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January 26, 2012
Can ASU's Graham overcome nomadic rep?
ASUDevils.com: Top in-state juniors to visit ASU | Q&A: Recruiting coordinator Chip Long
Graham can only hope more recruits feel the same way.
Davis, a two-star running back from New Westminster, British Columbia, verbally committed to Arizona State with the expectation that Graham will remain in Tempe for quite some time. Graham stayed just one year at two of his last three stops - Rice and Pittsburgh - but has insisted Arizona State is his dream job.
"Any time a coach says that, it makes you believe he wants to stay a while," Davis, no relation to the former NFL star of the same name, said.
Graham now must continue to win over recruits such as Davis each time he's asked about his history of jumping from one job to the next. He likely will point out that his in-laws live in Arizona and that his family always hoped to settle down there.
He certainly realizes those questions are coming.
"I think the only way to respond to that is just being here," Graham said at his introductory press conference. "Obviously it was ... a dream opportunity for our family. It's obviously the first decision I've ever made that has actually benefited my wife and benefited our family. You know, I think the only way you can do it is I'm going to work hard to earn their trust.
"I think trust is earned, so that's all I can do.''
It can be done.
Graham isn't the only major coach who has moved around quite a bit.
Lane Kiffin's decision to leave Tennessee after only one year hasn't hurt his recruiting efforts at USC. Ohio State's Urban Meyer began his head coaching career in 2001 and already is on his fourth stop, yet he is generally regarded as the nation's best recruiter.
Of course, Kiffin and Meyer also have the benefit of working at some of the nation's most established football powers. Arizona State is a Pac-12 program in a desirable location with great weather, but its program isn't quite on the level of a USC, Florida or Ohio State.
Perhaps the most apt comparison to Graham's scenario is the situation Bobby Petrino faced when he left the Atlanta Falcons with three games remaining in his debut season as an NFL head coach to take over Arkansas' program in December 2007. As a first-year head coach at Louisville in 2003, Petrino garnered plenty of unwanted publicity when news broke that he secretly interviewed for the Auburn job that Tommy Tuberville already occupied at the time.
Petrino has developed into a solid recruiter while establishing roots in Arkansas and leading the Razorbacks to a 21-5 record over the last two seasons. If Graham can win at Arizona State, he also should be able to bring talented players to Tempe, regardless of his history.
"It depends on what program it is," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "If it's a Florida or Ohio State, It doesn't matter. And if you win, it doesn't matter. I think Petrino had a reputation for looking at every NFL job that came by. He had that reputation for quite a while. But when he got to Arkansas and started winning, it didn't hurt recruiting.''
Graham is on his fourth job in seven years. After only one year at Rice, he left for Tulsa. He posted a 36-17 record in four seasons at Tulsa before heading to Pittsburgh. He went 6-6 with Pittsburgh and left the team before the Compass Bowl to begin his new job at Arizona State.
The decision to leave Pittsburgh earned Graham plenty of negative publicity, particularly after word spread that he notified his players via text message. Cleveland (Tenn.) quarterback Chad Voytik, a four-star recruit who verbally committed to Pittsburgh in September, said he learned of Graham's decision from a high school classmate.
"I found out from one of my friends," said Voytik, who remains committed to Pittsburgh. "He ran into my Spanish class and asked if I'd heard.''
Graham has produced mixed results on the recruiting trail thus far.
Lakeland (Fla.) offensive tackle Evan Goodman, the younger brother of Arizona State offensive lineman Devin Goodman, committed to the Sun Devils in October and then rethought his decision after the firing of former coach Dennis Erickson. Goodman also has considered Arkansas and Nebraska, but the four-star prospect said Monday that he was "pretty solid" in his commitment to Arizona State and that he wasn't concerned about Graham's brief stay in Pittsburgh.
Not everyone felt that way. Arlington (Texas) Bowie running back Russell Hansbrough acknowledged Graham's history of changing jobs played a role in the three-star recruit's decision to switch his commitment from Arizona State to Missouri.
