Coach Todd Graham, who left Pittsburgh after only one season, replaces Dennis Erickson at Arizona State.
Todd Graham is a man scorned for his fast exits from college football programs. But say this for him: At least he has a sense for tradition.
It wasn’t very long into his appointment last December from Pittsburgh that Graham went to meet Frank Kush, the coach (1955 to 1979) associated with much of the glory in ASU’s history.
Thus was revived one of the Sun Devils’ grandest customs: Training at Camp Tontozona, about 80 miles northeast of Tempe in the Tonto National Forest.
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“It was just resounding from former players and alumni,” said Graham. “They wanted us to restore that tradition.”
Kush, one of the game’s notorious taskmasters, would no doubt remind fans that it’s for a mere four nights; ASU arrived there Tuesday and leaves Saturday. But it’s a start.
Kush told me a few years ago that he came upon the idea when fishing near Payson, Ariz., in the mountains back in the ’50s. The university had an outreach camp up there, and there happened to be construction of a dirt road going on nearby.
“I said, ‘Hey, what’s the chance of using some of your equipment to make a football field?’ ” Kush said. “The guy started laughing and said, ‘I’ll need a little help.’ “
So Kush and his three sons went to work, and soon, they had the start of a field. ASU began training there in 1960.
“You can accomplish so much more,” Kush said. “When it’s 110 here (in Tempe), it’ll be 70 or 75 there. The great thing about it was the recovery rate (from workouts).”
The search that produced Graham was the most tortured of four in the Pac-12, and his hire yielded the most controversy. The Pitt job he left was the second he had departed after just a year.
“You go to a place a year and you leave, you deserve criticism,” Graham told me in July. “I understand that.”
A Texas native, Graham explains that he returned to Tulsa for the head-coaching job in 2007, the same school he left to take the head-coaching position at Rice in 2006.
“I was at Tulsa seven of the last eight years before I went to Pitt,” he said, calling a return there “a complete no-brainer.”
As for Pitt, he says, “I probably made a poor decision in the first place. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.”
Graham inherits a program returning fewer starters (eight) than any in the Pac-12.
“I like this team,” he insists. “I do think we have some talent. It’s not like it’s ‘poor me’ and it’s going to be forever. I expect these guys to be competing for a championship.”
The overarching theme of Graham’s start has been cleaning up the laxity around the program. Under Dennis Erickson, ASU was annually one of the most penalized teams in the league, ringing up 104 for 1,037 yards in 2011.
“With coach Graham implementing the discipline in everything we do, it will eliminate some of the mental mistakes,” says standout back Cameron Marshall.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly appears to have taken the lead in a three-way battle, but 6-foot-5, 242-pound redshirt freshman Michael Eubank figures heavily.
Handing the ball to Marshall will be a good idea; he rushed for 1,050 yards last year on a bad ankle, and should dovetail with Graham’s offensive style:
“We’re a power, downhill, inside-zone team,” he says. “Cam is as good as I’ve been around in my career.”
Defensively, life should be easier with the return of linebacker Brandon Magee from a torn Achilles last year in camp, and Graham has taken back defensive end Junior Onyeali, who jousted with Erickson and was suspended.
Speaking of Erickson, it’s ironic that the former coach was once labeled with the same cut-and-run rap Graham is facing.
“I tell the people at Arizona State, all I can do is prove it to you,” says Graham. “I tell them I’m going to win and build a legacy, or I’m going to get fired.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org