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.
Greatest College Football Players by Jersey Number
No. 1 — Anthony Carter, WR, Michigan (1979-82)
The most exciting football player I've ever seen. That's how Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, then an assistant for Bo Schembechler, described the three-time All-America wideout. Carter was a touchdown-making machine for the Wolverines (he had 36 in his career) and finished in the top 10 in the Heisman Trophy voting his final three seasons. — Runner-up: Ernie Nevers, FB, Stanford (1923-25)
No. 2 — Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State (1985-88)
The Neon legend was born in Tallahassee, where Sanders was a two-time consensus All-America, and a Jim Thorpe Award winner in 1988. He intercepted 14 passes, including three in bowl games. His jersey was retired by the school in 1995. — Runner-up: Charles Woodson, DB, Michigan (1995-98)
No. 3 — Joe Montana, QB, Notre Dame (1975-78)
His career was full of memorable comebacks. As a junior he led the Irish to a national championship and a victory over No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The next year, with his team trailing 34-12 after three quarters against Houston, Montana led the Irish to a dramatic 35-34 win in the Cotton Bowl. — Runner-up: Carson Palmer, QB, USC (1999-02)
No. 4 — Brett Favre, QB, Southern Miss (1987-90)
Favre led the Golden Eagles to dramatic come-from-behind wins over Florida State, Alabama and Tulane. ''You can call it a miracle or a legend or whatever you want to,'' said then Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings. ''I just know that on that day (Sept. 8, 1990), Brett Favre was larger than life.'' — Runner-up: Terrence Newman, DB, Kansas State (1999-02)
No. 5 — Reggie Bush, RB, USC (2003-05)
An electrifying open-field runner, Bush won the Heisman Trophy in 2005 by averaging 8.7 yards per carry (200 carries for 1,740 yards) and scoring 16 touchdowns. He ranks 10th in NCAA Division I-A history with 6,551 all-purpose yards. — Runner-up: Paul Hornung, QB, Notre Dame (1954-56)
No. 6 — Robbie Bosco, QB, BYU (1983-85)
Bosco's teams went 24-3 in his two years as a starter, including a 13-0 national championship season in 1984. He threw for 8,148 passing yards as a collegian. — Runner-up: Harry Kipke, HP-P, Michigan (1921-23)
No. 7 — Danny Wuerffel, QB, Florida (1993-96)
Here's the guy Tim Tebow was shooting for when it came to Gator legacy: Wuerffel completed 708 of 1,170 passes for 10,875 yards and 114 touchdowns at Florida. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 and led the Gators to four consecutive Southeastern Conference titles and the 1996 national title. — Runner-up: John Elway, QB, Stanford (1979-82)
No. 8 — Davey O'Brien, QB, TCU (1935-38)
O'Brien led the Horned Frogs to an undefeated season in 1938, including a 15-7 victory over Carnegie Tech in the Sugar Bowl. That year, he became the first player to win the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp trophies in the same year. The award for the country's best quarterback is named in his honor. — Runner-up: Harold Muller, End, Cal (1921-23)
No. 9 — Steve McNair, QB, Alcorn State (1991-94)
Nicknamed Air for his aerial show at Alcorn State, McNair is the only player in NCAA history to gain more than 16,000 yards (16,823) in total offense during his college career. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1994. — Runner-up: Don McPherson, QB, Syracuse (1985-87)
No. 10 — Vince Young, QB, Texas (2003-05)
Few college players are more associated with winning. Young finished with a 30-2 career record and his .938 winning percentage as a starting quarterback ranks sixth best in Division I-A history. In what many consider the greatest Rose Bowl performance, Young ran for 200 yards and threw for 267 in a 41-38 win over USC. — Runner-up: Babe Parilli, QB, Kentucky (1949-51)
No. 11 — Matt Leinart, QB, USC (2002-06)
Holding the title of Tailback U's greatest passer, Leinart completed 807-of-1,245 passes for 10,693 yards and 99 touchdowns with just 23 interceptions. He was 37-2 as a starter and won the 2004 Heisman Trophy. — Runner-up: Steve Spurrier, QB, Florida (1963-66)
No. 12 — Roger Staubach, QB, Navy (1962-64)
Staubach led Navy to a 9-1-0 record in 1963 before losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. He won the Heisman and Maxwell Trophy that season and later starred for the Cowboys in the NFL. — Runner-up: Joe Namath, QB, Alabama (1962-64)
No. 13 — Dan Marino, QB, Pittsburgh (1979-82)
The Panthers were 40-7 in the four years Marino played at Pitt, including two No. 2 finishes in the final AP Poll. He threw a touchdown pass in 19 consecutive games. — Runner-up: Gino Torretta, QB, Miami (1989-92)