"When you see stuff like that, when he's only there for one year, that pretty much kind of sums it up right there," Hansbrough said.
Graham's main concern this year has been holding on to the players who verbally committed to Arizona State before his arrival. The Sun Devils had 25 verbal commitments in October - more than twice as many as they'd ever had before at that point in the calendar. Arizona State now is down to 19 commitments, with Goodman the only four-star recruit on the list.
It would be foolish to blame the loss of commitments entirely - or even primarily - on Graham's reputation for early exits. The Sun Devils' late-season fade and subsequent upheaval likely had more to do with it. Arizona State generated plenty of preseason hype as a potential Pac-12 contender and was ranked as high as 18th in early October, but the buzz surrounding the program faded amid a 6-7 finish that led to a coaching change.
The real test for Graham's staff will come in 2013, when he has his first full recruiting cycle at Arizona State. The new staff already has emphasized the importance of preventing other programs from luring away the state's top prospects, a problem that has haunted Arizona State for quite some time.
Arizona State doesn't have a single commitment from any of Arizona's top 15 prospects this year, though the Sun Devils are competing with USC for Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro athlete D.J. Foster, ranked second in the state and 71st in the nation. Arizona State also continues to pursue Peoria (Ariz.) Centennial safety Zach Hoffpauir, a California verbal commitment ranked 11th in the state.
The Sun Devils didn't sign any of the top seven 2011 prospects in Arizona. Five of them chose Pac-12 rivals instead.
"For too long now, the best players in this state and this area have left, and our goal is for that to end,'' Arizona State recruiting coordinator Chip Long told ASUDevils.com. "Now you're going to lose one or two every year, but we want the best and brightest to be here to build a culture of excitement this community can get around. That's how you win championships.''
Aside from his family ties, Graham doesn't have any previous connections to Arizona State. He's a Texas native who played defensive back at East Central - an NAIA school in Ada, Okla. - and had never before coached at a Pac-12 school. In this respect, that could be more of a plus than a minus.
When Graham left Rice for Tulsa after one year, his wandering-eye reputation followed him to his new school because he was trading one Conference USA program for another. Because Graham's moving across the country this time around, the players he recruits at Arizona State probably will be less likely to dwell on his messy departure from Pittsburgh.
In this age of instant information, recruits undoubtedly will know Graham left Pittsburgh after just one year. They may even be aware of the angry tweets Pittsburgh players sent after learning about his departure. But since the Sun Devils and Panthers rarely recruit against each other, Graham won't have to worry about giving an Arizona State sales pitch to the same prospects who were hearing him tout Pittsburgh just a few months earlier.
"The good thing about it is Graham's all the way across the country, so his recruiting circle isn't contaminated," Farrell said. "He's recruiting new kids at a new part of the country. ... He's pretty far removed from where he was. But he's going to have to answer those questions in the living room. 'Why did you leave Pitt after one year? What's going on?' ''
Graham is looking forward to those living-room visits. In his introductory press conference, Graham referred to himself as a "Facebooking machine" while discussing how much he enjoyed building relationships with prospects.
[ More Arizona State: ASUDevils.com ]
"I love to recruit," Graham said. "You've got to, to be in this business. I think it's the lifeblood of your program."
Arizona State's pursuit of Davis demonstrated this staff's ability to earn the faith of recruits.
Davis had verbally committed to Washington State last summer, but he said he re-opened his recruitment last month after the Cougars' new coaching staff indicated he wouldn't be an ideal fit for Mike Leach's high-flying offense. Graham's nomadic tendencies didn't stop Davis from committing to Arizona State.
"The coaches really made me feel at home, with the campus and everything there," Davis said. "They thought I'd be a good fit for them, and the campus itself was really nice. It was a very easy decision for me.''
Arizona State's hopes of long-term success could rest on whether recruits believe Graham also feels right at home in Tempe.
(Dallas Jackson of RivalsHigh.com contributed to this report).