Let’s take a moment to recap the last month of Arizona State football, which has unfolded in a manner that left the entire college sports industry snickering at its arrogance and ineptitude:
1. Prior to the Sun Devils’ final game of the regular season against rival Arizona on Nov. 25, Todd Graham begins telling people close to him that he’s going to be fired regardless of the outcome. Athletics director Ray Anderson, according to a person close to the situation who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity, assures some high-level boosters at the school that he has a blockbuster hire in mind.
2. Arizona State wins the game to finish 7-5 against a tough schedule, but Anderson announces the next morning that he’s fired Graham, a move that will cost the school $12 million in buyout money. Rank-and-file are largely furious, believing Graham had done enough to save his job.
3. Anderson appears at a bizarre press conference in which he denigrates the Pac-12 South and indicates that he’d like the next head coach to largely keep the Sun Devils’ staff in place.
4. Word begins to leak that Anderson has targeted television personality and motivational speaker Herm Edwards, who coached football in the NFL a decade earlier but not particularly well.
5. Arizona State people floated the idea that Edwards would more or less be a figurehead and that his assistants, primarily offensive coordinator Billy Napier, would do most of the actual coaching. Retaining defensive coordinator Phil Bennett would also be a huge part of the plan.
6. The hire is announced officially. Edwards appears at a news conference in which he seemed utterly confused about why an outlet called Devils Digest was asking him a question, suggesting he may or may not have known the school’s mascot.
7. Edwards returned to ESPN for several days while the rest of college football was pounding the pavement for recruits as the early signing period approached.
8. Bennett announced last week he would not return to Arizona State, citing family reasons.
9. And finally, to put a neat little bow around this circus, Napier took the head coaching job Friday at Louisiana-Lafayette, leaving Edwards without either coordinator, who were both supposedly so integral to making this plan work.
Maybe in five years, we’ll look up and Edwards has usurped Chris Petersen, Chip Kelly, Clay Helton and David Shaw as the new king of the Pac 12, making the rest of us look completely silly for questioning Anderson’s instincts and football acumen.
If so, we’ll tip the cap.
If not, however, there will be no other option than for him to resign and perhaps school president Michael Crow as well.
We’re not being cavalier in saying that, either. If this doesn’t work out, it is not only a football embarrassment for Arizona State but a scandal of financial irresponsibility and corporate coziness that has raised a lot of eyebrows within the industry already.
It’s not just that Anderson and Edwards had a longstanding relationship, which is normal. It’s not just that Arizona State didn’t seriously engage with any other coaching candidates, which is rare but happens from time to time.
What isn’t normal, however, is that Arizona State zeroed in on a coach with no relevant college experience whose relationship with Anderson and senior associate athletics director Ken Landphere wasn’t just personal but also financial. Anderson, a former agent, represented Edwards before he went to work for the NFL. And Landphere also represented Edwards when he worked at the Octagon agency until he came to Arizona State in September 2016.
While nobody would question the notion that Anderson was hired to run the department and make executive decisions, shouldn’t that at least raise a red flag with the school’s administration? When you’re talking about a $12 million decision to get rid of a coach who just had a winning season, it has to.
Meanwhile, the idea that you can have a Mr. Potato Head coaching staff and just plug in Edwards around Graham’s old assistants was always naïve. And if Napier was such an essential part of the blueprint that you gave him the associate head coach title, maybe you should have just made him head coach to begin with.
If Arizona State had just done that, some people would have questioned whether he was ready for the job, but by and large it would have been accepted as a logical move. Napier has been an assistant for both Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban and did a good enough job with the offense last year that Arizona State desperately wanted to keep him.
Instead, Napier took one of the better jobs in the Sun Belt at Louisiana-Lafayette, which isn’t an abandon ship career move. But it sure looks like there’s a more certain future in that than the “New Leadership Model” of Arizona State football it touted in a jargon-heavy press release announcing the Edwards hire.
Did Arizona State really need a New Leadership Model to mimic the NFL, or did it just need a better college coach? Did it really need to hire a television announcer, or would Graham have sufficed?
Either way, were going to find out soon. And with the Sun Devils’ staff plan already starting to come apart at the seams, it looks more and more like Anderson will need to draw an inside straight to make his $12 million bet pay off.