Arizona and ASU Football; Dueling Directions in the Desert

Arizona and ASU Football

It has never taken much to draw distinctions between the Arizona and Arizona State football programs. Beyond the rivalry, the two programs have always been quite different. The chasm, however, was perhaps never more evident than at last week’s Pac 12 Media Day. The two schools introduced their new head coaches ahead of the start of training camp later this week. Arizona and ASU football definitely moved in different directions.

Arizona and ASU Football; Dueling Directions

Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin came in looking somewhat buoyant. Perhaps the removal of the weight of the SEC West, and the cashing of a $10 million buyout check from Texas A&M will do that for a coach.

Arizona and ASU Football
Arizona Wildcats new head coach Kevin Sumlin at Pac 12 Media Day.

Every coach, in every conference, comes into the media days events smiling and feeling confident. It’s like heading in spring training for baseball managers. No one has lost a game yet and hope springs eternal for everyone. For college football coaches, they are coming off what few weeks of Summer vacation they were able to squeeze in. They are about to get their first look at most of the incoming freshmen they will be working with in the upcoming season. And, they have approximately 25 workouts between now and the beginning of the season.

Still, Sumlin seemed happier than most to be there. His 51-26 record in College Station got him shown the door. His contract there got him, not a protracted buyout, but one that was due in full within 60 days. By then he had also agreed to the job in Tucson. And then there is the not-so-small issue that he is inheriting one of the most exiting young dual threat quarterbacks in the country in junior Khalil Tate. So, what is there to be stressed about?

Sumlin talked optimistically about the youth of last year’s team. “They say the best thing about a freshman is he becomes a sophomore. It’s different for us in football. We don’t have one and dones. So those guys when they’re on the field, they’re doing their thing. So we’ve got a young team, fortunately, a lot of guys that have played, and I think our energy level, because of that, is high. These guys are a work in progress. But I like how they’ve worked since we’ve been there.” He admitted that despite the firing of his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez (43-35 in six years at Arizona), “I think that it wasn’t completely broken either.”

He addressed whether the expectations of the “laid back” Pac 12 might be a little easier to live with than the high stress SEC.  “The expectation is to win. I understand what the consequences are, believe me, (when you do not win). I set the bar high for our players. That’s the way I have always done things.”

Of course, there was plenty to discuss with regards to Tate. He merely threw for 14 touchdowns and ran for another 12 in nine games as a starter last season. Naturally, he is in the early Heisman talk for 2018. “He is moving from being an athlete that is a quarterback to being a quarterback that is an athlete, if that makes sense. Becoming a student of the game.”

It was in the same ballroom, on the same stage, just an hour earlier, that the tone and tenor from Tempe sounded so much different.

There is no denying that the hiring of Herm Edwards to take over at Arizona State was a head scratcher when it was announced in late 2017. He has exactly two years of college coaching experience, as an assistant at San Jose State 29 years ago, (1987-89 as a defensive back coach). From there it was 28 years in the NFL, and nine years in the broadcast arena. He has expressed surprise at how National Letter of Intent day works, made comments at Spring camp insinuating he may cut scholarship players, and generally seemed like he could be more comfortable as the CEO of the program.

Pac 12 Media Day then, was no surprise, when the discussion was more the philosophy behind football than the actual X’s and O’s of football.

Arizona and ASU Football
Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Herm Edwards speaks during Pac 12 Media Day. (Photo courtesy Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

“The philosophy is real simple, is that we all have to honor the game on how we play it and how we coach it. We all stand on other’s shoulders. No player, no coach is bigger than the game of football, and football is a vehicle. It’s a vehicle for people to have a platform. You use your platform correctly in a positive way. Make sure when you say things and you do things, it’s for the betterment of the game.

We are all keepers of this great game called football. You folks stand before us right now, and the fact that you’re in the media, you get to cover this game. You make a living covering sports, and we have to realize as coaches and athletes we have to make sure that we play it right, we coach it right, give you information so you can write stories on the game. The game of football is about moments and memories, and those are the things that you pass on to the people that follow you.”

And with the vintage Edward’s furrowed brow we were off and running.

Edwards admitted surprise as to how he spends his time now. “Seventy percent of your day a lot of times is spent on recruiting. It’s a year-round process. I never would have imagined, and I have been in college football before. We are already looking at 2020 kids. I’m going, ‘Really? 2020?’”

From an actual football standpoint, the Sun Devils and Edwards are still getting used to each other. Whereas Sumlin has his team’s best player at quarterback, Edwards’ best talent is a receiver, N’Keal Harry. That makes things a little more challenging. “There is a veteran presence over there, (on offense). Obviously, you have a quarterback like Manny Wilkins, and you have a receiver like N’Keal. You’ve got some offensive linemen with some veteran presence.”

Edward’s reminisced about the coaches from his past that continue to inspire him, (Claude Gilbert and Dick Vermeil). He touched on his knowledge of West Coast football based on his playing days in the old Pac 8 conference. Edwards was a defensive back at Cal in 1972 in the Pac 8, then moved on to Monterey Peninsula Junior College in 1973. From there it was to San Diego State in 1974 and then back to Cal to finish in 1975. “You say to yourself, ‘How do you build your team in that image to be competitive consistently in the Pac-12?’ I think that’s the work we have.”

One desert team heads into camp with players very aware of who their coach is. They could turn on ESPN or CBS every week last season and watch his games in the SEC, for better or worse. And he is coming into camp with a Heisman contender and smile on his face. The other team isn’t quite sure what to expect yet, even after Spring camp. They now their coach has a pretty permanent scowl as part of his personality. But they were in elementary school the last time he coached even an NFL game. They likely knew little of him before his introductory press conference, and clearly, he knew just as little of them.

Hot Summer months in the desert should be a little more interesting this year.