- Kevin Gemmell, College Football
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This story has been corrected. Read below
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Two hours into Arizona State's defensive meeting Thursday, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell pokes his head into the room where head coach Todd Graham and his defensive staff are watching film of the day's practice, setting formations and going over the multitude of blitz packages they have concocted for Saturday's visit from No. 20 Wisconsin.
Norvell: "Excuse me, Coach, are we still planning to defer? Or are we going to take the ball first?"
Graham: "Why? Can you guarantee me we're going to score a touchdown?"
Norvell: "I want the ball. I love our first set. We're going to tempo the s--- out of them and run them sideline to sideline."
Graham: "We'll take the ball if you can promise me we're going to score seven. Otherwise we'll just get you the ball with a three-and-out."
Norvell is noncommittal, and the defensive coaches smile and offer a confident snicker. The visit from Wisconsin is a huge measuring stick for the Sun Devils.
Five minutes into Saturday night's game, one of the two coaches will have kept his word, and by Sunday morning, the Sun Devils will have cracked the top 25 after their 32-30 win.
Todd Graham isn't the right coach for every player. Nor is every player the right fit for Graham. He's tough and folksy, as quick with a handshake and slap on the back as he is to call out his players and staff. He's detail-oriented to the point of obsession. And he makes no apologies for it.
After one season at Pittsburgh, Graham became Arizona State's head coach in December of 2011, replacing Dennis Erickson, who was fired after five seasons. When he arrived in Tempe, one of the first things he did was order a complete overhaul of the third floor of the Carson Student-Athlete Center, which houses football operations. Now the hallways are lined with a decade-by-decade breakdown of the program's history. Each position group's meeting room is adorned with the school's greatest players and a history of the position. It's a hit with some of the recruits who are in town for Saturday's game.
There's even a hallway dedicated to Sun Devils football players who have served in the military, with a heavy emphasis on Pat Tillman. Graham, after all, is a former high school history teacher.
Some of the funding for the facility upgrades was donated by booster Joe Cosgrove, who played in Pitt's 1986 spring game and became such a Graham fan from his one year with the Panthers that he's pledging his money and support to ASU.
"You buy into the man," said Cosgrove, who lives in Philadelphia and said he also donates to Pitt. "I have no ties to this school. But I believe in him and what he's trying to do. My only vested interest is Todd Graham. I can understand why some people are upset that he left. I'm not one of them."
Unsolicited, Graham brings up his controversial departure from Pitt. He was widely criticized for the manner in which he left the Panthers for Arizona State, informing his players of his departure in a text message.
"I made a mistake," he says, referring to his decision to leave Tulsa after four seasons and take the Pitt job. "My family wasn't happy. But we've already fed that horse. It is what it is."
If it seems like you've heard this before, you have. It's the same line he has used for almost two years. To those outside Graham's inner circle, it seems like he talks only in clichés. Thing is, those same clichés he offers to the media in his post-practice gaggle are the same ones he says to boosters and fans, to his players in the locker room and his coaches behind closed doors. To him, they aren't clichés -- they are foundations for how he lives his life and coaches his football team.
"When he came in, I gave him a clean slate," offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg says. "That's all you can do. Now he's our guy. He's our coach. We trust him. And it's been really positive."
It's 4 minutes, 40 seconds into Saturday night's game against the Badgers. Wisconsin won the coin flip and deferred, giving Norvell and the offense the opportunity they had hoped for. True to his word, Norvell runs the Badgers sideline to sideline. It's an impressive 13-play march that spans 72 yards. It's a balanced drive of seven passes and six runs. Not part of Norvell's scripted set, however, are dropped passes and a false-start penalty. The drive falters on four downs at the Wisconsin 3-yard line.
Yet Graham's defense keeps its promise and forces a three-and-out. That's about the only thing that will go according to plan in one of the most bizarre games of the young college football season. The game would end in chaos, punctuated by a quick, yet controversial kneel-down by Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave, followed by an embarrassing effort from a Pac-12 officiating crew in ASU's 32-30 victory.
