Sun Devils get leg up on Wildcats in rivalry
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — The fast start to the season was great. So was ending a losing streak and sending the seniors off in style in their final home game.
Becoming bowl eligible checked off one of the top goals for the season.
But of all that Arizona State (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) accomplished this season, beating rival Arizona was the one thing coach Todd Graham wanted most in his first season in the desert.
It was about bragging rights, getting a leg up on in-state recruiting, giving a boost to the fans and alumni.
Above all that, the Sun Devils' dramatic win over the Wildcats on Friday night was validation for Graham that his makeover of the program is on the right track.
"It can't be any bigger, just like on the other end of it, if we wouldn't have won, it would have been the worst thing that could have happened," Graham said. "I'm elated. I'm just thrilled to death."
The win completed a long road of confirmation for Graham.
The former high school coach from Texas came to Arizona State with a reputation for not following through.
Graham spent one season as the head coach at Rice, leaving for Tulsa days after signing a contract extension with the Owls. He led the Golden Hurricane to three bowl wins in four years before heading out for Pittsburgh, a job he believed was a step up.
Graham bolted Pitt after one mediocre season, leaving the Panthers bitter and sending up red flags in the desert for Sun Devils fans who saw their football team as a destination, not a stopover to a better job.
That's when Graham went to work.
Stumping for a job he already had, Graham went around shaking hands and talking to fans like he was a politician on the campaign trail.
Preaching discipline and an up-tempo style that would be fun to watch, Graham managed to generate interest in the crowded Phoenix sports market and beyond.
The Sun Devils lived up to the hype early in the season, playing almost penalty-free and at a pace that left opponents breathless while winning five of their first six games.