The relative stability Todd Graham enjoyed with his coaching staff in his early years at Arizona State is long gone.
It was inevitable that this would happen to some extent, just not as much as what has actually transpired. There were only two reasonable scenarios to be had: either Graham wouldn't last as long as he has as head coach at ASU, or his staff would succeed and build up credibility in a college landscape that often advances buzzworthy assistant at breakneck speed.
Just 20 years ago, Steve Spurrier became the highest paid coach in the country with a salary of $940,000. Today, Jim Harbaugh makes $9 million and at least 78 of the 128 Division I head football coaches make more than $1 million, including Scottie Montgomery at East Carolina. Nationally there are at least 10 coordinators who make more than Spurrier made as the highest paid head coach in 1996. ASU's newly hired defensive coordinator Phil Bennett reportedly made $980,415 in 2015 at Baylor.
The number of coaches who take jobs and then leave those positions for better opportunities within weeks during the annual winter game of musical chairs is rising. Position coaches become coordinators quickly when they network effectively. Coordinators can become head coaches in a hurry when they've done well enough in their existing roles to not yet be typecast or have their flaws exposed.
It's a bunch of guys jostling for the best footing and an ample supply of oxygen on the narrow and treacherous path to the summit. If you misstep, you can fall to your doom. Coaches go from having seemingly good jobs to being out of work in a hurry. It happens all the time. This is how they see it. They usually have friends who have been blown clear off the mountain. When talking to coaches behind the scenes, it is palpable in a way that isn't felt or understood externally.
Fans see the migratory nature of coaching in the business and high salaries relative to other careers and wonder why there is no stability, no loyalty. It's understandable, particularly when juxtaposed against their hopes for the program they follow and are so passionate about. But when you get close enough to cut through the clouds and clearly see it, smell it, and hear it, a different perspective emerges. If they aren't climbing, they're falling behind.
To a large degree, ASU's early success under Graham enabled what we've seen in the last year or so with the staffing departures. When then-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell left ASU following the 2015 season to take the head coaching job at Memphis, it was a clear advancement in his career. When Norvell took then-ASU assistants Chip Long and Chris Ball to be his offensive and defensive coordinators, they too were moving up the path toward the summit.
Indeed, a clear majority of the assistant coaches who left ASU in the last several years did so for more money, more responsibility, or both. Out of a staff that has completely turned over in a two year period with the exception of linebackers coach Keith Patterson, only former running backs coach Bo Graham and former defensive line coach Paul Randolph left for reasons other than career advancement during that time. Bo Graham left in part due to an inappropriate relationship with a student-athlete and hasn't gone back to coaching. Randolph was taken off the field by Graham and moved into a non-coaching role before he left for Memphis to coach again.
Everyone else left for more money, more responsibility, or both (read the full list at bottom).
Todd Graham has done a very good job of working with ASU administration to dramatically increase staffing compensation during his tenure. As an example, Norvell was the highest paid offensive coordinator in Pac-12 in 2015 and among the highest in the country at the time of his departure, at a base pay of $950,000. A program source indicated this week that Chip Lindsey was going to get a modest raise from $650,000 before he ultimately elected to instead leave to Auburn for even more money and, importantly, a three-year guarantee. His deal has been reported as a three-year guarantee starting at $700,000 annually with a retention bonus after this year.
Ultimately, ASU isn't going to have a lot of success keeping its assistants from career advancement that includes more money and greater security. This is especially true when the ASU head coach is in a unstable situation, as is the case with Graham projecting beyond 2017. Lindsey could have done well next year for the Sun Devils and still been on a staff that got fired if the ASU defense had another year as bad as the previous two. The situation at Auburn is somewhat similar, but he's getting a raise, greater security, and will be perceived as even less responsible if that staff is replaced after this season since it will have only been his first on the job.
Lindsey is also from Alabama, was a high school coach in the state, and has extensive coaching roots in the region. It's where he primarily recruits. It's where his wife is also from. Put all that together with more money and the realities of how college coaches view the profession and it would have not made much sense for Lindsey to turn down the job.
So Graham has been the victim of his own success, to a large degree. That's why Lindsey, Mike Norvell, Long, Ball, Jay Norvell and others have left. Two of his recent assistants are now Division I head coaches, and three others are coordinators, including at Auburn and Notre Dame. In one way of looking at it, that means Graham has done his job. He's picked coached who have subsequently been in demand.
But Graham has also hurt himself by turning in losing seasons in each of the last two seasons, the ramifications of which will now make it tougher to fill the offensive coordinator position that has opened due to the Lindsey departure. ASU doesn't have the ability to give competitive three-year guaranteed deals that others are able to provide, and that is limiting for a head coach who also is reasonably perceived to be in need of a strong 2017 season in order to subsequently keep his job.
