Gold: Kenny Dillingham hire puts the 'home' in home run for Sun Devils
There was a point during Kenny Dillingham’s introductory press conference on Saturday morning where I actually thought this could work.
That’s something I never thought even one time during Herm Edwards tenure, so that’s a start.
Speaking through real tears — not moist eyes, but real, drop to the table tears — the new Arizona State head coach, the youngest in all the land at age 32, professed his love and his excitement to be returning to the area that he knows best, where he was born and raised. Where he knows the people and the potential.
“This is literally home. Home,” Dillingham said, while pausing to collect his composure. “So I say that because this place is special. This state is special. The people in this room are special. I got guys in my wedding right there. Sorry, I’m pretty emotional. Right, that’s just who I am. The one thing you’re gonna get from me, is I am who I am. I am who I am. I’m the same person every single day. I show up to work. I’m fired up to be a Sun Devil.”
Never once did I think Edwards was happy to be in the greater Phoenix area, or really even happy to be back in college football. He is a pro coach with a pro coach’s mindset, and within weeks of being fired by Arizona State, I caught Edwards on the NFL Network, analyzing The League like he had for a decade as a commentator for ESPN. This wasn’t a college coach. The idea he was a leader of young men was laughable. He turned recruiting over to Antonio Pierce, and we saw how that went. He called himself the CEO of the program, which is absurd. It was never a fit, and it was never going to work.
This, this could work.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) November 27, 2022
Yes, there are questions about Dillingham’s age — he’s the youngest coach in the Power 5, a few years younger than the head coach he’s leaving, Oregon’s Dan Lanning — and the questions are justified.
Head coaches have to account for everything in a program, not just their side of the ball.
But we’ve seen what a young, offensive-minded firebrand can do, and we don’t have to look very far.
USC’s Lincoln Riley was just 33 when he took over as head coach at Oklahoma. Now he seems like an old man at 38 with the Trojans. And he’s the face of the new age of college football, the wheeling, dealing NIL era, where the transfer portal is arguably the most important hub of college football talent. Dillingham’s former mentor, Lanning, is another dynamic young leader who appears up to the task.
Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said the decision to hire Dillingham was in part due to the new landscape in college football.
“This new head coach had to be in tune with and relatable to the new-era student-athlete — energetic, flexible, adaptable, collaborative, innovative, great partner, great innovator, great listener, experiences listening and learning from others, strong and passionate about this place,” Anderson said at Dillingham’s press conference. “The multitude of accomplishments and successes that Kenny Dillingham brought to the table was undeniable.”
Sun Devil nation, please welcome ASU graduate Kenny Dillingham back to the desert.
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) November 27, 2022
Considering his age and the absolute mess he inherits, I expect Dillingham to have a long leash. He already made one great decision in announcing the retention of interim head coach Shaun Aguano, another former local high school coach who lives and breathes the scorching desert air.
“I couldn’t be happier — one of the first people I saw when I got here was Coach Aguano,” Dillingham said. “When you think about anything in life, it comes into time. Time decides the matter of importance. I’m gonna spend time building relationships with people in the valley. Our staff is gonna be people who build relationships in the valley.”
With the Sun Devils bottoming out this season after a wave of bad press — completely deserved, of course — and the Territorial Cup heading to Tucson for the first time in a half-decade, Dillingham won’t be expected to turn things around immediately. The stage is not set for Arizona State to go from near-worst-to-first in short order, like USC and Riley and Washington and Kalen DeBoer did this season. And Dillingham would be wise not to discount the improvement of the rival Wildcats, who appear to have their man in Jedd Fisch after the 2nd-year coach scored a 4-win improvement in 2022.
Looking forward, Dillingham should double down on his efforts to recruit locally, even taking chances on lower-tier recruits if they come from top-tier local programs. The former Sun Devils offensive staffer — who started his coaching career at 17 after tearing his ACL in high school and then went to Arizona State for his undergraduate years, later serving as offensive coordinator at Memphis, Auburn and Florida State — has a returning quarterback in Trenton Bourguet who had 3 300-yard games in 5 starts after taking over midseason for Emory Jones.
Bourguet is a walk-on from Tucson who has blossomed like a Saguaro cactus. Arizona isn’t a state bereft of high school talent, but Dillingham has to be willing to look far and wide and put borders up around the state. The Wildcats have taken to recruiting southern California brilliantly; the Sun Devils can counter that by looking locally and in nearby Texas and Colorado while firming up a presence with Pacific Islanders and in Hawaii.
“What this place needs to be successful, it’s already been successful,” Dillingham said. “We’ve seen it. The leadership from top-to-bottom is in line, that’s why I’m here now. We need this entire valley to come together. You want to win at the highest level, to maximize this place? We need everybody in this room — positive things — to get involved.
“This is one of the biggest Metropolitan areas in the entire country, it’s growing at a rapid rate. We need the valley behind us. We need the state behind us. We need butts in seats. We need everything this valley has, all-in. Because I am. All in.”
Does it get any better than that?