The Arizona State football program always has relied on the Club Med approach to recruiting. Great weather, great facilities, beautiful women and plenty of exposure.
That was fine when Frank Kush ruled the roost and the Suns were the only other game in town.
But as the Valley marketplace has grown, and as the college football map has added new destinations, ASU has failed to keep pace, leaving the football program spinning its Nikes in a rut of inconsistency.
Since 1988, the year John Cooper left and the Cardinals arrived, ASU has posted a respectable 97-83 record. However, if you remove the 11-1 Rose Bowl campaign of 1996, the only statistical anomaly in that 16-season span, ASU is a mediocre 86-82.
Worse yet, the Sun Devils have advanced to just five bowl games and have won just one over that same period, placing them last in the Pac-10 in postseason success.
Fourth-year coach Dirk Koetter faces increased pressure this year after posting two losing seasons in his first three — the first time that has happened to an ASU football coach since Rudy Lavik did it from 1933-35.
But here’s the reality: ASU faces more obstacles to success now than at any other point in its 91-season history.
"You’ve got to have something to sell," said Cooper, who guided the program from 1985 to 1987 and won the Rose Bowl following the ’86 season. "Why should a kid leave San Diego or Los Angeles or Texas and go to Tempe, Arizona? What do you have better than what they have at USC, UCLA, Stanford or Texas? You don’t have better facilities, you don’t have better weather and you don’t have better academics."
There was a time when ASU could trumpet its facilities, beginning with Sun Devil Stadium. The 2003 renovation of the Carson Student-Athlete Center and a first-rate weight room have kept ASU moving forward.
But with Oregon State beginning a $93 million expansion of Reser Stadium, Nike’s Phil Knight donating $50 million to Oregon and both Washington and Washington State building, it is difficult for ASU to distinguish itself from other programs.
Add to that an estimated $1.2 million athletic budget deficit and a likely renovation of Sun Devil Stadium that won’t come until the end of the decade — at a minimum price tag of about $35 million — and some Devil backers wonder how ASU will find donors to foot the bills in this neverending arms race.
"They won’t do it unless they get winning teams," former Arizona Board of Regents member Rudy Campbell said. "If we’re at the bottom, then we’re not getting people financially. We’ve got to get out of the cellar."
It’s a conundrum that ASU athletics director Gene Smith has pondered before: How do you win when you can’t draw enough players, fans and donors; how do you draw players, fans and donors if you can’t win?
When Kush and Cooper coached, they had an advantage because the admission requirements at ASU were not as stringent. But, by joining the Pac-10 in 1978 and then, during Larry Marmie’s tenure as head coach, bending to conference pressure to increase academic standards, ASU lost a segment of its former recruiting base.
"We had some problems getting some kids in that basically were qualifiers at other schools," said Marmie, who was fired after the 1991 season. "The playing field was not level all the way."
The irony is that ASU does not have the academic reputation to attract players on the other end of the spectrum, leaving it with a shrinking middle class of studentathletes from which to choose.
Saguaro High School standout defensive end Loren Howard chose Northwestern over ASU while Tempe offensive lineman Allen Smith and Chaparral linebacker Udeme Udofia chose Stanford.
Compounding ASU’s struggles is the transformation of Phoenix from a college and Suns town into a full-fledged pro sports city. Since 1988, the Valley has added an NFL franchise (Cardinals), an NHL franchise (Coyotes) and a MLB franchise (Diamondbacks).
"Keeping that die-hard fan became harder and harder with all those options," said former assistant athletic director of corporate sales and marketing, Greg Walaitis, who is now the associate AD for development at Fresno State. "People move in and have no affiliation with this institution, so bridging that gap to those people is one of the most difficult things to do."
With so many other options available to its fans, ASU has experienced a steady loss in season-ticket holders and overall attendance, dropping from a high-water mark of 70,717, on average, in 1988, to a three-year low of 45,837 in 2002 (with better season ticket sales, attendance rebounded to 54,248 last season).
That hurts the program financially and practically because recruits want to see full stadiums.
Some insiders complain that ASU has lost touch with its community and its past — that there aren’t enough alumni on staff or involved with the program. Smith disagreed, listing a number of ASU grads within the athletic department, the continued involvement of Kush as a liaison to former players, and the presence of football alumnus Jeff Van Raaphorst for game broadcasts.
