ASU Football Embraces Villain Role Entering New Season

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ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham (Photo by Reece Andrews/Cronkite News)

By Bennett Silvyn

TEMPE – In the aftermath of an unforeseen self-imposed bowl ban slapped onto the Arizona State football program five days before the season opener, a distinctive cloud of unwonted energy hovered over the team. What was supposed to be a time of eagerness, excitement and anticipation for the new football season has instead evolved into confusion and fascination for fans, players and the program.

But all of that gets pushed aside tonight when the Sun Devils kickoff against Southern Utah at the newly-named Mountain America Stadium, a game that officially ushers in the Kenny Dillingham era.

“What I just told the team is nobody cares about your circumstances,” first-year coach Dillingham said. “In reality most people in life would rather see other people fail so they don’t have to work hard and actually work hard enough to beat them. So everybody looks at this and goes, ‘Oh great Arizona State is not going to be motivated anymore.’ That’s a win.”

The players welcome the chance to show ASU fans their ability to handle adversity and the emotional maturity of the revamped program.

“Ultimately our goal every week is to win the game we play, and I’m just worried about Southern Utah,” ASU defensive back Jordan Clark said. “That’s where we shifted our focus, nobody is going to feel bad for us, we’re not going to feel bad for us. We are ready to play football.”

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ASU has been under investigation by the NCAA since June 2021 for arranging payment of impermissible campus visits during the COVID-19 dead period under former coach Herm Edwards.

ASU athletic director Ray Anderson was a former agent of Edwards during his NFL career before bringing him on to coach ASU football in 2017, with Edwards’ last college coaching experience coming in 1989. Edwards quickly put his mark on the program by hiring his own staff, including former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce who would later be named to director of recruitment despite never having worked in college football.

Once the NCAA announced the investigation, many on the coaching staff were put on administrative leave, not including Edwards and Pierce for the 2021 season. Anderson fired Edwards last season after a 1-2 start that included an upset loss to Eastern Michigan at home. Nearly all Edwards’ assistants have been fired or resigned since the investigation began.

The announcement of the self-imposed ban came in the wake of an NCAA investigation into the University of Tennessee football program that led to an $8 million fine and enhanced recruiting penalties announced by the NCAA Committee on Infractions on July 14.

“The panel encountered a challenging set of circumstances related to prescribing penalties in this case,” the infractions committee said in its decision. “The panel urges the Infractions Process Committee and the membership to clearly define its philosophy regarding penalties – which extends beyond postseason bans – and memorialize that philosophy in an updated set of penalty guidelines.”

The NCAA Committee on Infractions also announced that it no longer wants to take away postseason competition 44 days before the announcement of ASU’s self-imposed ban.

ASU released a statement Tuesday providing reasoning for the decision, citing the precedent set by the Tennessee decision.

What followed was a whirlwind week that saw some players wondering about their future as Sun Devils and left many fans and boosters angered over the program’s direction. Now all eyes turn to the field where true freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada leads an emotionally healing ASU team against a Southern Utah squad that went 5-6 last season and features redshirt senior quarterback Justin Miller along with a trio of senior receivers. The Thunderbirds will be competing as inaugural members of the new United Athletic Conference

The Sun Devils’ new chapter – new coach, new stadium name, new postseason ban – comes with an upside.

“Jaden has done a really good job,” ASU tight end Jalin Conyers said. “Obviously he is young, so he is trying to grow, get through progressions and stuff like that. His arm talent is insane and he’s a baller. I’m ready for him to go out Thursday and show it.”

With what seems like a defining moment in the future of the program coming on the first game of the season, the added fire of no postseason play has led to a potential new theme for the 2023-24 season that fans can get behind.

“Ruin people’s seasons,” Conyers said.

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