Kenny Dillingham was a risk for Arizona State — so far, he’s passing the test

TEMPE, Ariz. — Kenny Dillingham arrived for his first preseason Arizona State news conference a few minutes early, upbeat as usual. He then talked for 28 minutes about his first football season, the program’s initial recruiting success — deftly appealing to local businesses for NIL help — and when it was over he turned to a media official and simply asked, “That was it?”

Dillingham has been on the job for 233 days. On Nov. 27, at a news conference that unfolded not far from where he spoke Monday, he broke down in tears, elated to take over the football program headquartered just a few miles from where he grew up. That seems like forever ago.

What’s in store for this season? Not even Dillingham knows. He likes his team, but he’s only seen the Sun Devils practice. He said he and his staff took over the program at “Square 1,” which is not exactly true. Coming off the Herm Edwards era, with an NCAA investigation hanging over the program, Arizona State was nowhere close to Square 1. Dillingham and staff had to work all offseason, rebuilding a 3-9 roster and re-establishing recruiting ties, just to get there. It was their first major victory.

Over the last eight months, two truths have emerged: Dillingham, hired at age 32 and without college head-coaching experience, is the biggest gamble Arizona State football has taken. (Even Edwards, hired out of retirement, had success as an NFL head coach.) And yet, no one has ever seemed better suited for this job. This was clear Monday. Dillingham made no promises. Only that his team would play hard. And that no one would put on the uniform unless they shared the same passion he had for the university.

Arizona State fans have heard this before. Edwards stayed clear from the rah-rah stuff because it was not his nature and he was smart enough not to fake it. He took a more measured approach. But Todd Graham was more like Dillingham. Everything Dillingham has said about Arizona State potential — the pull of the Valley of the Sun, the power of a packed Sun Devil Stadium — Graham said, too, calling this his dream job, only in a Texan accent.

Graham meant it — the Pat Tillman statue, a charge which he led, is proof — but with Dillingham, it sounds different. It’s easy to think that he’s been away for so long during assistant-coaching stints at Memphis, Auburn, Florida State and Oregon that he’s forgotten how challenging this market can be. And how so many Arizona State fans can easily get lulled into indifference. But that’s not the case. Dillingham understands the hurdles. He just sees them as opportunities. That might be naive. Or it might be just what Arizona State needs.

Dillingham was asked Monday how difficult it is to recruit when the Sun Devils have yet to play a game under his watch. Unlike some coaches, Dillingham said, he doesn’t sell a vision. His pitch is simple. Come here. Work your butt off. Be successful. He said he recently told an in-state prospect not to commit to Arizona State because he could see in the prospect’s eyes that he needed to go “experience something else.”

“I want people who want to be here,” Dillingham said. “Would I love that to be the top players in the state? Would I love to set a precedent that we’re going to help guys be successful in life and those guys flock here? Yes! Only if they want to be here, though. I’m not going to trick them to be here. I’m not going to promise them to be there. … The opportunity to work, but the opportunity to do it in front of your friends and family, that’s what should make this place special. The family aspect of staying home. That’s what makes this job special for me, so why shouldn’t it be special for them?”

It’s an interesting trickle-down theory, and it’s on display every time Dillingham, now 33, speaks, as obvious as his youthful appearance. If Dillingham cares this much, then his team should care this much. And if his team cares this much, then fans should care this much. For a program facing alleged recruiting violations, this actually is Square 1, a place where fans can feel good again about Arizona State football. To this point, before the first kickoff, mission accomplished.

A leap to Square 2 (say, bowl eligibility) may require more time. Dillingham admitted Arizona State had several unknowns. The quarterback position remains unsettled. Dillingham also said he didn’t know how the Sun Devils would respond to adversity, often the difference in winning and losing.

As for him, he pointed out that he had not coached on the field since his days coaching freshman high school football, having spent his entire college career in the coaches’ box. “Golly, how loud is it going to be?” Dillingham said, jokingly.

But overall? “Football’s football,” Dillingham said. Arizona State will have growing pains. That’s expected. But Dillingham and his staff should have time to work through them. To build. That’s a luxury in this sport. It won’t last forever. But with preseason camp about to open, Square 1 is not the worst place to be.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Kenny Dillingham’s path from part-time poop scooper to the FBS’ youngest head coach

(Photo: Darryl Webb / AP)

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