TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham changed the culture at Arizona State, adding a dose of discipline to a program that had been missing it. He helped the Sun Devils become better in the classroom, and upgrade their facilities with his penchant for connecting with donors.
The one thing Graham did not do, at least consistently enough: Win games.
Arizona State fired Graham after six seasons Sunday, a day after an emotional comeback victory over rival Arizona.
“I don’t judge by emotion, I judge by body of work,” Arizona athletic director Ray Anderson said. “At the end of the day we’re still average, middle of the pack and going to a low bowl game. Frankly, that’s not what we aspire to be. I don’t think anyone on staff was satisfied with that.”
Graham energized Arizona State’s program when he left after one season at Pittsburgh season in 2012. The fast-talking Texan cracked down on the free-and-loose Sun Devils, turning them into a yes-sir, no-sir program with rules on everything from profanity to hair length.
The players responded to Graham’s old-school approach, playing and practicing with more discipline, getting better grades — 2.2 collective GPA to 3.0 — and winning games.
Only the winning tailed off.
Arizona State went 17-19 the past three seasons, missing the postseason in 2016. This season, the Sun Devils (7-5, 6-3 Pac-12) finished second in the Pac-12 South to Southern California and will be headed to a lower-tier bowl.
Even after rallying for a 42-30 victory over Arizona in the Territorial Cup, Graham had not done enough to keep his job.
“I’m a Sun Devil and I think I always will be,” said Graham, who will coach the Sun Devils in the bowl game. “A couple of my kids graduated from here and I didn’t build this place to tear it down. That’s what I told our players today: This place is not about one person. This place is about a set of values and what it means to be a Sun Devil. That’s something that’s really important to me.”
Graham, 52, has three seasons left on a contract that runs through the 2020 season and is owed $12 million. Anderson said the school will not use state taxes or student fees to pay for the buyout, but through athletic department-generated revenue.
“That’s my problem and we have a plan to fix it,” he said.
Arizona State will pursue a new coach immediately and will handle it internally and not use a search firm. Anderson said the new coach will be someone who has prior head-coaching experience and added the current assistant coaches, notably coordinators Phil Bennett and Billy Napier, will not automatically be replaced.
“We need to have the right fit for our culture,” Anderson said. “I want someone to come in with an open mind and see what Napier and Bennett have done for us in terms of progress. We don’t want someone to come in, throw a grenade and say I want all my own guys.”
Graham had immediate success in the desert, leading the Sun Devils to three straight bowls and a pair of 10-win seasons. Arizona State played in the 2015 Cactus Bowl but lost that game and finished with a losing record (6-7).
The Sun Devils took another step back last season, finishing 5-7 behind a defense that ranked among the worst in FBS.
Arizona State struggled to open the 2017 season, laboring to get past New Mexico State before losing to San Diego State and Texas Tech. The Sun Devils did have some impressive wins, beating No. 24 Oregon, No. 5 Washington and Utah in a span of four weeks.
Arizona State was blown out by Arizona 56-35 last season after the Wildcats rushed for a school-record 511 yards. The Sun Devils came back from a 10-point deficit to beat the Wildcats this year, but the emotions from Saturday night quickly changed Sunday morning.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” said Graham, who went 46-31 at ASU. “I’m very grateful to the university. I’m very fortunate to have been a part of this. It will always be very, very special to me.”