Chris Jenkins

It’s Not Yet Time to Start Worrying About the Character of Graham’s Football Program


With the news breaking today that Ismael Murphy-Richardson was arrested and dismissed from the ASU football program in connection with the burglaries that involved Jayme Otomewo and Deonte Reynolds, a lot of folks are expressing concern about the team’s recent rash of disciplinary issues. Murphy-Richardson is the fifth Sun Devil football player to be arrested since April of 2015, and the fourth to be dismissed from the program (George Lea was suspended for the 2015 season, but remained on the team).

On social media and message boards, there have been suggestions that the string of arrests is a sign of bigger problems within the program, and that Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham may be guilty of not being as concerned with character as he claims to be, recruiting players with questionable character and not running as tight of a ship as he lets on. Are these valid concerns? Should ASU fans start worrying about the direction of the program?

In my view, not yet. Let me be clear that I am very disappointed in the behavior of these players. I believe Coach Graham’s focus on character has been a big positive for the program up until this year, and the recent arrests are a setback for its image. However, I’m not ready to blame Graham for these events or label him a hypocrite.Todd Graham

First off, none of the players who have been in legal trouble over the last year had any history of this before arriving at ASU. While some character flaws can be identified during the recruitment process, it’s unreasonable to expect that coaches be able to weed out all the bad apples. To this point, there is no trend or pattern of Coach Graham recruiting players with known histories of bad behavior.

Also, in the three years prior to 2015, ASU had only 3 players arrested – Junior Onyeali and Andres Garcia were arrested in the spring of 2013 in separate incidents, and Demetrius Cherry was arrested for DUI during the 2014 season. For a three-year stretch, this is a pretty low number – this article would suggest that one arrest per year is well below average (the worst teams had about 30 players arrested over a five year stretch, or six per year). Additionally, although I could not find any data on how many of his players were arrested during Graham’s Tulsa tenure, it was widely believed that his reputation for running a clean program was a large factor in his hiring at Pitt, a program that reportedly had 22 players arrested in 2010, and whose coach that was hired in December 2010, Mike Haywood, was arrested soon after his hiring and immediately dismissed. All of this is a strong indication that the five recent arrests are outliers, and that this is not something that has previously been a problem on Todd Graham-coached teams.

Lastly, under Graham, the punishments doled out on players who have been arrested indicates that he is serious about discipline. The three most recent arrested players were dismissed soon after the arrests were reported, Lea was suspended for one year, Durant left the program (it’s unclear what exactly his punishment would have been, but he seems to have transferred because he wasn’t going to be able to play in 2015), Cherry faced a one game suspension (pretty standard in college football for DUI), and Garcia was immediately dismissed upon his arrest. The only exception appears to be Onyeali, who doesn’t appear to have been suspended after his arrest. He was suspended for several months prior to his arrest, and ultimately left the team after he was injured during the 2013 season. Also, there was some talk after Otomewo and Reynolds were dismissed that Graham was willing to discipline them so harshly solely because they were players who were not in the two-deep. Murphy-Richardson’s dismissal, however, disproves this notion, as he did see significant playing time in 2015 and was expected to compete for the starting devilbacker position in 2016.

Again, I believe that worries about the overall direction of the program are premature at this point, and that claims that Todd Graham’s “character” talk is two-faced or insincere are unfounded. Coaches cannot be expected control their players’ behavior 24/7; what they can be expected to do is make a good-faith effort to avoid bringing trouble-makers into the program, and when players do screw up, deal with it appropriately. Todd Graham has done both. I am willing, however, to change my position if ASU continues to have players arrested at a high rate – I don’t believe this will be the case, though.

About Chris Jenkins

Chris Jenkins

Chris is a long time Sun Devil fan who has had season tickets for 20+ years. He graduated from Arizona State University in 2004 with a degree in economics, and later returned to get his master’s degree in accounting, the field in which he currently works. His football passion is analysis of schemes and stats, and his football experience includes being the backup quarterback of his high school football team, and a moderately successful 1-year stint as the offensive coordinator of his little brother’s Pop Warner team. He currently resides in Goodyear, AZ with his wife and 4 children.

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  1. 13PhotoDevil


    January 7, 2016 at 9:39 PM

    While these players had no prior indications of causing problems, the handful of recent problems can not be ignored. These players are all Graham recruited kids that have been in his program hearing about his discipline approach.

    Perhaps some of the players have begun to tune out their coaches or grown weary of such a discipline approach. With new coaches coming in, and Graham taking such a hard line approach, I think these current issues will be the outlier you speak of. I fully expect to see a much more focused and Graham like team in the coming seaskn.

    • Chris Jenkins

      Chris Jenkins

      January 8, 2016 at 6:33 AM

      I think it's possible (even probable) that there are some kids that are not buying into Graham's disciplinary approach. On a team of 100, there's bound to be a handful. You just hope that the fear of punishment keeps those few who have not bought in in line, and that Graham isn't being so hardline that the ranks of those who aren't buying in grow into some unmanageable number. If there continues to be a high number of arrests, we can start to entertain the possibility that Graham is mishandling the discipline situation. As of now, however, this year appears to be an outlier, like you said. There are too many indications that the team as a whole has bought into Graham's approach (on-field discipline, academic performance, community service, etc.) to assume otherwise at this point.

  2. DevilsDenRob


    January 8, 2016 at 1:24 AM

    Most coaches talk about the importance of instilling discipline in the ranks when they take over a new program. As Chris eludes here, Graham was brought in to clean up Pitt after the program ran into the ground due to disciplinary issues both on the field and off under Wannstedt. And he took over a Sun Devil team that had five arrests in a year and a half time period before Erickson coached his final season.

    You can't argue Graham's success in cleaning up penalties with this team (tops in the conference in each of his four seasons) and improving in the classroom (43 players received academic honors in 2015). But these arrests seem to have come at a bad time while the program as a whole is facing some major questions for the first time since Graham took over back in December of '11.

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