(Photo: ASU Athletics)
Arizona State is blowing it.
The sleepy little hamlet of Tempe, Arizona hasn’t seen this much excitement in its local university athletics program in quite some time, and it’s fumbling the moment.
December 2011 was something of a low point for ASU’s big two sports.
The basketball team clunked out four straight losses to the likes of Northern Arizona, Southern Miss, Fresno State and rival Arizona. Then the leading scorer for the first three of those games, Keala King, was suspended and eventually dismissed from the team. It did not turn out to be the team-building experience the coaches must have hoped it would be. Things did not improve.
Days earlier, Athletic Director Lisa Love hired, then oh wait no wait I didn’t mean it didn’t hire one-time interim San Diego Chargers head coach June Jones to take over the football team. The withdrawal of the offer appears to have come for the same reason they recently decided to pull back on the Disney-fied new Sparky Sun Devil: the animals, it seems, were running the zoo. Everyone was suitably embarrassed, and Love eventually lost her job.
Lame duck coach Dennis Erickson was allowed to coach the Sun Devils to one of their most embarrassing bowl losses in recent memory, a 56-24 MAACO Las Vegas Bowl trouncing (that included a grand total of zero Sun Devil touchdowns in the first half) from a disrespected 11-1 Boise State team who couldn’t believe this dreck was the best the NCAA/BCS/AQ Conference Hive Mind Collective thought they deserved to play.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, they hired a guy (for reals this time, guys) to coach the football team who had just cut and run from two jobs in a row and looked for all the world at the time like the kind of college coaching slime you get all over your slacks after shaking hands with Nick Saban too recently after he ran his fingers through his hair. But hey, at least he wasn’t June Jones, and at least he’d won at his last jobs. You know, before he got to all the cutting and the running.
It’s been a bit of a turnaround since then.
The Sabangrease (trademark pending) turned out to be more Saban than grease, and more Meyer than Saban. Nobody cares if they’re just another stepping stone in the Todd Graham Success Experience pond as long as you know he’s got to build up your program pretty significantly before he gets a shot at the next level. And it helps that the Experience has been better than advertised. A surprisingly successful season, followed by the surprising return of the surprisingly monstrous Will Sutton has given way to a surprising amount of attention on a program people are now saying could be a surprise Rose Bowl contender. Unexpected, to say the least.
Then there’s Jahii Carson, a one-man program-revitalization campaign who took the smart money that he could improve his stock in the NBA draft by hanging around and dribbling circles around the Pac-12 for one more season. After perhaps single-handedly lending a spark to Herb Sendek’s flickering career in Tempe, Carson is getting himself some serious attention from national media, and the spotlight reflects just fine on Sun Devil Basketball as a whole. A National Tournament appearance would not shock the world this time around.
So things are pretty good in Sun Devil Country, all things told. They’re certainly better than what we’re used to.
So why has all the attention lately been negative? Why are we talking about an unpopular new mascot and the school’s decision to cave to its “fans, students and alumni” (read: donors and merchandisers) and allow the students to pick between four nearly identical copies (It was all about the pupils, guys. Also, eyebrow placement.) of the same creepy mascot everyone hated?
Why, when it stands on the precipice of national relevance, marketable superstars in hand and excitement brewing all across the Valley, is the athletic department crossing its signals and somehow ending up with a bungled, false announcement by University President Michael Crow that the football team will be playing at Chase Field in a few years? Nobody was asking about that! Give us more videos of Will Sutton crushing fools and eating imaginary soup! We don’t need the future! We need more of this incredible now!
And why, oh why oh WHY are we talking about GRAND CANYON UNIVERSITY at all? Why are you even allowing that to be in the news? Let me let you in a little journalism secret. Grand Canyon University is ABSOLUTELY DREADFUL at getting itself any press. Any press at all. Sports news outlets go out of their way to try to get GCU sports onto their pages, and GCU can’t deliver, whether it’s game info or press releases, you name it. There’s some weird disconnect there. I honestly don’t understand it, and it’s a shame because they’re screwing up their own moment in a lot of ways.
But why in the name of Pat are you giving them attention for free, much less the kind of sympathetic attention that can spawn some sort of actual following? What are you trying to achieve by attacking them because they have a for-profit business model and mostly online students? Incomprehensible argument about the sanctity of not-for-profit college sports (is that really a thing anybody thinks exists?) aside, you have to ask yourself, what is the worst-case scenario if you let GCU play Division I sports? They might steal fans (read: money) from ASU? Let me assure you, if a sports fan in the Valley can’t get up the energy to care about Arizona State sports, they aren’t going to suddenly start frothing at the mouth just because Thunder Dan is coaching WAC basketball over at that Christian school with the billboards. Give it a rest.
Arizona State has a basketball team and a football team in legitimate contention for some serious history at the same time and for some reason all we were talking about all summer was this silly mess. You can’t blame the media either. Trust me, the media would have been happy to go right ahead and forget about college sports for four months while the summer haze of baseball and golf lulled us all into a bored, yet blissful sleep, like we always do.
And that is exactly why ASU has accidentally done something surprisingly right by apparently doing a lot of things pretty concerningly wrong. That is why Arizona State blowing it is, just by chance, exactly what it needed to do.
The reality in college sports is that there truly is no such thing as bad press. Even if it leads to the kind of scrutiny, public outrage and legal action that can land University Presidents out of jobs and former defensive coordinators in jail, you can be one thousand percent certain the next game your football team plays will be on national television. And although a few sports fans will choose not to tune in or show up because every single talk show host in on every single sports radio station in the country has been dragging your good name through the mud all summer, most won’t be able to stay away.
ASU, thank goodness, didn’t approach those kinds of tragic and disgusting mistakes, and let us in all seriousness pray it never does. But by looking foolish for a few months and giving the talk radio guys and the Republic columnists something to talk about, it did something the actual sports on the field haven’t been able to do in quite some time: it kept us thinking about them while they were away. Advertisers and girlfriends in long-distance relationships alike know that’s a key to success. It’s one thing to get them to pay attention to you when you’re with them (and for all three that’s a struggle in itself sometimes) but it’s a whole other thing to stick in their minds when you’re not there for a while.
In college sports, the more people are thinking about you and talking about you, the more relevant you become. The more relevant you become, the more media attention you get and the more media attention you get the better recruits you get. The better the recruits, the better the team, and the cycle continues upward.
I’m not advocating a strategy of going out and embarrassing yourself every summer, but I’m saying that if you did it by accident, and ASU absolutely did (as far as we know, at least…), that there are worse things.
We could have just ignored you altogether. Like we usually do.
You can reach Cuyler Meader on Twitter @chancellormeade or by email firstname.lastname@example.org