BURBANK, Calif.—Call it a brainwashing, if you will. Mike Bercovici likes to think of it in simpler terms. “A change in mentality,” he says.
Regardless of the label you attach, this much is certain: There’s a different attitude and swagger around the Arizona State locker room these days, a confidence bubbling throughout Tempe that has Sun Devils using the word “championship” a lot. Not just a Pac-12 championship, which would be a huge accomplishment considering the depth of the conference (six teams ranked in the preseason top 25 coaches’ poll) and the stacked south division ASU plays in. No, the Sun Devils like to reach higher, and talk about a national championship. And they talk about it a lot.
“If you talk to coach (Todd) Graham for 30 seconds, you might hear him say ‘national championship’ 15 times,” says Bercovici, ASU’s quarterback.
It’s by design. Arizona State has experienced a resurgence with Graham at the helm, posting back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in 42 years. With Graham running the show, they always seem to be in the thick of the division race come November. When he arrived in Tempe four years ago, critics wondered how long Graham would stick around. The veteran coach had a recent history of brief stints, and some thought the Pac-12 would simply serve as his stepping stone.
But in his three years in the league, the conference has grown its national footprint, can boast it’s home to the most recent Heisman winner (Marcus Mariota of Oregon) and now has arguably the toughest division in college football. At the forefront of that upsurge has been ASU, led by a bruising defense. This is a better job than it was five years ago, and a much better conference. So the way the Sun Devils see it, conversations about championships comes with the new territory.
And yet, Arizona State often seems like the forgotten stepchild of the Pac-12. (Missouri, typically left out of SEC talk, can probably relate to the snubs.) Preseason talk has swirled around USC and Heisman candidate Cody Kessler. Oregon has owned the conference recently, and returns plenty of playmakers. UCLA has to replace its quarterback, but brings almost everyone else, and should challenge the Trojans for L.A. dominance. Where’s room for ASU, when you’re talking about all these other guys?
“There are lots of ways you can be noticed,” Bercovici says, sidestepping the slight. His teammate, safety Jordan Simone, doesn’t buy the premise. At least, not completely. After acknowledging they’re OK with being left out—“we like it that way,”—Simone says perception is shifting.
“When you think of Arizona State, people used to think of partying,” Simone says. “We want them to think of a championship football team.” Simone credits Graham for a complete culture change, emphasizing that ASU is more than parties and pretty girls. (But just to be clear, Simone says, there still are lots of pretty girls in Tempe, and that’s definitely a selling point if you’re interested in playing football there.)
Besides “championship,” the word Bercovici likes to throw around is “brotherhood.” That’s the main reason the senior stuck around waiting for his turn to start, in an era when many backup quarterbacks transfer somewhere they can play immediately.
“It would be normal for a kid like to me to leave,” says Bercovici, who started three games last year and finished the season with 1,445 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. “But when I really thought about going to a different school, putting on different colors and a different helmet, something didn’t feel right.”
Bercovici gushes about the receivers around him, from do-everything standout D.J. Foster (1,081 rushing yards, 688 receiving yards and 12 scores in 2014), to UCLA transfer Devin Lucien (58 catches for 752 yards and four touchdowns in three years with the Bruins) to sophomore Ellis Jefferson (“major mismatch in the slot,” Bercovici says of the 6’4” 211-pounder). He’s confident with a veteran offensive line, who he treats to In-n-Out every Friday. Best known for his 46-yard Hail Mary pass to beat then-No. 16 USC last season —“I’d actually rather not throw Hail Marys, because the completion percentages on those aren’t very good,” he jokes —Berovici looks forward to taking over full-time, and seeing how he stacks up against former starter Taylor Kelly.
As for Graham and the will-he-stay-or-will-he-go chatter, the coach says he doesn’t get questions from recruits about that. And if he does, “Here’s the other thing I tell recruits,” Graham says. “We’re building a $300-million new stadium and football complex. Not a lot of people around the country are putting that kind of commitment into the program.” Simone and his teammates aren’t concerned about Graham’s status either. They’re thinking about other things.
“He wants to win a national championship and he wants to win a Super Bowl,” Simone says. “Those are his goals, and we know that. We’re trying to get that first goal check off this year.”
Talk about it enough, expect it enough, work enough and eventually, it’ll come around, the Sun Devils figure.
It’s all part of the brainwashing.