No. 14 — Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma (2007-09)
He piloted one of the most explosive offenses in college football history. With Bradford under center in 2008, Oklahoma led the nation with 99 touchdowns and 716 points over 14 games. Bradford won the Heisman Trophy that season but played in only three games in 2009 because of a shoulder injury. That didn’t stop the Oklahoma City, Okla., native from breaking several school passing records before the end of his college career. — Runner-up: Don Hutson, End, Alabama (1932-34)
No. 15 — Tim Tebow, QB, Florida (2006-09)
Before becoming one of the most polarizing players in the NFL, Tebow starred at Florida. In 2007, after throwing for 29 touchdowns and recording 22 scores on the ground, he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. Tebow served as a run-first backup to Chris Leak during Florida’s run to the national championship the previous season before becoming the starter in 2007 and leading the Gators to another title as a junior. — Runner-up: Tommie Frazier, QB, Nebraska (1992-95)
No. 16 — Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee (1994-97)
He made an immediate impact at Tennessee after arriving as a highly-regarded recruit from New Orleans, La. Manning was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 1994 and helped the Volunteers win a combined 32 games over the next three seasons. As a senior, Manning threw for 3,819 yards with 36 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and finished second, behind Michigan’s Charles Woodson, in the Heisman Trophy voting. — Runner-up: Gary Beban, QB, UCLA (1965-67)
No. 17 — Charlie Ward, QB, Florida State (1989-93)
He set 19 school records and seven ACC records as a two-year starter for the Seminoles. Ward led Florida State to the school's first national championship and became Florida State's first Heisman Trophy winner in 1993. — Runner-up: Bobby Dodd, QB, Tennessee (1928-30)
No. 18 — Archie Manning, QB, Mississippi (1968-70)
The legend of the elder Manning still rings across the South. He finished fourth in the Heisman in 1969 and was the Most Valuable Player in the Southeastern Conference. His 540 total yards against Alabama in a loss was an SEC record, later tied by LSU's Rohan Davey. — Runner-up: Roman Gabriel, QB, N.C. State (1959-61)
No. 19 — Eric Dickerson, RB, SMU (1979-82)
He scored 19 touchdowns in 1981 and 48 for his career, despite splitting time with ''Pony Express'' mate Craig James. Dickerson helped lead the Mustangs to an 11-0-1 record in 1982 and a No. 2 final AP ranking, its highest final ranking since 1947. He finished his college career with 4,450 yards on 790 carries. — Runner-up: Rashaan Salaam, TB, Colorado (1992-94)
No. 20 — Earl Campbell, RB, Texas (1974-77)
The Tyler Rose dominated like few running backs before him. He rushed for 4,443 rushing yards, 41 touchdowns and won the 1977 Heisman Trophy. — Runner-up: Johnny Rogers, KR/WR, Nebraska (1970-72)
No. 21 — Barry Sanders, HB, Oklahoma State (1985-88)
He played behind Thurman Thomas but when he got his chance ... wow. In 1988 Sanders set 34 NCAA records — he led the nation in rushing (2,628), all-purpose yards (3,250) and scoring (234 points) — and won the Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards. — Runner-up: Desmond Howard, WR/KR, Michigan (1989-91)
No. 22 — Doug Flutie, QB, Boston College (1981-84)
Flutie left Boston College as the NCAA's all-time passing yardage leader with 10,579 yards. His famed ''Hail Mary'' pass in 1984 against Miami sealed his Heisman Trophy award. — Runner-up: Emmitt Smith, RB, Florida (1987-89)
No. 23 — Jim Swink, RB, TCU (1954-56)
A two-time All-America, Swink was the nation's leading scorer and second-leading rusher as a junior in 1955. He scored a school-record 26 points in a 47-20 rout over Texas. — Runner-up: Leroy Keyes, RB, Purdue (1966-68)
No. 24 — Nile Kinnick, HB, Iowa (1937-39)
Kinnick led the Hawkeyes to a 6-1-1 record in 1939 and was responsible for 107 of the Hawkeyes' 130 points that season. — Runner-up: Pete Dawkins, HB, Army (1957-59)
No. 25 — Tommy McDonald, RB, Oklahoma (1954-56)
Though McDonald was slight of stature (5-foot-9 and 175 pounds), few played bigger him. He scored touchdowns in 20-of-21 games during his junior and senior seasons. In 1955, he became the first Sooner to score from scrimmage in every game. He had the most first-place votes for the Heisman in 1956 but lost the trophy to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung. — Runner-up: Raghib Ismail, HB, Notre Dame (1988-90)