Before he earned measures of both fame and infamy as a college football coach, Todd Graham was an educator, teaching high school history. His job title has changed, but Graham says that his duties are much the same as they have always been. The only difference is that his subject now isn't history, it's football.
"I always will consider myself a high school football coach and teacher," Graham, the coach at No. 19 Arizona State, said. "I think that molded me more than anything."
As any good teacher knows, getting students to learn requires more than simply telling them what they need to know; it also helps to tell them why they need to know it. The what and the why define Graham's coaching technique and explain how he has revived a Sun Devils team that went four years without a winning record under former coach Dennis Erickson. In nearly two full seasons under Graham, Arizona State has gone 16-7. At 8-2 this fall, the Sun Devils have a chance to wrap up a Pac-12 South championship with a win over UCLA on Saturday.
Nowhere has their improvement under Graham been more dramatic than in the area of discipline. Arizona State went from last in the nation in 2011 with 1,037 penalty yards to ninth with just 454 in '12, his first season. This year, the Sun Devils have given up just 302 yards in penalties, the fourth-fewest in the FBS. To get his team to cut down on infractions, Graham gave his players the what and the why.
The what: "I talked to our players, 'Do you know the mechanics of how the seven-man crew officiate a game, who's looking at what?'" Graham said. "They didn't have a clue."
So Graham brought in officials to talk to his players, and he put his own spin on the lesson. He broke the meetings down by position groups, having the different refs of a game crew meet with the players they most closely observe. "The umpire, he sits in the offensive line room and he goes through [with] the guys what constitutes a chop block, what is he looking for [when he calls] holding on a perimeter run, what's he looking for [when he calls] holding on a pass play," Graham said.
The why: "Our fans, they actually pay money to watch you play, and you should represent their values with how they want you to play," Graham said he told his team. "Fans don't like 15-yard penalties."
But besides playing smart for the fans, Graham wanted to drive the message home that penalties were costing Arizona State on the scoreboard. The Sun Devils could gain an advantage, he told them, by fully grasping the rulebook and how it's enforced. "If you and I are playing backgammon, and I know the rules and you don't, I'm going to beat you."
The results of Graham's schooling, as the penalty stats clearly indicate, have been positive. So too have the win-loss results.
"That really played a really good role in our success," senior safety Alden Darby said, "Because the refs, they can see that we're engaged and we're open to learning the rules of the game and we care about not getting penalties. Perception is everything."
Arizona State's improvement under Graham extends beyond avoiding penalties. The Sun Devils' aggressive defense has forced 25 takeaways this fall, and the unit ranks 16th in the country in total defense. And the team's fast-paced, no-huddle offense -- led by quarterback Taylor Kelly and running back Marion Grice -- is averaging 42.3 points per game.
Arizona State hired Graham because of his teaching abilities, as well as his knack for getting the most out of his players.
"What we were looking for was a person whose dominant characteristic was teacher versus professional coach," said university president Michael Crow, who hired Graham on Dec. 14, 2011. "That's what we found in Todd."
Graham's move to Tempe was hardly simple or free from controversy. He resigned as the coach at Pittsburgh to take the job with the Sun Devils after just one season -- his fourth head-coaching stint in seven years. The Panthers had gone just 6-6 in 2011, Graham's first season coaching in a BCS conference.
Notoriously, Graham notified the Pitt players of his departure by text message, telling them he had resigned "in the best interest of my family" and that "the timing of the circumstances have prohibited me from telling you this directly."
Two years later, Graham still laments the situation that forced him to leave the Panthers so abruptly, saying that in order to talk with Arizona State, he had to resign from the Pitt job because the school had refused to allow him to interview with the Sun Devils.
"I didn't have any control over the timing," Graham said. "I had to resign my job to come here, and had to be on a plane at 8:30 the next morning. I wish I could have been allowed to have the time to [talk to the team]."
