The argument over Arizona State’s place in the college football pecking order has been waged since I arrived in the Valley in 1993.
One camp believes ASU is a sleeping giant with the perfect recruiting attractions of weather, urban amenities, facilities, beautiful women and an enormous, untapped fan base. The other believes all those supposed advantages are mirages that vanish when viewed alongside other schools.
In my 11 years covering ASU, nobody -- fans, former players, administrators or journalists -- has added anything new to the argument. We just keep rehashing the same material in an endless split decision that never solves anything.
We understand that ASU can’t compete with Oregon’s facilities. We understand that ASU can’t compete with USC’s tradition. We understand that ASU can’t compete with Stanford and Cal’s academics. We understand that ASU must compete with four professional teams for the entertainment dollar, a rare reality for a market of this size.
We understand that ASU does not have the wealthy donor base that others schools do, and this is a major hurdle in the world of college athletics, where money comprises priorities No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Though it has undoubtedly improved, Arizona is still not a fertile recruiting ground for prep athletes, so ASU can not count on a steady of influx of local talent. And ASU’s student population (and the city overall) is transient and commuter in nature, eliminating the sense of community that exists at so many of those football powers -- the sense of community that draws students and alumni to games.
So what is the solution? Should an entire community throw up its hands and adopt a can’t-do attitude? Or should ASU football examine what it is and what it can be?
The latter approach is actually under way at ASU. President Michael Crow introduced the notion of The New American University -- one that embraces the existing strengths of this community and fosters a climate of inclusion, collaboration and innovation.
While much of this philosophy is already on display in the academic sectors at ASU, little of it has trickled down to intercollegiate athletics. To borrow ASU’s season-long slogan, it’s time that philosophy was fully implemented in the athletic department. It’s time for new ideas.
The rebranding of ASU athletics was a start, and anybody who terms it anything other than a major success is out of their mind. An 870 percent increase in merchandise sales does not lie. ASU can’t keep up that pace, but it can and should keep adding to its wardrobe, whether traditionalists like it or not.
It’s time to think outside the box. Don’t do what others are doing. Have those folks at Nike come up with something revolutionary on the uniform front. Get your Maryland on and incorporate the beautiful Arizona state flag. Yeah, we all thought Maryland’s uniforms were horrid, but answer this: When was the last time you talked about Maryland football before that jersey debuted?
Right. It’s about differentiating yourself in the marketplace. While ASU is at it, it should add a retro jersey from a bygone era. Or reinvent Sparky. Or rethink the notion of the football uniform altogether -- within NCAA limits, of course. Do something nobody else has done and the nation will pay attention, just like it did to that Smurf Turf up in Boise. Other than Pat Tillman, ASU has little tradition holding it back. That can be an advantage.
We have other ideas, too.
Improve the game-day experience: The in-stadium experience improved dramatically this season, and the swell in the student section was a direct result of a grassroots effort to get the word out. That experience will only get better when ASU raises the necessary funds to renovate Sun Devil Stadium.
It’s the experience outside the stadium that stinks. Of the 11 Pac-12 cities I have visited, ASU ranks 11th in atmosphere, and I’m pretty sure Boulder will drop it to dead last when I visit Colorado next fall. Put simply, there is no buzz.
Sure, it’s hot, but that problem can be solved with tents, cooling fans, dunk tanks and the like from corporate sponsorships. Fans with a shred of the toughness exhibited by Packer fans in December wouldn’t hurt either.
What ASU needs is a gathering place by the stadium. That flat parking lot right across the light-rail tracks would be perfect if the school can gain control if it, or maybe another nearby location. How about a giant lawn? It’s been a huge success for the Cardinals outside University of Phoenix Stadium, hot weather be damned.
More corporate relationships: Two years ago, Athlete Performance was a stone’s throw from campus. It’s the premier training facility in the country for professional athletes, and the list of NFL players who come through its current location in north Phoenix every summer to train is eye-popping. I know: I was there this summer during the league’s lockout.
ASU should rebuild that relationship and work through any potential NCAA restrictions. Then it should tell its recruits they can enjoy the most cutting-edge training techniques and facilities available to any college in the U.S. Train like the pros so you can one day become a pro. Think that slogan won’t sell?
More community outreach: Athletic director Lisa Love correctly noted the importance of this element in a new coach. He has to know every high school football coach in the state. He has to host more than clinics. He has to befriend them so that every talented local recruit who ever dreamed of playing at ASU will do just that.
ASU should forge relationships at every level, from Pop Warner to preps, and increase its visibility at events. If local kids stay home, they have a chance for greater exposure and the satisfaction of helping their own community. Nothing swells civic pride like a homegrown hero.
We don’t propose to have all the answers here. We’re not even sure these ideas will work. But the point is that there are ideas.
Crow started the website 10000solutions.org to address local and global issues. Why not do the same for ASU athletics? Solicit ideas and work to implement the best ones to solve this problem of perennial mediocrity.
Or just resign yourself to more 6-6 and 7-5 seasons.