TEMPE, Arizona – Arizona State hired a 32-year-old head football coach last November.
ASU athletic director Ray Anderson didn’t hire Kenny Dillingham despite his youth. Because of his youth was more like it.
“I liked his energy, his youthful enthusiasm,” Anderson said. “We needed something new and fresh and different.”
That certainly would seem to be the Sun Devil tonic. A football program with a proud tradition hasn’t done much in the last quarter century. Including bottom out.
No Arizona State head coach since 1946 has left the job with a losing record. And no Arizona State head coach since John Cooper (1985-87) left the job with a winning percentage above .590.
ASU hosts Oklahoma State at 9:30 p.m. Saturday (Oklahoma time), and the Cowboys face a foe that’s not so much in need of a rebrand, but a brand of any kind.
And here comes Dillingham, who just seven years ago was a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis. Now Dillingham is the 33-year-old head coach of a school soon headed for the Big 12, having infused a tired Sun Devil program with much-needed pizazz.
“We’re excited about the transition to the Big 12 and building this into a championship program,” Anderson said.
But it will take work. The Sun Devils in 2022 had their lowest average attendance, 43,081 per game, since 1968, which was before ASU expanded Sun Devil Stadium. A program that in 1987-88 had back-to-back average attendances of more than 70,000, hasn’t been above 50,000 since 2017.
In ASU’s glory days under Frank Kush in the 1960s and 1970s, the only major-league franchise in town was the NBA Suns. Now the Cardinals and Diamondbacks and Coyotes all hang shingles in Greater Phoenix, plus baseball’s spring Cactus League, and soccer galore, and the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open.
Now comes Dillingham, a son of the Valley who is 30 years younger than predecessor Herm Edwards was when he got the ASU job in 2018.
And before that, Arizona State hired 47-year-old Todd Graham, 59-year-old Dennis Erickson, 51-year-old Bruce Snyder and the 47-year-old Cooper. Since the 1950s, when ASU hit back-to-back home runs by hiring 31-year-old Dan Devine and the 29-year-old Kush, only Dirk Koetter, then 41, has been hired as head coach at an age under 45.
So the Sun Devils are trying something different.
“Kenny has done an unbelievable job energizing this fan base,” said Graham Rossini, ASU athletics’ chief business officer. “You’ll hear a lot of this ‘Activate the Valley’ messaging. That’s real. The future is bright.”
It’s easy to believe Rossini, sitting in his office overlooking Mountain America Stadium, which once was known as Sun Devil Stadium, when it seated 75,000, was home to the Arizona Cardinals for 18 years and hosted Super Bowl 40.
ASU’s iconic stadium has gotten smaller (capacity is 53,599), but the glitter of Tempe has getting bigger, with pristine construction surrounding the massive campus and the stadium itself sporting many more amenities.
Arizona State plans to host a bunch of recruits Saturday night, in hopes they catch the Dillingham fever.
“They need to see the environment,” Dillingham said Friday morning on Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta radio show. “They need to see that ASU football is heading in the right direction, not just from football and a coaching standpoint … but the Valley’s getting behind it. It’s bigger than just this game, it’s building the program.”
Greater Phoenix has zoomed past the five million mark in population, ranking 10th among U.S. metros. The name, image, likeness possibilities are everywhere.
And while Arizona State laments the demise of the Pac-12 Conference – ASU’s links with Greater Los Angeles have been a major marketing theme in the university’s rise to prominence – the Big 12 could be good for Arizona State.
ASU now will be exposed to new markets in Florida and Texas and Ohio, and Big 12 football figures to be more egalitarian than was the Pac-12, which had stretches of parity but always had a pecking order, with Southern Cal and recent-vintage Oregon.
The Sun Devil brass is ready to leave the financially-insecure feeling of recent years, caused by the pandemic season of 2020, the post-pandemic year of 2021 and the cloud over the Pac-12 television contract that stretched for 15 months.
“Now having clarity on what the conference will look like and knowing that we are in a premier national conference, that we do have a national footprint, that we’ve got tremendous distribution through ESPN and Fox, it’s all there for the taking,” Rossini said.
Dillingham went to Chaparral High School in neighboring Scottsdale, where as a senior he suffered a major knee injury. Dillingham turned to coaching, and at 23 he was Chaparral’s offensive coordinator.
In the last five years, Dillingham has been offensive coordinator at Memphis, Auburn, Florida State and Oregon. Now he’s running the entire program at Arizona State.
“We’re a rebuilding program,” Anderson said. “I don’t think anyone would dispute that. There’s no expectation for Kenny to be Superman right away.”
Maybe so. But optimism is high as Dillingham’s recruiting tactics became clear. Sell a world-class education, sell players on Phoenix, sell pitchers and catchers on the weather.
“Kenny had a brilliant football message,” Rossini said. “If you’re a skill player, there’s not a better place in the country to play … you’re throwing, catching and running football plays in an environment that doesn’t have rain or snow, doesn’t have wind.
“It was the first time someone really simplified it to say, if you want a great college football experience, if you want that consummate student-athlete experience, great education, great place to be, you tap into this massive network of ASU, you come to Tempe with the hope of never having to leave the market.”
Will it work? We’ll see. Arizona State has finished in The Associated Press top 25 six times in the 36 years since Cooper left for the Ohio State job.
The Sun Devils once were considered a sleeping giant. Now they’re just considered sleeping.
But Arizona State has a young coach and soon will have a new conference, as it builds a brand.