Ten minutes after the game, in the Sun Devils' locker room, Graham praises his team for its resiliency and acknowledges that mistakes were made on his part.
"We have to do a better job coaching you," Graham says. "But as long as there is a tick on that clock, you've got a chance."
Hours later, at 1:14 a.m., in a dark room illuminated only by the glow of game film and filled with the smell of barbecue sandwiches, Graham sits with his defensive staff and his wife, Penni, who frequents the postgame film sessions. She's texting friends from Rice, where Graham got his first college head-coaching job, and congratulating them on their 23-14 win over Kansas. He's lamenting every mistake, particularly his defense's inability to stop Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 193 yards and gutted ASU's defense on sweeps.
"We give up 100 yards on the speed sweep," he says, shaking his head. "Makes me want to puke. This is elementary football. This is high school stuff."
He gets on defensive coordinator Paul Randolph after watching one of his players excessively celebrate a tackle for a loss.
"Do we do that here?" he asks.
"No, sir," Randolph responds.
"We don't do that crap here," Graham barks. "Tell him to cut it out. Hold him accountable. Teach him."
He watches another big Wisconsin play, and it's hard not to remember what he said during Friday's TV production meeting with the ESPN talent: 75 percent of big plays are due to alignment issues.
"We've got to do a better job teaching these guys," Graham says to the room.
"Yes, sir," is the response in cadence.
The fourth of five children, Graham's father abandoned the family when he was in sixth grade. It was devastating. With five children to raise on her own, Graham's mother, Carol, worked three jobs -- one with AT&T, another at the Hallmark store at the mall, and a third as a seamstress for a uniform company.
"She's a tough, tough lady," said Graham, crediting her with teaching him about perseverance. "One time during a football game, I 'thought' I was hurt and laid on the ground. Afterwards she told me 'You be tough! Always get up. If you're really hurt, you'll get up and then fall back down. If you're not, you'll get up and keep walking. Don't just lay on the ground and embarrass your family. Always get back up'"
Graham tells this story after Friday's final walk-through. The team is an hour away from its Friday team dinner before checking into its hotel the night before the game. It's 26 hours away from kickoff, and Graham couldn't be more relaxed. Hanging out in his son's office, running backs coach Bo Graham, Todd Graham has his feet on the desk snacking on popcorn and chugging down a diet Dr. Pepper. Always diet Dr. Pepper. He talks about Buddy Copeland, the middle school coach who took the now father-less Graham under his wing and inspired him to be a coach and a teacher.
"The later it gets in the week, the more relaxed I am," he says. "Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I'm pretty intense. By Thursday and Friday, it's about the details. Saturdays, you can't approach it like you are a player. They are going to be wound up as it is. You have to be calm. I never give a pregame speech longer than 90 seconds. If you're not prepared by then, it's too late."
The Friday dinner always takes place at Don & Charlie's in Scottsdale. The wait staff knows all the Sun Devils by name. The players respond to every question and request with "yes, mam, no, mam; yes, sir, no sir." That's not how Graham wants it. It's how he demands it. Just like he requires every player to do community service, bus their own tables at the team dining hall and keep their hotel rooms clean.
"Once we got a call from a hotel," says Tim Cassidy, Graham's senior associate athletic director of football and Graham's right hand man. With 30 years of experience, Cassidy has worked with R.C. Slocum, Tom Osborne, Bill Callahan and Mike Sherman, among others. "They wanted to thank us for being so polite. That's a first for me. But it's what coach expects from his guys."
Graham bounces from table to table, and there is no talk of schemes or Wisconsin. This isn't the time for that. The only real coaching he does is to warn the players not to go heavy on the cheese bread (which is outstanding, by the way). Team nutritionist Katy Meassick also does a walkthrough, monitoring the players under her calorie-counting watch.
Graham goes away from the set menu and orders pork chops. Head coaches can get away with that sort of thing. He's lost 25 pounds over the last few months, but can't help but sneak a piece of the cheese bread.
