With a home showdown against one of college football’s most nationally respected teams coming on Saturday, the men who competed in ASU’s last home game against the Wisconsin Badgers believe the Sun Devils’ new head coach has the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in Tempe since their playing days.
In the fall of 1968, Tempe had fewer residents than the number of students who currently attend Arizona State University. And under the guidance of future Hall of Fame head coach Frank Kush, the nationally-ranked ASU football team had no competition for fan or media attention when it opened its season by destroying the Badgers, 55-7, at Sun Devil Stadium.
Fast-forward 45 years. Once a midsized college town, Tempe is now home to over 160,000 residents and is fully integrated with the always-growing Phoenix metropolis.
And ASU football, which now must compete for attention with numerous professional sports franchises, hasn’t been a consistent top-tier team since the Kush era ended over three decades ago.
“Back then, I guess we were the only game in town, per se – the Cardinals weren’t here, and the Suns had just come in ’68,” said Joe Spagnola, ASU’s starting quarterback for that 1968 game against Wisconsin, and a Mesa resident. “I think a lot of the thunder has been stolen from ASU because of all the sports teams around here.”
The Sun Devils ended the ’68 season with an 8-2 record and a national top-20 ranking – and that kind of success would continue under Kush for nearly a decade.
But since then, professional franchises like the Diamondbacks and Cardinals have diverted attention from ASU football, in part because the program’s on-field success has been sporadic, at best.
“We haven’t been so consistent in our football,” said Spagnola’s teammate, linebacker Ron Pritchard, a fellow East Valley resident and the 15 th overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft. “We’ve put a lot of guys, a lot of great players, in the National Football League, and yet we’re so up and down, it doesn’t seem to make sense.”
But perhaps for the first time since the Kush era when the Sun Devils were the undisputed kings of Tempe, there is real optimism among Pritchard and other Sun Devil alumni that the disciplinary approach of Todd Graham, who took over as ASU’s head coach before the 2012 season and led the Devils to an 8-5 record in his first year, may restore the program’s prominence, both nationally and in Tempe.
“I really do feel that way. I don’t think that’s just hopeful thinking,” he said. “I’ve been around football since I was nine years old and I’ve watched different guys, and (Graham) has not let up. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done.”
Pritchard, who will attend Saturday’s game with Spagnola and several other Sun Devils from the ’68 season, said Graham has embraced the history of the program unlike any ASU head coach since the Kush era.
“All that stuff means something,” he said. “I’m excited. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for them in the next four weeks, starting Saturday night.”
Indeed, Wisconsin is just one of several nationally ranked and revered teams that ASU is slated to play in the next month. And Spagnola said Graham’s opportunity to once again make ASU football the toast of Tempe is one that he’s more the capable of taking advantage of.
“He’s a great guy, a great motivator, and he shares a lot of similarities with my ex-coach, Frank Kush,” he said. “He’s got a great attitude, he’s recruiting some great ballplayers, and I believe he will get ASU back in those national rankings, especially if they start knocking off a few of the big boys we’ve got coming up in the next few weeks. I believe Coach Graham will bring us back to a place where we should’ve been for years.”
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