Spring football practices are about setting the tone for the football season ahead, which often means learning playbooks and going through practice drills until game execution becomes second nature. Attitude can have just as much impact on a team's success and the playbook for cultivating it is not as obvious.
But Todd Graham has a formula for instilling on-field camaraderie and trust between players and coaches. The Arizona State head coach revealed the process of building buy-in at a coaching clinic in Tunica, Miss., last week—and it does not involve practices or repetition at all.
Per CoachingSearch.com, Graham told the crowd of more than 300, "Our coaches have zero football responsibilities on Mondays and Fridays during the spring."
Instead, Sun Devils coaches use that time to establish bonds within the team through off-field activities. It's a seemingly simple concept and one that paid serious dividends for Arizona State in 2013.
The Sun Devils won 10 games, the program's most since 2007, finished with a Pac-12 best 8-1 regular season conference record and claimed the South Division title. On his teleconference all day before meeting Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game, Graham credited "tremendous buy-in" for the team's success.
Indeed, attitude was at the forefront of just about everything Graham emphasized in 2013. When I asked him about the emergence of quarterback Taylor Kelly, the coach sang Kelly's praises as a game manager and dual-threat talent. But first, Graham stressed another quality: "He's a tremendous listener and giver of respect."
Spring bonding time is just one of several small, yet significant steps Graham and his staff have taken to establish a culture built on respect at Arizona State.
A top priority of Graham's when he first arrived at Arizona State was changing the atmosphere of a program that led the nation in penalty yards two of the previous three seasons. Conference officials remain the most flag-happy in the nation—the Pac-12 had four of the nation's 10 most penalized teams in 2013—yet Arizona State finished the season the Football Bowl Subdivision's sixth-least flagged team.
There have been well-publicized changes under Graham's watch, like the return of preseason workouts to Camp Tontozona in northeast Arizona before the 2012 season. In his first year, Graham also introduced the Pat Tillman practice jersey, a camouflage top honoring the late Sun Devils All-American and given to the team's defensive leaders throughout the season.
There are also much smaller steps—at Pac-12 media day 2012, former Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee mentioned jewelry being barred from the football facilities. And Monday/Friday bonding sessions are another of those seemingly smaller things.
But for Graham's larger-scale vision of competing for championships at Arizona State, those small steps go a long way.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.