Even though it’s been 16 long years since the Arizona State Sun Devils traveled west to represent the Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) in the Rose Bowl, don’t be surprised if they’re back in the “Granddaddy of them All” within the next five seasons.
Yes, the last time Arizona State captured a league crown and went to Pasadena on New Year’s Day was back in the magical season of 1996 when they went 11-0 under coach Bruce Snyder, only to fall 20-17 to Ohio State in the 1997 Rose Bowl.
The last time the Sun Devils won the Rose Bowl?
Well, that was a full decade earlier. The ’86 team, led by John Cooper (who ironically coached the Buckeye team in the ’97 Rose Bowl win over ASU), beat Michigan 22-15 in the 1987 classic to cap off a 10-1-1 campaign.
And though this trip down memory lane is no doubt intriguing, it also goes a long way in underlining how bold it is to say that Arizona State will be back in the Rose Bowl by 2017.
So, how will it happen? How will the Sun Devils capture a Pac-12 title in a college football world transformed from the days of 1987 and even from the 1996-97 season that predated the BCS era?
Well, it’s all going to start at the very beginning where all championships are formed, with recruiting.
To set the stage, did you know that each of the last six winners of the BCS title had senior classes that were originally recruited at No. 15 or better, and junior classes that were brought in at No. 20 or better?
Simply put, highly rated recruiting classes equal championships.
So how should Arizona State, which according to the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings hasn’t hauled in a class ranked better than No. 30 in the last five tries, amp up its recruiting efforts? It should think about getting it done closer to home.
Though when you think of states that consistently pump out top-rated football talent it’s more likely that Florida, Texas and California come to mind, don’t forget that Arizona offers up surprisingly fruitful recruiting ground.
To illustrate, the 247sports.com class of 2014 top 100 currently includes three products from Arizona, while the top 247 has nine guys from hailing from the Grand Canyon State.
While this may not seem overly impressive next to California’s 12 representatives in the top 100 and 24 in the top 247 or Texas’ 12 top 100 rated guys and 30 top 247 members, comparing these numbers straight-up isn’t necessarily an apples to apples affair.
Yes, the state of Florida has nine guys in the top 100 and 25 in the top 247. But with a total population of over 19 million, the Sunshine State has almost three times the population to draw talent from than Arizona.
Similarly, California’s population of just over 38 million (according to the latest U.S. Census figures) is nearly six times bigger than Arizona’s 6.5 million residents, while Texas’ 26 million figure is a healthy four times larger.
This means that, per capita, the state of Arizona is actually meeting or outperforming California, Florida and Texas’ top-tier recruit machines for the Class of 2014. In simpler terms, Arizona has 1.38 top 247 recruits per million residents, while California has .63, Florida has 1.32 and Texas has 1.15.
If schools like Arizona State can cash in on this under-the-radar hotbed of recruiting right in its own back yard then, yes, it can make some serious impact on its overall recruiting numbers.
This becomes all the more plausible when you throw in the fact that Arizona State only has to compete with one in-state FBS school (Arizona) for its homegrown recruits, while the battles in California and Florida are each made up of seven FBS schools, and the war in Texas for recruits is fought between a whopping 12 FBS programs.
Now that we’ve established both a demand for recruits and the local supply in the state of Arizona and the nearby pipeline of California, we’ll introduce perhaps the biggest reason why the Sun Devils may be Rose Bowl bound…the hire.
Yes, in case you hadn’t heard, Arizona State just recently lured former LSU Director of Player Personnel Sherman Morris to Tempe to become its Assistant Athletic Director for Recruiting.
Morris took over the Player Personnel role at LSU back in 2007, which was two seasons into the Les Miles era and just so happened to coincide with the Tigers' national championship campaign.
From a recruiting standpoint, the hiring was significant. After being a top-10 recruiter, LSU had slipped all the way down to a No. 22 ranking (per Rivals.com) in 2005, leading eventually to Morris’ acquisition in ’07.
Under Morris' guidance, LSU not only rocketed back up the recruiting ranking charts, it stayed at the top to the tune of five top-10 and two top-20 recruiting hauls during his seven classes in Baton Rouge.
This makes Sherman Morris’ arrival at Arizona State more than just “Page 2” of the “Other BCS team” section of the news.
This is a big deal which could have a huge impact not just in the world of the Pac-12, but nationally.
