Thanksgiving, right? I’m thankful I’m not a college football coach.
It’s not the long hours, it’s not worrying that your opponent is stealing your signals and your recruits, and it’s not that TV cameras catch you using language that’d make your mom cry.
It’s that you’re as dispensable as the returning champion on “Jeopardy!”
If Todd Graham coaches Arizona State to a Territorial Cup victory over Arizona on Saturday, he’s apt to be selected the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, or no worse than runner-up. But if he loses, he’ll probably be fired.
Can one game mean that much?
Graham’s ASU winning percentage, 59.2, is greater than any of his predecessors dating to 1987 — all of whom were fired. Sun Devils fans, and the administration, may have determined Graham is no Frank Kush, an irascible old-school coach who became the school’s most legendary sports figure.
Kush owned Arizona, beating the Wildcats 13 times in 14 years in one period. His bristly behavior played to cheers.
In 2006, a day after he beat Arizona for the fourth time in five years, ASU coach Dirk Koetter was fired. He had gone 40-34 in six seasons.
“When you meet the new coach,” Koetter said, “make sure you don’t say, ‘you just have to beat the UA to make everybody happy.’”
In November 2000, the Sun Devils fired coach Bruce Snyder 12 days before he beat Arizona in the Territorial Cup. Four years earlier, Snyder coached ASU to the Rose Bowl.
His rival, UA coach Dick Tomey, called Snyder’s firing “despicable.” Yet Tomey was called into athletic director Jim Livengood’s office a week later and asked to resign. Two years earlier, Tomey had coached Arizona to a 12-1 season.
Firing a college football coach has no boundaries.
Since the Pac-12 began selecting a Coach of the Year in 1975, a dozen of the men so-honored were ultimately asked to leave. The roll call? Joe Kapp, Jim Walden, Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, Dick Tomey, Bruce Snyder, Dave Kragthorpe, Tyrone Willingham, Jeff Tedford, Bob Toledo, Karl Dorrell and Dennis Erickson.
Could Todd Graham be No. 13? Over the last 50 years, only five Territorial Cup coaches — Smith, John Cooper, Jim Young, Darrell Mudra and Darryl Rogers — left on their terms.
Mudra resigned at Arizona in 1968 because the school wouldn’t give him a multiyear contract.
Cooper went to Ohio State, Smith to USC, Young to Purdue and Rogers to the NFL.
In 1991, ASU fired Larry Marmie after beating Arizona 37-14, ending nine excruciating years in which the Sun Devils had not defeated Arizona.
“There needs to be a place in college football for a man of the character and fiber of Larry,” said ASU athletic director Charles Harris. “But that place isn’t at ASU. I believe we are the kind of program that ought to finish in the top third of the Pac-12 regularly.”
Over the next quarter-century, ASU fired three coaches. Graham would make it 4 for 4. As for the Sun Devils finishing in the “top third regularly,” they won the league once, 1996, won the division once, 2013, and have gone 112-107 in conference games.
ASU fired Erickson a day after he lost the 2011 Territorial Cup in Tempe to an Arizona team that had fired Mike Stoops six weeks earlier.
“There is a lot to look forward to at Arizona State,” said athletic director Lisa Love. “We are in a powerful position, with great players returning.”
It sounded the same way when Erickson’s predecessor, Koetter, was fired.
“Dirk’s done some wonderful work,” Love said. “We’re just looking for a higher platform.”
Looking for a higher platform? The Sun Devils have since spent about $300 million on new football facilities yet produced a 30-23 Pac-12 record.
If ASU fires Graham it will largely be for his lack of connectivity in Phoenix. He’s not a charmer but rather a loud, isolated, acquired taste. But what does that matter? The same can be said for Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, who was on the Road to Dismissal before discovering Khalil Tate on his bench.
Tate made RichRod’s angry-man-on-the-sideline act play to a more accepting audience.
When the Sun Devils fired the brusque Koetter 11 years ago, Love, the AD, was asked if Koetter’s annoying demeanor triggered the decision.
“How charming was Frank Kush?” she asked.