"I struggle with that perception. I really want to understand what that is because I think we’re doing everything possible," Smith said. "We inducted five outstanding Sun Devils into the Hall of Fame this year, our outreach program to former players is outstanding and we’ve talked to more alumni about joining our staff. Some of them just aren’t interested."
Even so, ASU does not have a star athlete from the past on its staff, and there are no football alumni on Koetter’s staff.
Tempe accountant John Brooking, founder of the nowdefunct Sun Devil Club, believes ASU has made other questionable decisions, such as folding the club and its 10,000 to 12,000 members into the Sun Angel Foundation during Kevin White’s administration.
"You had a lot of community involvement," Brooking said. "That involvement with that many people is important. They underestimated that."
Brooking said ASU isn’t tapping into the community enthusiasm that’s still there.
"We need to get the spark back," he said. "We need to get some ASU people involved. We need people who lived through it, believed it. Not that it can’t happen again, but that’s how major universities make it happen. Get people involved in the program. That’s when success comes."
Smith said there are areas where he believes the university and football program have failed.
"We have done a very poor job of retaining our studentathletes because we have made some mistakes in our evaluations of character," he said. "We sacrificed some things for talent and it has cost us."
As an example, Smith points to the losses of defensive linemen Nick Johnson and Ricky Parker, with whom ASU recently cut ties for disciplinary reasons.
"If we had those two guys here we wouldn’t be staring at a depth problem on our line," Smith said.
All of ASU’s recruits were ruled academically eligible this spring, as were all the returning players — a sign that Smith’s efforts with academic services have not been in vain.
But ASU’s problems run deeper than merely retaining student-athletes and upgrading the school’s questionable, national academic reputation through the efforts of university president Michael Crow.
Based on their performances, it is fair to question some of the school’s most recent coaching hires.
Following three successful seasons under Cooper, Marmie went 22-21-1 in four seasons.
Despite Bruce Snyder’s 58-47 record in nine seasons, he failed to capitalize on the Rose Bowl season of 1996, posting three mediocre seasons before he was fired in 2000.
And Koetter is 17-20, including a 2-11 mark in November and December, with both wins coming over Arizona.
Former senior associate athletic director Herman Frazier, now the AD at Hawaii, thinks coaching turnover is a major hurdle to a program’s success.
"Coaching turnover does not help because athletes feel they have to prove themselves all over again in a new system, and that takes away from continuity," said Frazier in an email interview from Athens where he is the chef de mission for the U.S. Olympic team. "Secondly, if you were not recruited by that person, it is tough to mesh personalities."
ASU has had seven head coaches in the past 25 years, including interim coach Bob Owens in 1979. But, in some cases the assistant coach turnover has been even greater.
"We’ve had three different cornerbacks coaches in the past four seasons," Smith said. "There’s no stability when you have that from a teaching point of view, and the same has been true of our offensive line."
Coaching turnover also has weakened the program’s presence in once strong recruiting areas. Put simply, coaches recruit territories where their assistant coaches are known, so when new staff members are brought in they have to start all over again, losing inroads in a market.
Programs such as USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State, Miami and Texas aren’t as affected by turnover because of their reputations and their locations within fertile recruiting states.
Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor for TheInsiders.com and publisher of SuperPrep Magazine, said Koetter has done a good job of keeping local talent at ASU. This past season ASU signed five of SuperPrep’s top 10 Arizona players, which compares well to other schools’ success rates.
However, Wallace added, Arizona is "definitely not in the top 15 in terms of talentproducing states."
While Arizona Interscholastic Association sports information director Barry Sollenberger points out that more than 100 Arizona high school players have gone on to the NFL since 1990, there is a feeling among some state observers that Arizona is in a drought when it comes to producing blue-chip prospects.
Of the homegrown talent recruited since Koetter came on board, only defensive end Kyle Caldwell and tight end Zach Miller seem capable of reaching the standard set forth by Terrell Suggs, Todd Heap, Shaun McDonald, Adam Archuleta, Levi Jones and others.
"The bottom line is that we have not put a product on the field that people have chosen to invest in, whether it’s fans, donors or players," Smith said. "But in my view we still have a base of unbelievably loyal fans.
"We just have to be smart with who we recruit, we have to continue to build our academic reputation and we have to keep connecting with our fans. Those are the things that are totally within our control, and then it just comes down to winning."
Since 1988, the year the Arizona Cardinals arrived in Tempe, Arizona State has made five bowl appearances, winning just one of those. Oregon State is the only Pac-10 team with fewer bowl appearances over that period, and no Pac-10 team has fewer bowl wins.