First-year coaches ready for Arizona state rivalry
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State's Todd Graham have had successful debuts in the desert, overcoming some adversity to get their teams bowl eligible.
All the success they've had so far sets them up for the most important goal of the season: beating each other.
The Territorial Cup takes on added significance Friday night at Arizona Stadium when the two first-year coaches try to establish a foothold in the heated rivalry.
``It's the biggest game of the year, every year,'' Graham said.
This year's matchup will feature new coaches on both sidelines for the sixth time in the series' 85-year history, and first since John Mackovic took over at Arizona and Dirk Koetter at Arizona State in 2001.
Those coaches had rough first seasons in the desert; the Wildcats won five games under Mackovic, the Sun Devils four as the teams finished eighth and ninth in the Pac-10.
Rodriguez and Graham have had better starts.
Coming off a disappointing stint at Michigan, Rodriguez took over an Arizona program that had plenty of offensive weapons, but not a lot of depth.
The combination led to some wild games for the Wildcats, who are among the most prolific offensive teams in the country - and need to be with the defense often giving up yards and points in bunches.
Arizona (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) opened the season with three victories, lost three straight to ranked opponents - two in shootouts - and has won four of five after beating Utah 34-24 last weekend.
``I enjoy coaching these guys,'' Rodriguez said. ``You never really know what you have until you start coaching them. We had a lot of concerns coming in and I still have those concerns. But I like the way that our players have responded.''
Graham has faced some adversity of his own.
Bolting Pittsburgh after one season to take over at Arizona State, Graham vowed to get the Sun Devils to play fast and add a level of discipline that had been missing in the program.
It worked early in the season, when Arizona State opened with five wins in six games. Starting with a 43-21 loss to then-No. 2 Oregon, the Sun Devils started bogging down on offense and lost four straight.
Arizona State (6-5, 4-4) finally broke through the bowl-eligibility barrier in its fifth try last weekend, sending its seniors off in style in their final home game with a 46-7 win over Washington State.
The Sun Devils have maintained their discipline for the most part all season and will need to dig down to keep their composure in what will be the most volatile road environment of the year.
``What I tell my players is, you are not going to remember what some person said to you hanging over the rail. You're not going to remember who had the best tweets or who talked the most trash. You are going to remember who won the game,'' Graham said. ``That is one of the things that is always a challenge when going on the road, especially in a rivalry game.''
Friday night's game will be a reunion of sorts for Rodriguez and Graham.
The two coaches crossed paths during the 1993 NAIA national championship game when East Central, with Graham as its defensive coordinator, beat Glenville State in its fourth season with Rodriguez as head coach.
The coaches crossed paths a few times on the recruiting trail after that when Graham was a high school coach, and when Rodriguez took over at West Virginia, he brought in Graham as an assistant.
Graham spent two seasons with Rodriguez, the second as co-defensive coordinator, before leaving in 2003 to become the defensive coordinator at Tulsa, where he later became head coach after a stint at Rice.
Once they became coaches at rival schools in Arizona, they remained cordial but haven't exactly been calling each other on the phone every week.
``I don't have a whole lot of interaction with a lot of people other than the people who I work with every day. It's just the way that the coaching profession is,'' Rodriguez said.
Friday night, they'll be on opposite sidelines as the two former co-workers try to get a head start in what will be the biggest game of the season every season they're in the desert.