What’s intriguing, especially given Arizona State’s specific situation, is Morris’ approach to recruiting. His No. 1 priority is getting it done in-state first.
In an interview with DevilsDigest.com Morris was asked what he thought were some of Arizona State’s “selling points” and “underrated factors.”
You have a tremendous amount of quality athletes. If we can keep 85-90 percent of the student-athletes home we will be successful all the time. If you look at the institutions that have been successful, that’s what they do. If you look at Alabama, LSU, Texas when they were on top—they all keep their top athletes at home. That has to be our focus. We have to make them understand that you don’t have to leave and that everything you want is right here.
In the same interview, Morris specifically defines the success he is selling to the local guys, the homegrown recruits he wants to keep at Arizona State.
Most of the local student-athletes feel like they have to leave the state in order to accomplish their goals or to play ‘big time football.’…You don’t have to leave home to be successful. That’s the message we want to communicate. The things you want to accomplish are here, whether it’s a Rose Bowl championship or a national championship can be accomplished right here.
To capture the essence of Morris' approach to taking the plan from a regional affair to the further reaches of California and then nationally, listen to what he had to say in a recent interview with Bleacher Report's own Max Rausch.
For us to be successful at Arizona State we need to win here in the state of Arizona more than anything. Ultimately, history has taught us that ASU has won when we've been able to capture this state. We need the best players in the state of Arizona to play at ASU. Period. We need to be successful in the state of California. From there we have the opportunity to expand our area of recruiting.
Now you’ve got the recruiting demand, the supply and the mechanism (with Sherman Morris on board) to get it done. So what’s next for Arizona State in terms of the blueprint for the Rose Bowl by 2017?
Well, what you’ve got to like for the Sun Devils is their placement in the new Pac-12 South, a division that in its very young life has refused to establish a clear leader.
As long as Lane Kiffin is the guy at USC, there will be question marks in Troy and an opening for everyone else. Even if he leaves, there will be some sort of timetable to righting the ship.
Though things look promising at both UCLA and Arizona, it’s hard to believe that either of those programs will become the type of powerhouse that will dominate all other challengers on a consistent basis.
That leaves Colorado and Utah, who could slip through and make a run, but realistically this is a longer shot than saying, “Arizona State in the Rose Bowl by 2017.”
At the end of the day, competing in the Pac-12 South instead of the North makes the Sun Devils' chances at a Rose Bowl berth all the more realistic.
The last component of the puzzle is perhaps the most difficult to gauge: the Todd Graham factor.
Yes, Arizona State could recruit the lights out under the very able guidance of Sherman Morris, and its placement in the Pac-12 could prove fortuitous indeed. But without the most effective leaders on the sidelines leading the way, all could be for naught.
And for anyone who doesn’t buy this, I ask you to refer to Texas’ current situation with Mack Brown.
Take a look at a program which hasn’t hauled in a recruiting class that ranked lower than No. 10 since 2008 (other than No. 23 rated debacle in 2013) and explain how in the world it's managed a 22-16 record since 2010.
Think about it this way. The Longhorns have more talent, at least on paper, than 96 percent of the FBS field, but the best finish they’ve managed in three tries is a tie for a third-place finish in the Big 12 conference race.
Sadly, you could make a similar argument for USC and Lane Kiffin.
So again, without the right coaching staff, it doesn’t really matter how much talent you have stockpiled in your well-appointed locker room.
Is Todd Graham—the guy who went 7-6 at Rice in 2006, 36-17 at Tulsa from 2007 through 2010 and 6-6 at Pitt in 2011—the coach that can lead Arizona State to the Rose Bowl by 2017?
To answer this, we’ll refer back to Sherman Morris’ interview in the DevilsDigest.com piece.
So it starts with Graham360. We have to make sure that more than anything we have to effectively communicate who Coach Graham is. I’ve been around Coach Miles who is a phenomenal coach, I’ve competed against Coach Saban and had the opportunity to meet some really great coaches around the country. But the reality is that Coach Graham doesn’t take a back seat to any of those guys. He has passion, he has desire, and he has commitment. He wants to build a championship winning program here. He wants to make sure that student-athletes are having an experience unlike any in America…
So that is how Graham360 came about. We call it ‘National Championship Lifestyle.’ That has been our approach.