(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
After a week of speculation and hyper-public-reactions fueled by Arizona State’s coaching search and reported hire of Herm Edwards, there was a level of normalcy this weekend in Tempe.
For the first time since last week’s Territorial cup – and coach Todd Graham’s firing – the Sun Devils returned to work this weekend in preparation of their reported trip to the Sun Bowl later this month.
Graham returned to his normal place too. He led the Sun Devils’ practices at the Kajikawa fields, gave a huddle-breaking speech and squeezed in a greeting with a young Sun Devil fan in attendance.
It was typical Graham. Even in the first scene to the final act of his tenure at ASU, he acted no different. It’s something his players, who will soon be forced to adapt to a new head coach, appreciate.
“We want to get a win for us, we want to get a win for him,” quarterback Manny Wilkins said of the upcoming bowl game. “I’ve got a great deal of respect for him coaching this game. I want to get this team to send him out with a bang.”
Graham will leave a legacy not-soon-forgotten at ASU. Senior running back Demario Richard want as far as to suggest the new Sun Devils Athletic Facility, the glitzy structure behind the north end zone of Sun Devil Stadium, should be named after the sixth-year coach.
“My relationships with the players are priceless to me,” Graham said on Friday. “We’ve had a lot of special conversations, something that is very important to me.”
His departure has sparked a swarm of polarizing opinions around the program, both in regards to his firing and the impending hiring of Edwards, an ex-NFL coach who hasn’t held a job in football for almost a decade.
Former ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici has seen this drama before. He arrived on campus in 2011, just in time to watch then-coach Dennis Erickson get canned at the conclusion of his freshman season.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business decision and you have to live with it,” Bercovici told CronkiteSports.com via a phone interview on Saturday. “I went through it my freshman year when Coach Erickson left and I was recruited by him. Those guys have to stay focused and at the end of the day go win ball games.”
Bercovici was lucky – he was able to build a close relationship with his adopted coach, Graham.
“That’s my coach, he’ll be my coach forever,” Bercovici said of him.
He can only hope ASU’s current crop of players can build the same bond with Edwards.
“When you are sitting in the team room, (the new coach) isn’t the person that you committed to,” Bercovici said. “At the end of the day, you have to stay optimistic. It’s the cards you’ve been dealt as a Sun Devil. It’s more about the brotherhood and the guys to the left and right of you.”
Despite the uncertainty, the ex-ASU signal caller remained optimistic. Though his alma mater’s reportedly new coach is unproven the college level, Bercovici thinks Edwards’ NFL pedigree will prove valuable in the locker room.
“I would be so excited. I grew up watching Herm Edwards coach. I can remember his press conferences. I think a lot of people do,” Bercovici said. “That passion that he has, his relationship with (ASU athletic director) Ray Anderson is going to propel that football team to a lot of wins in the near future. I really think that there is something special with having a coach like that and I’m really excited to see what he can do.”
Something else that excites Bercovici: the potential that ASU’s staff of assistants stays on board. Bercovici noted how important that could be, specifically for his close friend and former teammate Wilkins, who has had a different offensive coordinator each of the last three seasons: “It’s something we’ve talked over the years about how to cope with,” Bercovici said, referring to conversations he’s had with the redshirt junior quarterback.
Wilkins won’t be the only to benefit from continuity in the coaching ranks though.
“I think the fact they want to keep the coordinators there is a testament to the players,” Bercovici said. “I think the players deserve the right to keep those guys there because both schemes on both sides of the ball and special teams was great.”
The coaches themselves weighed in on the possibility of returning to ASU next year.
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier, an up-and-coming coaching talent who has received much national praise this season, seems to be the most precious piece of the staff. He said on Friday, “We’ll find out a lot about the future of the program [in the next few days] and I’m excited to see where we’re headed.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is another man the Sun Devils could possibly hold onto. He told reporters, “I like it here. I love these kids. We haven’t gotten good yet, but we are capable of getting really good.”
Receivers coach Rob Likens and running backs coach John Simon also both claimed they’d welcome a chance to stay with the school for next season.
With Edwards reportedly set to be introduced officially as the new head coach on Monday, it won’t be long until more information about the future of the staff and the program is known.
But even amid all of the uncertainty, Graham will continue to coach his team through its bowl game in a few weeks’ time, the final days of normalcy before ASU’s embattled football team is thrust into a world of change.
Added Bercovici: “These things are not easy to deal with, but you have to be an optimistic person…it’s something that, it’s just part of life.”