TEMPE, Ariz. – It was 10 p.m. on a Friday. The only place Tim Cassidy wanted to be was curled up in bed. Instead, he was manning a familiar and exhausting position as Todd Graham’s wingman while the two ventured over Greek borders.
“We had this initiative on campus to try and connect with the students in coach’s first year,” said Cassidy, ASU’s senior associate athletic director of football. “The idea of going to a fraternity and sorority talent show wasn’t high on my list, but it was for Coach.”
When Cassidy and Graham arrived, 500 to 600 raucous students greeted them. Not even the sight of two middle-aged men could alter the festive mood.
“They were in prime form, if you know what I mean,” Cassidy said, chuckling.
So was Graham. Following his 30-minute speech, he had the masses eating out of his palms.
“He basically incited a riot when he started throwing out a handful of free jerseys,” Cassidy said. “After all my whining, it really turned out to be a great idea.”
You’ve no doubt read or heard about Graham’s 130 community appearances (he says it was actually 136) in 120 days after he was hired to rouse what has long been called a sleeping giant. But here are some of the tangible effects of his tireless efforts to promote the football program.
According to senior associate athletic director Rocky Harris:
-- Last season, thanks to the student initiative, ASU saw a 20 percent increase in student attendance to help record its highest student attendance figure ever. The school now has the most student season ticket holders in the Pac-12 (about 12,000).
-- About 500 people donated to the Camp Tontozona campaign last year, with donations as small as $1, helping ASU raise $30,000 more than its goal of $150,000.
-- The football banquet, which was canceled after it lost $70,000 in 2008, had a net of $100,000 this year, mainly because the Sun Devil Club backed it thanks to its relationship with Graham.
-- From 2010-11 (Dennis Erickson's final full fiscal year with ASU) to 2012-13, ASU has seen a 427 percent increase in football fund raising.
“One of the many reasons Todd got hired was because we knew he could connect with the community, engage them and make them want to come back,” Harris said. “It wasn’t just about coming back as donors, but buying back into what we’re trying to do.”
Graham knows a negative perception of him persists in some national and local circles: He’s a snake-oil salesman. He’ll tell you whatever you want to hear until a better opportunity presents itself.
He knows he won’t change every opinion, but he bristles when it is suggested that money and opportunity are the only motivations behind all the selling, buzzwords and appearances.
“I’d be a liar if I said we don’t ask people for money,” he said. “You can’t get around the financial part of it. That’s a simple reality of this business. It is the lifeblood.”
“But I’m not just an ask-and-receive guy. I want to share the plan with them; share a vision. It’s all about building relationships, because you’ve got to earn people’s support. People have worked hard for that money they’re donating, so you handle it with great care and respect and make sure it’s going toward something worthwhile.”
Wins will be the ultimate judge of Graham’s tenure at ASU, whether it is long or short term. But money helps that cause, so it’s important to note just how much Graham has helped the school achieve its fund-raising goals, along with major efforts from athletic director Steve Patterson, Cassidy and many others.
Most of that massive donation increase since Graham took over is the product of three major donors, and that is a common characteristic of the nation’s most successful programs. Everyone knows Verde Dickey’s name, but Graham’s message is so persuasive that a University of Pittsburgh alumnus jumped onboard the ASU bandwagon even though he has no ties to the university and Graham left his alma mater after 11 months on the job.
“He didn’t ask for my support. I offered it up,” said Joe Cosgrove, the president and CEO of Pentec Health, a privately-held health-care services company headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. “He was a little taken aback after that Pitt story and the things that were being said about him.
“He said, ‘You really want to get involved way out here?’ and I said: ‘There’s no geographic boundaries when it comes to supporting good, solid people whose hearts are in it for the right reasons.’ ”
Cosgrove played ball at Pitt. He still supports the Panthers and believes in that program, so there’s no chalking up this new allegiance to a disgruntled alumnus.
“I’ve just bought into his blueprint and he is going to achieve it -- not just on the football field, “ Cosgrove said of Graham. “He’s preparing people for life with this holistic approach that I just find mesmerizing.”
Cosgrove first met Graham when the coach reached out to a number of football alums, including Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino, upon arriving at Pitt. After hearing his message, Cosgrove invited Graham to speak to his company.
“That’s what put me over the top with him," Cosgrove said. "In the 90 minutes he met with my employees, he never talked about football. He talked about life lessons and leadership and setting very high goals and having people working toward those together.
"I’m thinking: ‘This is a guy who could be the CEO of a business. His leadership transcends sports and he has this quality that you just can’t teach.”
There are physical reminders of Graham’s financial impact all over campus.
“We’ve redone the third floor, redone the locker room, redone the weight room, redone the training room, redone just about everything,” said Graham, who chalks up his appetite for community involvement to his years as a high school coach in Texas.
“When you’re there, you’re a pillar of the community, and you have to meet with everybody,” he said. “Some people think that you hire a football coach and he has some magical scheme that makes you win and it fixes everything. That’s not how this deal works. You’ve got to create a team, and that means getting everybody onboard from the players, to the fans, to the athletic department to the community.”
Connecting with the community is not something Graham’s predecessors, Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson, always embraced. But he is determined to break with the past.
“When you look at what Dr. (Michael) Crow has done in changing the image of the university; we need to be able to match that,” Graham said. “We’re the front porch of this university, so it’s part of my job to help with all this stuff. I’ve always known that and I’ve always believed it.”