(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
Todd Graham strolled into his Monday afternoon press conference with a smile on his face. Fresh off a 40-24 win at Oregon State, the Arizona State coach greeted reporters with grin and bent down to re-tie his shoes before calmly leaning forward, elbows resting on the table in front of him, to answer questions.
Hardly the actions of a man on the verge of losing his job.
Yet, that could very well be the reality for the sixth-year head coach this Saturday, when his Sun Devils face rival Arizona in the 2017 Territorial Cup.
Graham didn’t acknowledge his job security on Monday though, declining to comment when asked if he thought this week’s game would dictate if he would be returning to the school next year:
“I don’t have anything to say about that.”
ASU’s embattled leader instead spent his 20-some minutes behind the podium reminiscing on past encounters with his in-state rival, theorizing ways to contain Khalil Tate (the Wildcats dynamic quarterback) and praising his senior class, a group who will be playing their final game in Sun Devil Stadium this weekend.
If the larger than usual crowd of media members was hoping for some sign or speculation regarding the state of Graham’s future employment at the school, they didn’t get it.
“I love the fact our seniors are getting to have their last game, senior day on this field and in this game,” Graham said. “I like that they make this game the last game of the year because I think that’s where rival games are meant to be.”
Speculation over the future of Sun Devil football has run rampant this season. For the first time since his arrival in 2012, Graham wasn’t given a one-year contract extension prior to this year’s campaign. That signal of shaken loyalty was followed by a rocky non-conference slate to begin the season. At one point, there was national speculation that Graham was on one of the hottest seats college football while local speculation that he might not make it to the end of the year.
While any potential of a mid-season firing was quelled after surprise wins over Oregon, Washington and Utah, the Sun Devils spurned a chance to climb atop the Pac-12 South last month when getting blown out by USC. Had ASU won that night, this weekend’s season-finale would have given Graham the opportunity to clinch a second career division title.
Instead, he will be trying to secure another year in Tempe.
He will be relying on the play of his veterans specifically in Saturday’s potentially make-or-break contest.
“I kind of feel like we are playing our best football,” he said. “Really proud of the leadership on this team. Really proud of (junior) Manny (Wilkins)…(senior) Demario Richard and (senior) D.J. Calhoun, their leadership. The thing I like about all three of those guys, they don’t say much, they don’t say much at all. They just (lead) by example.”
The last three weeks haven’t helped settle the debate. Though ASU is 2-1 since getting trounced by the Trojans, the type of inconsistent play that has plagued the program for almost three years now has again reared its ugly head. The Sun Devils struggled through the first three quarters of their eventual win against Colorado, blew a 14-0 lead at UCLA and allowed Oregon State to cut a once-30-point Sun Devil lead down to two possessions in the fourth quarter this past weekend.
Chances to dominate games over inferior opponents were missed. ASU won twice, but hardly looked better than some of the Pac-12’s most middling teams.
Meanwhile, Tate and the Wildcats – who were the only team picked to finish below ASU in the conference’s preseason media poll – have surprised by winning seven games already this year. If they add an eighth on Saturday, they will finish the campaign with two more wins than ASU and above it in the South standings.
If part of Graham’s job depends on not only beating, but outplaying UA over the course of an entire season, a second straight Territorial Cup loss could be damning.
“There is nothing more miserable than losing this game,” Graham said. “I don’t spend much time thinking about it.”
However, a win against the Wildcats could go a long way in the other direction. It would give ASU a second-place finish in the division, a noteworthy improvement over last year’s second-to-last spot in the standings. It would also ensure the Sun Devils finish the season with a winning record, something they haven’t achieved since 2014.
“I think we have made tremendous progress,” Graham said. “I know as a staff it has been a lot of fun getting to build these guys and couldn’t be more proud of the job they have done. You look at the things that we have done and the teams that we have beaten and the progress that we have made. I think it has been very impressive.”
Before the end of Monday’s media session, Graham was asked what he would be telling his seniors ahead of their final career home game this week. He answered with an anecdote about the end of his own collegiate career:
“Enjoy it. Just maximize every snap. Even though I’m an old man, I can remember looking at the clock, I turned around and looked at the clock my senior year and (saw) it tick down from 13 seconds all the way down. Until it’s over you don’t realize how precious it is to you.”
That advice might apply to himself too.
Over the better part of the last decade, Graham has continually praised the preciousness of his job at ASU. When he watches the last seconds tick away on Saturday afternoon, it might be the final moments of uncertainty regarding the fate of his job. For better or worse.
It’s too late for fighting words spoken in front of cameras to have an affect. On Tuesday, Sun Devil players declined to indulge in a romanticizing of the rivalry.
When Richard was asked what he thought of the game’s meaning, he said “I’m not really allowed to talk about that so next question.”
His feelings on U of A: “Next question.”
They know the what the stakes are. So does the man who has the most to lose.
“This is a game that’s very, very important,” Graham said. “It’s the most important game to our fan base, most important game to our coaches and our staff and anyone. There’s not much that needs to be said. Just going to work prepared to win.”