As for why he left Pitt a year after moving from Tulsa and boasting that he wanted to build a championship-caliber program in the Big East, Graham said the school was simply not right for him.
"What I learned going to Pitt is you don't always fit a place," he said. "I probably made a mistake there. I thought you could go anyplace, you could win and feel comfortable. It was not a good fit for my family and not a good fit for my assistant coaches."
He understands why his departure sparked backlash, even from his former Panthers players, several of whom expressed frustration at getting blindsided by their coach.
"If you're at a place one year and you leave, you deserve the criticism," Graham said. "You grin and bear it. I made a mistake. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have ever taken the job at Pitt. I'd have stayed at Tulsa and taken the job here at Arizona State."
Graham's jump from the Panthers to the Sun Devils wasn't his first such move, and it solidified his growing reputation as a carpetbagger who would exploit a job until a better one came along. He had previously spent one season as the coach at Rice before moving to Tulsa in 2006. After coaching the Golden Hurricane from '07 to '10, he left for Pittsburgh. But Crow said that labeling Graham as a carpetbagger holds him to an impossibly high standard.
"Football coaches are not supposed to be humans," Crow said. "You can't have made a mistake, or taken the wrong job, or been at the wrong place."
Crow said Graham convinced him that he was leaving Pitt for the right reasons. "He felt that going to Pittsburgh was a mistake," Crow said. "Well, you either believe that or you don't. Is he a job hopper? Is he irresponsible? Is he immature? Or is this just a bad circumstance? In our case, we judged that it was a bad circumstance and a bad decision on his part."
But given Graham's history, doesn't Arizona State have reason to worry that its highly touted coach won't be around long? Crow said that the school has given Graham all that he was looking for.
"He wanted to find a place where he could be stable, Crow said, "where he could focus and build a program of champions, in [the same] sense where the old coaches of the past who, this will be kind of ironic ... don't move around and don't just seek the higher job, where they dig in and build programs and traditions that last for decades and decades."
Memories of Graham's frequent-flyer past were rekindled after Texas lured Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson to replace the outgoing DeLoss Dodds. Patterson's move sparked rumors in Tempe that Graham, a Texas native, might leave the Sun Devils to replace Mack Brown as the Longhorns' coach. But Arizona State officials said that a condition of Patterson's departure was that he could not hire anyone from his former school.
Graham insists that -- even if he were eligible for the Texas job -- the Sun Devils needn't worry. "I've never been as comfortable and felt as good about coming along at the right place at the right time as I have here at ASU," he said. "I'd love to be the first guy to win a national championship here."
Though 2013 won't conclude with a national title, Graham's team has certainly taken another step forward. For all the knocks he takes for his job-hopping, Graham is a proven winner as a coach. At Rice in 2006, he led the Owls to their first bowl game since 1960. At Tulsa, he won 10 or more games three times in four years, and the Golden Hurricane led the nation in total offense in both '07 and '08.
Upon arriving at Arizona State, Graham immediately addressed with his new team the circumstances of his exodus from Pitt, setting the tone for transparency he hoped his program would embody.
"I was very candid with [the players] about [the fact that] sometimes in life you make a mistake," Graham said. "I made a mistake. [I was] very transparent about it, and you move forward. I think it's one of the things that has allowed me to be close to these guys here is because I'm very transparent. I don't try to come across as being a perfect person."
Darby said he never feared that Arizona State was just the next stop on the coaching ladder for Graham because the coach seemed genuine in his enthusiasm.
"If you could see how happy coach Graham was to be here and how excited he was to be in Tempe, you would have known that he wasn't going anywhere," Darby said.
Convincing the players of his commitment wasn't that difficult, Graham said, because just as every college player hopes to make the leap to the next level in the NFL, they could relate to his own desire for career advancement.
"The reality is this is a competitive business," Graham said. "They recognize and understand when people say, 'Well, you moved from Rice to Tulsa to Pitt to here.' Well, everyone of those places are better jobs."