'A Change At The Top'

Dec. 5, 2000

So much to write about. So little time and space.

Actually, that's not true. I do have some time (with no games of any kind to broadcast till December 16) and all the space I need (after all, this is MY column, right?)

The question is: where do I begin?

Since I last visited with you in this column site, the Sun Devils fired one head football coach, hired another, defeated Arizona for the second straight year, earned ASU's fourth post-season bowl berth in the last five years, and for the second straight December made 'Mele Kalikimaka' part of the Devils' Christmastime vernacular. At the same time, Arizona State's men's and women's basketball teams have started their seasons in fine fashion, while the volleyball and soccer squads both advanced to round two of their respective NCAA tournaments.

Other than that, not much has been happening in this burg!

Of greatest public interest, of course (not to mention greatest long-term significance relative to the overall health of ASU's athletic department) is the change of leadership in the Sun Devil football program. Bruce Snyder will bid 'Aloha' (in this case, 'aloha' means 'goodbye') to Arizona State on Christmas Day, when the Sun Devils take on Boston College in the Jeep Aloha Bowl. ASU athletic director Gene Smith dismissed Snyder on November 15, effective at the end of the season. With their gritty and emotional 30-17 conquest of the Arizona Wildcats on the day after Thanksgiving, the Sun Devils extended their season another month, giving Snyder and his staff one more game in which to coach their team.

Though Smith did not detail the particulars as to why he terminated Snyder, it appears to me as though the firing can be explained by two words: mediocrity and economics. Coach Snyder will leave ASU with a fine overall record (58-44 entering the bowl game), but in six of his nine seasons in Tempe the Sun Devils won six games or fewer. That number will increase to seven 'six-or-less' seasons if the Devils lose to Boston College on Christmas Day. The 1996-97 teams that went 20-4 with two bowl appearances and a near-national championship in '96 provided some of the most exciting and memorable moments in Arizona State football history, and Bruce Snyder was the architect of those teams that featured talented players who were characters and had character. A Devils' fan can't help but smile when waxing nostalgic about the heroics of Jake Plummer, Keith Poole, Derrick Rodgers, Juan Roque, Pat Tillman, Jeremy Staat, Michael Martin, Terry Battle, Mitchell Friedman, et al. Great names. Great players. Great moments. Unfortunately for Bruce, he was unable in the past three seasons to sustain the momentum his program appeared to have generated in 1996-97.

Frustrated by the string of 6-5-type seasons, fewer fans bought tickets to attend ASU home football games in 2000, and more and more big-money donors threatened to withhold future financial contributions to the school unless a coaching change occurred. Those harsh economic realities, in my opinion, had more to do with the events of the past month than did Snyder's won-loss record at ASU. A close examination of this past season clearly shows that the 2000 Sun Devils were literally about five or six plays away from being a 9-2 or perhaps even a 10-1 team, even though they played without their top quarterback and running back virtually the entire season, and were forced to employ three walk-ons and a true freshman in their stead. In addition, Snyder and his staff recruited brilliantly the past few years, and had already obtained 16 top-quality verbal commitments from current high school seniors (including many of the top scholastic stars in Arizona). Add all of that up, and the future of ASU football seemed bright under Bruce Snyder. Yet, if your constituency doesn't buy into that belief, meaning fans don't buy tickets and boosters don't donate $$$$, then there's pressure to make a change in the leadership of the most conspicuous program in ASU athletics. Having done his 'due diligence' (his phrase) since assuming his new role in late summer, A.D. Gene Smith determined such a change was necessary.

Enter Dirk Koetter.

It would have been easy for Smith to make a big splash in his first significant hire as Sun Devil athletic director, by luring Dennis Erickson away from Oregon State, or Dennis Franchione away from Texas Christian. However, it appears from this vantage point that Smith got not only the man he says he wanted, but also a man well prepared for the job of taking ASU football to the next level. Koetter (pronounced: 'Cutter') may not be the big-name coach some fans wanted, but his resume seems to indicate the Pocatello, ID. native is ready for the challenge awaiting him in Tempe. Described by one former associate as an 'Xs-and-Os' genius, particularly in football's offensive realm, the 41-year-old Koetter guided Boise State University to a 25-10 record over the last three years, including back-to-back Big West Conference championships in 1999 and 2000 (earning Koetter back-to-back Big West Coach of the Year awards). This past season, Boise State led the nation in scoring (almost 45 ppg), finished second to Florida State in total offense, averaging nearly 500 yards per contest, and had a Sagarin power rating higher than that of Arizona State. Koetter certainly paid his dues in the coaching profession, serving as offensive coordinator at five different colleges (San Francisco State, UTEP, Missouri, Boston College and Oregon) before earning his first head coaching opportunity at Boise State. Everywhere he's coached, Koetter's offenses delivered results. At Arizona State, Koetter says he will serve as his own offensive coordinator and will call his own plays.

Defensively, Koetter favors a 4-2-5 base defense, with two linebackers and five defensive backs (two corners, three safeties), with a philosophy similar to that of outgoing Devils' coordinator Phil Snow: go get the quarterback! Koetter has made it known he plans to bring with him his defensive coordinator at Boise State, Brent Guy, as well as six other members of the Broncos' coaching staff. In fact, Koetter & Associates have already hit the ground running, fanning out around the U.S. to continue and hopefully finalize the fine recruiting work already started by the outgoing coaching staff.

Speaking of which...

While the hiring of a new head coach begins a potentially invigorating new chapter in the history of ASU football, the story also has a bittersweet side to it. It may be easy for disgruntled fans to clamor for a coach's firing when the home team isn't winning games with desired frequency, but those fans seldom see the human side of the high-stakes, high-pressure world of coaching. It is difficult to say goodbye to men you respect and admire, coaches with whom and around whom you've worked for nearly a decade. It is equally difficult to see these men and their families face such uncertain futures, particularly at Christmastime. Yet, as Phil Snow told me the other night in a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone, 'it's part of the business.'

Bruce Snyder and his assistants are fine men, and good football coaches, whose Arizona State program was clean and compliant, and was managed with class and dignity. Those characteristics are reflected in the type of individuals they brought to Tempe to wear the maroon-and-gold for ASU. These Sun Devils are, for the most part, young men who represent their university well, and would make you proud to call them your sons or friends. Not many bad apples in this bunch: lots of good kids, and lots of talented football players, the majority of whom will return in 2001. To say the least, Snyder isn't leaving the cupboard bare.

To Bruce and his staff: best wishes, and here's hoping you all find jobs that will allow you to continue your coaching careers in professionally fulfilling situations.

To Dirk Koetter and his staff: welcome aboard, and best of luck in carrying out your assignment of elevating Arizona State football to elite status in the Pac-10 Conference.

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