Arizona State’s Todd Graham brought much-needed discipline to Sun Devils


Arizona State used to be one of the most undisciplined teams in the country, but under head coach Todd Graham they have ushered in a new era of Sun Devil football.

On December 9th, 2006, the athletic director of Arizona State University, Lisa Love, hired former NCAA champion Dennis Erickson, to become the new head coach of the Sun Devil football program. He had plenty of baggage, including a reputation for his lack of discipline during his tenure at Miami. Those Hurricane teams were known for talent, winning, and questionable character, both on and off-the-field.

More from Arizona State Sun Devils

Erickson was notorious both there, and at Oregon State for having teams that played well past the whistle. Those facts alone should have been enough to deter the hiring of Erickson, but Love looked past that.

Given that the university football program was still grieving over the death of former player Brandon Falkner, someone kicked off the team for a traffic citation, who was killed by former star Sun Devil tailback Loren Wade. Wade was suspended in 2004 for receiving improper benefits, allegedly having to do with academics, and the head coach at the time, Dirk Koetter, had been informed that Wade had threatened several female athletes.

Allegedly, Koetter also knew that Wade had carried a gun in his vehicle. Worse, these facts were known by former athletic director Gene Smith, who would eventually leave the university to take the same job elsewhere. Despite the “leadership” at the university knowing Wade was carrying a firearm and threatening women, nothing was done. Wade was never disciplined for these events, and he continued to play for the team. Right up until he shot and killed Falkner, allegedly for talking with Wade’s girlfriend.

Related: Arizona State Season Preview and Win-loss Prediction

Wade was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Koetter was fired, not for this incident, but over his poor record on the field the next year. Smith would leave for greener pastures at Ohio State. At this time, Love is hired to pick up the pieces of a program in need of leadership and a firm hand on and off-the-field. Love, of course, chose Erickson to be that leader. A man known for his lack of leadership and discipline was suddenly tasked with turning around Sun Devil football.

What Love was thinking then is unknown, but what we do know is when she was fired in 2012, it was welcomed by almost everyone involved in Arizona State athletics. This is especially true after the fiasco that ensued after Love fired her hand-picked coach, Erickson, for failing to either bring success on to the football field, or to rein in what had been a dysfunctional program off the field.

Erickson had, unsurprisingly, failed as the leader of impressionable young men playing a violent game. His teams racked up more penalties on the field than any other program in the nation in his last three years. His star player, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, was the number one offender in this category, refusing to adhere to the principles of sportsmanship.

Live Feed

College Football Week 3 Preview: Is Colorado Legit?
College Football Week 3 Preview: Is Colorado Legit? /


  • College Football Playoff committee also prepared to kill Pac-12 with 12-team plansFanSided
  • Florida vs. Utah Prediction, Odds, Trends and Key Players for College Football Week 1Betsided
  • PAC-12 College Football Betting Preview: Fade the Hype with Oregon StateBetsided
  • Pac-12 Talent Upgrade means Arizona Football has to keep paceZona Zealots
  • Several Arizona Wildcats snubbed in Pac-12 All-Conference HonorsZona Zealots
  • Despite a long and successful career prior to Arizona State, Erickson deserved to be fired for what happened with the Sun Devils, but the way it was done is a textbook example of how not to perform your duties as an AD. Erickson was informed of the decision, and then he was told he could finish out the season, coaching in the Sun Devil’s bowl game.

    After the end of the season, rumors began to swirl about the next head coach. June Jones, former Hawaii coach who infamously welcomed quarterback Colt Brennan after he was dismissed by Colorado after he was found guilty of unlawful sexual contact.

    Exactly what the program needed, another older coach looking for another payday with a history of putting winning above any kind of personal values. Thankfully, the alumni and boosters revolted over the idea of Jones coming on as head coach, and Love was forced to rescind the offer, which turned out to be the best decision in her tenure.

    Next: Pac-12: Top 5 Candidates to win Offensive Player of the Year

    Eventually, Pittsburgh Panthers coach Todd Graham, someone who had some baggage of his own, was hired. Graham spent only one season at Pitt, and there were rumors he was going back on a promise he had made to the program that he would not jump ship.

    At the very least, everyone thought then, he is not some geriatric coach who loves him some violent, undisciplined football. Mercifully, Love was sent packing soon after hiring Graham.

    In one of the more surprising events in Sun Devil football’s history, Graham turned out to be one of the best hires… ever. He has gone 28-12 in his first three seasons in the desert, but more than that, Graham brought discipline and a likability back to the program.

    Check out this article from Justin Janssen of the State Press that breaks down the difference from the Erickson era to Graham’s in regard to on-field discipline.

    "“From 2009-11, the three years before Graham took over, ASU was the most penalized team in the country (8.41 penalties per game and 78.05 penalty yards per game).In 2012-14, Navy (25.2) leads the FBS in fewest penalty yards per game, with Air Force (32.3), ASU (32.85) and Army (32.94) right behind. The Sun Devils are ninth in fewest penalties per game (4.23) during those three seasons.Also consider the conference ASU plays in. ASU’s opponents under Graham averaged 6.55 penalties for 56.5 yards and five Pac-12 schools ranked in the bottom 10 of the FBS in both penalties and penalty yardage.Those schools: UCLA (8.5, 80.5), Oregon (8.05, 71.1), California (8.08, 77.6), Washington (7.78, 69.2) and USC (7.70, 66.1). When including transitional schools, nobody other than ASU in the Pac-12 ranks in the FBS top-50 in penalties or penalty yardage.”"

    That is an amazing turnaround in on-field discipline. Going from last in the nation to first in the Pac-12 and ninth, overall, is no small feat. Especially noting that Graham had mostly Erickson recruits to begin his tenure. Of course, with the problem child that is Burfict gone, there might be some correlation.

    Next: Top 5 Candidates to Win Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year

    More than just on the field, Graham talked a tough game about off the field discipline when he was hired. However, when Davon Durant, a four star junior college recruit committed to play linebacker for Arizona State was arrested for allegedly striking his girlfriend, many thought Graham would act like other big time coaches such as Jimbo Fisher and Bob Stoops and let the infraction slide.

    Even a temporary suspension yielded little hope of a permanent absence of playing time given that many coaches suspend in the summer and then come the fall, the player is right back on the field. Not this time, though. Graham and Arizona State announced in June that Durant was removed from the team:

    "“He’s done,” Graham told of Durant. “We parted ways. He put himself in that position. It’s a bad deal, but you’ve got to have accountability. We don’t just talk about character and discipline. We live it. No matter what the legal system does, our standards are high and our guys know that. They know they’re going to be held accountable.”"

    Bravo to Graham and the Sun Devils for finally taking a stand against domestic violence and other despicable behavior. Suddenly this is a team that is fun to watch on the field, a team that fans can really get behind and root for. You do not have to rationalize cheering a guy like Burfict, or set aside the incredible dislike you have for a coach like Koetter or Erickson.

    When the team takes the field at Sun Devil Stadium, you feel good standing and applauding a program that hopefully has turned the corner in the battle against athlete privilege. This team might not be good enough to beat the Seminoles or Sooners on the field, but they have already won over this disillusioned college football fan.

    Next: Top 15 QB's With The Most To Prove in 2015

    More from Saturday Blitz