Much of what's happened has been bad luck for Graham, just in terms of the sheer number of coaches who have turned over in such a short period of time. If a similar amount of coaching turnover was occurring while Graham was still winning at or near the same rate as he did in his first three seasons at ASU, he'd be given the benefit of the doubt by the fanbase. He's probably even be seen as a juggernaut. But this staffing turnover coinciding with back-to-back losing seasons has eroded confidence and created the unavoidable appearance of chaos.
This confluence of events has led led to an external perception that Graham is difficult to work for, even at the same time as it's true that most of the coaches who have left only did so because they got better or higher paying jobs and increased security. No matter what's written here or anywhere else, that's going to be an unshakable view of the situation externally, particularly in light of the reputation Graham was somewhat unjustly tagged with even before he'd arrived at ASU for being a carpetbagger; ironically, a stigma that no longer makes a lot of sense considering nine of his 11 seasons as a head coach have come at just two schools, Tulsa and ASU, including the last five in Tempe.
Graham had a great hedge against a quick departure of Lindsey for greener pastures on his own 2016 staff in the form of Jay Norvell. At the time of Jay Norvell's hiring, Graham said that Jay Norvell was his second pick for the coordinator job that opened up when Mike Norvell left for Memphis. It's only due to Jay Norvell being improbably offered the Nevada head coaching job after just one season as ASU's wide receivers coach that Graham didn't have the replacement already fully up to speed and on his staff. That couldn't have been anticipated.
So what will Graham do now? He's probably not going to be able to offer the type of money that Mike Norvell was making because he has spread around ASU's assistant salary pool to hire Bennett and others. Additionally, with Graham's tenure not on extremely safe footing beyond 2017, and the lack of multi-year guaranteed deals, top-flight offensive coordinators are likely to be hesitant to consider the gig.
On the flip side, Graham can sell his offense as one that sets up reasonably well for 2017, with multiple quarterback options including a former five-star opening game starter for Alabama, Blake Barnett, and talent at running back and wide receiver. Graham also probably has more comfort straying from his expected offensive archetype due to the way Chip Lindsey operated somewhat outside the Graham-Gus Malzahn mold as a coordinator.
From a structural standpoint, Lindsey has forged an interesting offense. He's a coordinator who fused pro-style with spread no huddle and elements of Air Raid into his own system.
There aren't a lot of obvious candidates for ASU and no better example of that exists than Malzahn's ultimate decision to go after Lindsey, a coach who only worked for Malzahn for one season as an offensive analyst. Graham is going to have a hard time finding anyone who has been under the umbrella of either Graham or Malzahn, and may need to take somewhat of a gamble on a coach who has only existed outside of their ecosystem.
A reality once again fully exposed by what happened not only with Lindsey's departure but other ASU coaching departures, is that keeping a talented staff intact in Tempe is very difficult given the Sun Devils' relative challenges, both financially and structurally. They'll have to increase their assistant coaching salary even more, and win even more in order to ward against these sorts of staffing raids.
One realistic option is promoting one of his two recent offensive staff additions to coordinator, either wide receives coach Rob Likens or offensive line coach Josh Henson. Both have experience in the role at the highest college level, as Likens was offensive coordinator at Kansas in 2015 and 2016 and Henson coordinated Missouri's offense from 2013-15. If he does that, however, Graham will still have to find a quarterbacks coach, perhaps former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly or someone else who is young. Graham said the Lindsey hire was enticing to him because of Lindsey's experience developing quarterbacks, and ASU's young stable of inexperienced players at the position. That reality still exists as ASU moves into 2017.
Clearly, Graham has had a lot of success choosing offensive coordinators throughout his career. In addition to Malzahn, Mike Norvell and Lindsey, he had current SMU head coach Chad Morris as his offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2010. This time though, it could be a little bit tougher. It's yet another opportunity for Graham to demonstrate his knack for picking an offensive coordinator. He'll probably need to pick another really good one.
ASU coaches who have departed since 2015
Mike Norvell -- head coach at Memphis from ASU offensive coordinator
Chip Long -- offensive coordinator at Memphis from ASU tight ends coach
Chris Ball -- defensive coordinator at Memphis from ASU secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator (not play caller)
Jackie Shipp -- defensive line coach at Missouri from defensive line coach at ASU; made more money in new job and moved closer to ailing mother (subsequently got fired)
Del Alexander -- wide receivers coach at Notre Dame from ASU tight ends coach; making more money in new job
Jay Norvell -- head coach at Nevada from ASU wide receivers coach
Chris Thomsen -- undetermined role at OCU from ASU offensive line coach; a source said Thomsen he will get a slight pay raise and he's moving to within a two hour drive of his parents and other family.
Bo Graham -- Hasn't coached since leaving ASU.
Paul Randolph -- Got demoted to an off-field position at ASU before leaving after a year to Memphis and less money.
Chip Lindsey -- offensive coordinator at Auburn from offensive coordinator at ASU; making more money in new job and greater visibility in SEC