(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
For a split-second, you can almost see the logic of Ray Anderson’s vision.
For 40 years, Arizona State has been trying to win the same way as everybody else in the Pac-12. But in its four decades since joining the conference, sustained tangible success has been scarce.
You can’t fault the Sun Devil athletic director for feeling as though he had to try something new.
But after his unexpected hire of Herm Edwards and the sweeping changes he’s made to the football team’s operational procedures, you can heap endless blame on Anderson — and ASU’s other athletics decision-makers — if this radical experiment flops.
On Monday, during Edwards’ introductory news conference in Tempe, Anderson said ASU football is like a train pulling out of the station with the ex-NFL coach and current ESPN analyst as its conductor.
If so, the Sun Devils metaphoric train is beginning its treacherous journey down the tracks by chugging straight through a red signal.
In the last week, Anderson has painted a big maroon and gold target on his back. His unjust firing of Todd Graham proved to be controversial. The pick of his friend and former client, Edwards, as ASU’s next head coach has received national ridicule. And then there was Sunday night’s press release confirming not just Edwards’ hiring, but a total reformation of the football program as well.
The university-issued statement, which included quotes from Anderson, laid out a vaguely confounding blueprint of his revolutionary “New Leadership Model”:
“It’s a collaborative approach to managing the ASU football program that includes sport and administrative divisions, which will operate as distinct, but collective units focused on elevating all aspects of Sun Devil Football,” it read. “This structure will allow the department to form a multi-layered method to the talent evaluation and recruiting processes, increase its emphasis on both student-athlete and coach development and retention, and provide a boost in resource allocation and generation.”
If all of this sounds confusingly convoluted, it’s because it is. Not to worry, though; the man tasked with deciphering the new arrangement has only been away from coaching for the last decade and out of the college ranks entirely since the late 1980s.
What could possibly go wrong?
To Edwards’ credit, he flashed his passionate personality and deeply held moral beliefs on Monday, relying on the persona that has made him an endearing character on ESPN’s airwaves since 2009.
He said walking away from the TV gig was not easy, but that he couldn’t turn down a near-perfect fit in ASU.
“I’m committed to this,” Edwards said. “This fuels me. This is a special place.”
Edwards also cited the trust he has in Anderson and university president Michael Crow as one of the main reasons for taking the job in Tempe. All three defended their vision on Monday.
“We are very excited to move forward with a new model, and with advancing this new model we needed to find a unique individual [like Edwards],” Crow said via a video teleconference at the press conference. “…We believe our competitiveness is absolutely and essentially critical to the long term success of our university and we need structures and designs and models, not just trying the same old thing.”
Few outside of the Sun Devils athletic department are buying that message.
The reasons to doubt the school’s drastic football-model change are far more rational than any argument supporting it. Edwards’ remarkable lack of experience at the collegiate level is an obvious cause for concern (his lone NCAA coaching gig was a three-year stint as defensive backs coach at San Jose State from 1987-89). So too is Anderson’s apparent disregard for standard operating procedures.
“Some people will say this is a very unusual move for anyone to make someone in Herman Edwards’ situation [a head coach],” Anderson admitted. “They will say this is a very weird move for someone to make.”
Anderson is also relatively new to amateur athletics after spending the majority of his own career in the professional ranks prior to his arrival at ASU four years ago. It hasn’t stopped him from branding the program with his personal philosophies.
“ASU football is nobody’s rebuild. This is not a startup. This is not a start over. We need to take the next step in competitive consistency and I believe Herman Edwards can take us there,” Anderson said. “…We are going to change our model because, as Dr. Crow alluded, the traditional model in athletics under which we’ve operated for these years has produced, very frankly, unsatisfying and for the most part mediocre results. What we are going to do is we are going to pivot to a model like you would see in the NFL.”
The only problem with the eloquent words Anderson proudly spouted on Monday to a capacity room of reporters, boosters, and university officials, is that his vision has zero proof of past success.
This NFL-curated structure is unprecedented in major college football. Inferring from ASU’s jargon-laden press release, Edwards will act as a quasi-general manager/CEO, responsible for overseeing the composition of the Sun Devils roster and coaching staff. The actual football instruction will be left to the coordinators and assistants themselves.
“You have to learn how to delegate. That’s what good CEO’s do,” Edwards said. “They hire people with talent and they allow them success.”
The rest of ASU’s ‘administrative division’ (it’s college football version of an NFL front office) underwent a reshuffling of the pack too. Senior associate athletic directors Jean Boyd, Scottie Graham and Tim Cassidy will all step into more hands-on roles, especially with recruiting and day-to-day operations, according to the press release.
“It is going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to upgrade football the way we’ve upgraded in some of our other sports,” Anderson said. “It will be a collaboration. We do not have a structure where the head coach will need to, neither will he be expected to, control it all and do it all.”
As for Anderson, you can think of him as the Sun Devils’ equivalent of an “owner,” the man with the apparent final decision for the multi-million-dollar-generating athletics department.
“I’m excited about where we are. I’m excited about Ray’s leadership,” Crow said. “I’m excited about coaching hires that Ray has been making to advance ASU athletics.”
ASU’s president added: “We’re not happy with the way this [traditional] model is working at other schools. We are not happy with the way the model has worked over many coach changes here at ASU.”
But, other schools similar to ASU in historical footballing prominence have broken through an average ceiling of success without undergoing such uncertain alterations.
Washington needed just three years to reach the College Football Playoff after “settling” for a Group-of-5 coach in Chris Petersen. Oklahoma State and TCU were middling programs before respectively hiring coaches in Mike Gundy and Gary Patterson who have provided more substance than flash. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has spent his whole career coaching college football in the Midwest, yet has led the Spartans to three Big Ten title this decade and an appearance in the 2015 CFP.
None of those institutions needed to tear apart the foundational fabric of its football program to win.
As ASU enters this unknown world, it better be hoping it didn’t misplace its trust when allowing Anderson to morph its football team into a nearly unrecognizable entity.
There won’t be much forgiveness if these end up being botched decisions.
Of course there’s the potential that Edwards and Anderson really were the smartest guys in the room on Monday; that their NFL backgrounds actually will translate to the college game and help the Sun Devils reach their self-stated lofty goals. They looked assured of themselves during their introductory press conference, wearing confident grins and cracking jokes while trying to explain their vision to a room full of skeptical observers.
If they are wrong though, it would likely cost the old friends both of their jobs, and force the country’s most innovative school to get creative to remake the program again.
If Anderson and Edwards are playing to win the game, they are trying to do so by dangerously rewriting the norms of college football around their own NFL-inspired ideas. From the outside, it looks more like they are blindly setting themselves, and the program, up for failure.