It's Thursday night at Majerle's Sports Grill in Scottsdale. A pair of ASU cheerleaders are outside waiting for Graham's arrival for his radio show. The Patriots and Jets are on most TVs; TCU-Texas Tech is on the others. But all eyes are on Graham when he comes in. He makes his way to every table, shaking every hand, giving a few high-fives and stopping for pictures.
"The most important thing is being the right fit for a place," Graham says. "If you don't fit with the place you're at, it's not going to work. And this place has been an incredible fit for me. And it also happens to have [defensive tackle] Will Sutton, [defensive end] Carl Bradford and [safety] Alden Darby. Guys who love to attack. And I love guys who love to attack."
Graham knows the reputation that followed him here. He knows what was written about him, deserved or not. But he doesn't care. He's more focused on the results.
"I think he spent most of last year looking inward, not outward," Penni says. "He has a great support staff and administration here. Great coaches and great kids. That helped him move past it."
Norvell, sneaking a look at the TCU game, will also talk during the radio show. He has complete control over the offense and is fiercely loyal to Graham, who has helped launch the careers of notable coaches such as Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Tulsa head coach Bill Blankenship and Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. Norvell was offered a lucrative contract by Malzahn in the offseason to be his offensive coordinator at Auburn. Norvell declined.
"Every day I sit in with him, I become a better coach," Norvell says. "He sees everything. A lot of things that have been said about him are unfair and inaccurate. But he handles it well. His focus is always on us getting better."
So far, he has delivered a 10-5 record. Expectations are high for the Sun Devils this season. They were picked in the preseason media poll to finish second in the Pac-12 South Division behind UCLA, but by a narrow margin, meaning a lot of people believe they can be in the Pac-12 title game. After Wisconsin, the schedule only gets tougher with Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. It's the kind of schedule that can get you noticed on the national stage or plummet you back into obscurity.
The mood when watching film with Graham and his staff can flip from light-hearted to serious in an instant. And Graham catches everything. He notices a defensive lineman is shifted six inches too far to the inside or a linebacker is leading with his left foot instead of his right.
Mistakes aren't described as mistakes. They are called "catastrophic." Because in Graham's mind, every mistake can lead to a catastrophic result. It might sound like hyperbole, but you need only reflect on the bad punt snap in the Wisconsin game that led to a Badgers touchdown as evidence.
It's 20 minutes until kickoff, and Graham is hanging out in the equipment manager's office, snacking on popcorn and chatting with Kevin Tillman and his wife, Kandi. Tillman will lead the Sun Devils onto the field. They swap stories and laugh. Tillman is a very private person and requested that he not be quoted directly, but he seems happy with the way the school has honored his brother and the newly renovated Tillman Tunnel.
Then Graham calls his coaches in for one last huddle.
"Be proactive," Graham says. "Think about the next snap. Anticipate. We're prepared.
"All right, let's win so we don't get fired."
The game does not go as expected. It will go down in the books as a win for the Sun Devils, with an asterisk for the hatchet job by the officials at the end of the game. ASU is ranked heading into Week 4's game against Stanford. But there also are questions about whether it's deserved given how Saturday night ends.
Just before Wisconsin's final drive, Graham does his best to rally the tired defense.
"One more series!" he screams. "One more series. Don't soften up. We ain't tired. We ain't tired. Go out there and win this thing."
The talk doesn't work. Wisconsin carves up Graham's defense on the final series, moving from its own 17 to the ASU 13 in about 80 seconds. The Badgers planned on ending the game by attempting a high-percentage field goal for a 33-32 win.
Graham takes care of his media responsibilities, shrugging off questions about the final seconds. Then it's across the hall to start watching film.
After Saturday night, there is a lot more teaching to be done.
A Sept. 19 story on Arizona State football said that Joe Cosgrove was a former University of Pittsburgh football player. Cosgrove played in the Panthers' 1986 spring game; he never played in a regular-season game.
As is his nature, Todd Graham meticulously planned every detail ahead of Arizona State's game against Wisconsin. But even the second-year Sun Devils coach could not have prepared for the ending that was in store Saturday night in Tempe.