A new rivalry era begins Friday night.
The last time Arizona and Arizona State had new coaches in the rivalry game was 2001. John Mackovic’s Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils of Dirk Koetter, 34-21 in Tempe.
But the past decade-plus hasn’t been particularly kind to either school, which is why each program had to press the reset button last season.
Arizona jettisoned Mike Stoops and brought in Rich Rodriguez, trying to climb back among the nation’s elite coaches after a failed tenure at Michigan. Arizona State sent off Dennis Erickson and imported Todd Graham after his one season at Pitt.
Whatever their histories, it’s history. Their Territorial Cup story begins now.
“There’s going to be a lot of intensity,” Rodriguez said. “This shouldn’t be a game where I have to do all of the motivational tactics to get guys excited.”
Both coaches took the low-key public tact this week, their diplomacy glossing over nearly two decades of history between Rodriguez and Graham.
They first met on the field in the 1993 NAIA championship game. Rodriguez, the head coach at Glenville State in West Virginia, took his team to play at East Central (Okla.), whose defensive coordinator was Graham.
Graham’s team won 49-35 but he loved Rodriguez’s offensive innovation — the no-huddle, read-option spread offense. That offense has been, at least in part, the inspiration for every offense Graham as run as a head coach — from Allen (Texas) High, to Rice, to Tulsa, to Pitt, to ASU.
Rodriguez hired Graham for his first West Virginia coaching staff in 2001.
“I knew him from the recruiting trail and a little bit from the coaching standpoint,” Rodriguez said. “When I hired him, I was starting something new at West Virginia. He did a good job, and after two years he moved on.”
(Interestingly, Graham’s coaching bios at his other college stops mentions his work under Rodriguez, but Arizona State has scrubbed mention of Rodriguez from his current bio.)
Rodriguez’s first staff at West Virginia also included Calvin Magee as running backs coach. Magee was one of three assistants who were with Graham at Pitt last season who left to rejoin Rodriguez at Arizona. The others were safeties coach Tony Gibson and receivers coach Tony Dews.
Graham reportedly called them “mercenaries” … before he bolted Pitt a couple of weeks later for ASU.
Magee wanted no part of questions about Graham this week.
“I worked with Coach Graham one year,” Magee said. “Enough said.”
So, will this game get personal?
“Being a rivalry, I think the rivalry makes it personal in some regards,” Rodriguez said, before taking a light-hearted approach.
“But I’m not playing. I’ve been training in case they allow me to play. If they change the rules and allow me and Todd to go at it one-on-one, I’ll try to be ready for that.”
Graham said the rivalry “is much bigger than any individual or any person or anything.”
“It is my job to put our guys in a position to win every week,” he added. “Obviously, that is a challenge every week, especially in a rivalry game like this. You don’t want to beat yourself by being too emotionally involved.”
Fans on each side of the rivalry can hope the coaching changes elevate the rivalry beyond a regional desert duel. The game hasn’t meant much nationally since Dick Tomey and Bruce Snyder were coaching. Arizona and Arizona State haven’t each finished with winning records since the 1997 season.
That would happen this year if ASU (6-5 overall, 4-4 Pac-12) beats Arizona (7-4, 4-4). It could also happen if UA wins, and the Devils go on to win their bowl game.
Each coach has done a fine job of “changing the culture” — usually the initial task of somebody who follows a fired coach. But only one can hold the Territorial Cup late Friday night.
Welcome to the new era.