With multi-year renovations to Sun Devil Stadium ongoing, a new Student Athlete-Facility set to open in the near future and a historic fundraising campaign continuing to gain steam, Arizona State football coach Todd Graham didn't mince his words when describing how he feels about all of the recent developments.
"We've been very fortunate here because of the transformational time we're having here as an athletic department and as a football program," Graham said at a luncheon Monday. "I'm lucky enough to be sitting here at a time, I don't think there's ever been a head football coach that's sat in a position that I'm in. What's going on in Sun Devil Stadium, and really what that reflects, it reflects the support from our donors and what we have and the people that believe in the cause and what we're doing."
Though Graham has suffered back-to-back losing seasons after winning 28 games during the first three years of his tenure, the Sun Devils' head coach said he believes the updates to Sun Devil Stadium and the new Student-Athlete Facility are the type of game-changing upgrades that will help ASU separate itself from the pack.
"We're fixing to move in I think sometime this summer in the No. 1 teaching facility that I've ever been associated with, I think it's going to be a big time game-changer for us, not just from a recruiting standpoint, but from a teaching and developing standpoint it's going to be pretty special," Graham said.
For the second straight offseason, Graham was tasked with hiring a new offensive coordinator, as former coordinator Chip Lindsey departed to take the same role at Auburn. Graham ended up hiring Alabama wide receivers coach Billy Napier, who Graham lauded Monday for his relentless nature.
Additionally, the Sun Devils also hired a new defensive coordinator, as Graham brought in veteran coach and former Baylor coordinator Phil Bennett to construct a turnaround for an ASU defense that finished last in the country in passing yards allowed per game in each of the last two seasons.
"You get new people and the energy, Billy Napier is a guy that's, man, just so relentless and a guy that I'm really excited about what he brings to our program," Graham said. "And obviously, coach (Phil) Bennett, is a guy that we're really excited about so from a coaching standpoint, (wide receivers coach) Rob Likens is a guy, you're going to love getting to know him. He's also been an offensive coordinator, a guy that brings a lot of experience to our staff."
To help lead a turnaround, the Sun Devils have also enlisted the services of three transfers, quarterback Blake Barnett and wide receivers John Humphrey Jr. and Ryan Newsome, all of whom came from Power 5 programs and will be eligible to play this fall.
"So we've got some new blood and a lot of excitement around our program, but the thing I'm most excited about is our players," Graham said. "From a recruiting standpoint, we brought in three transfers, Blake Barnett, John Humphrey and Ryan Newsome and those three guys, I've been impressed with just how they've come in and the leadership, a lot of times with transfer guys, they're just trying to figure things out, but these guys are really going to provide some things that are really, really positive."
On Monday, Graham said he believes ASU may have its best personnel yet under his watch, and also said having the foundation of the program's culture cemented in place heading into his sixth season as a head coach is a pivotal factor in the Sun Devils' ability to succeed in 2017.
After dropping the last six games of the 2016 campaign, Graham said every position is up for grabs and that the expectation is that assistants and players will help breed an intense sense of competition throughout the upcoming spring practice slate.
"We've got a clean slate, every position is up for grabs, there's full competition and even you can sense it with our staff, there's going to be competition in everything that we do," Graham said. "It's exciting to be able to attract top-notch coaches and top-notch players. From a recruiting standpoint, whatever that means as far as where those rankings our, I can tell you that we feel really good about where we're at from a personnel standpoint. It's just developing."
ASU facility updates
ASU Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson also spoke at Monday's luncheon and provided insights on the Sun Devils' plans for finding a suitable home for ASU's hockey team and potential upgrades for Wells Fargo Arena.
Less than two weeks ago, plans for an arena that would have hosted the Arizona Coyotes' NHL team and the Sun Devils' hockey team in a Tempe arena were scrapped as ASU pulled out of the deal. On Monday, Anderson said the Sun Devils remain committed to living up to the promises they made when ASU elevated the hockey program to Division I status to provide conference affiliation and a proper facility.
"We have some options that we can't say publicly, but what I can say is that if one (option) goes away, we're working on another or multiple others because that's what we do," Anderson said. "So while the thing with the Coyotes and ASU is a subject matter that is very frankly driven by campus and others beyond our jurisdiction, it is what it is...but I'm not talking about it because it's in my rearview mirror and we have additional options that we are pursuing and will do so aggressively because as part of bringing on our hockey program and elevating it to Varsity NCAA Division I status, we made promises that we would provide conference affiliation appropriately and we would provide playing our home games in an appropriate Division I-caliber facility so we are going to deliver upon those promises."
Anderson said even though the deal with ASU and the Coyotes fell through, he's still optimistic the Sun Devils will have a new facility within the timeline that was originally promised.
"We've got aspirations, coach Powers, we want to be '19-'20 at the latest in our own facility or a facility that we can call ours, home, for the long-term," Anderson said. "So it may have changed in somebody else's mind, but it hasn't changed in my mind."
At this point, finding a suitable home for the Sun Devils' hockey team is more pressing than renovating Wells Fargo Arena, which houses both ASU basketball teams and serves as the home for the Sun Devils' gymnastics and wrestling squads.
Anderson said that the Sun Devils are working to create a timeline for upgrading Wells Fargo Arena, but that it's not one of the athletic department's most immediate priorities right now.
"That's another one, that's less certain, what I can tell you is part of our master plan, we are certainly working on the timing of a variety of facilities, Wells Fargo being included," Anderson said. "If you had to prioritize, I think frankly we're pressed more on the hockey multi-purpose arena if you will. Wells Fargo may be done in conjunction with that or it may be done as a subsequent, separate project."