenix area and then bought another one (whose previous owner happened to be Poison’s Bret Michaels). He mentioned how he’d contributed to Arizona State’s fundraising campaign. He said things like “I want our fans to know how committed we are to Arizona State.  I think it’s something that is so important, the stability.”

And it’s easy to hear those words, and then to look at the Sun Devils’ 8-1 record, and the way they fended off a good Notre Dame team by utterly flummoxing Irish quarterback Everett Golson at key moments, and it’s easy to see the job offers that might open up to Graham in the offseason. And it’s easy to think This man is trying to proffer me a bridge with lines like that.

Arizona State, after all, has never really been a dream destination for a football coach, unless that football coach really likes Pumpkin Spice Lattes and raging frat parties. But what if we take Todd Graham at his word? What if he really has changed, even if he still looks like might be calling to convince us to change our long-distance carrier?

Case in point: Not long ago, the greatest head coach of his generation was viewed with the same jaundiced eye. Before he (seemingly) convinced us that he was at Alabama for the duration of his career, Nick Saban was also seen as a mercenary, a man who could never settle on one thing. But on Saturday, a day replete with games of playoff consequence, Saban once again reinforced himself as perhaps the best preparer of college football players who ever lived. Down 13-10 to LSU in Death Valley (a place he’d once unceremoniously departed for a failed NFL stint), in perhaps the most hostile atmosphere in college football, Saban assured his team that they could drive down the field with under a minute remaining and no time-outs. “This is where you show that you know how to win,” he told them.

And that’s what Bama did: They tied the game in regulation, and won it overtime, 20-13. And afterward, Saban, in defending LSU coach Les Miles, delivered a classically Saban-esque mini-lecture – both uptight and clear-eyed – to the media about their inherent ability to second-guess the decisions that coaches make. “Our decisions are final,” he said, “and we have to live with the consequences.”

Did this little rant have anything to do with LSU fans directing profane chants at Saban on Saturday night? Maybe, maybe not. The point was that at Alabama, Nick Saban has (presumably) found a long-term home, and now, just maybe, Todd Graham is finding his. At some point, you live with the consequences, both micro and macro. And it’s very possible that you might not respect either of these men for decisions they’ve made in the past, but it’s also increasingly possible that these are two of the figures that will shape the climax of the 2014 season. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you think.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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