When you hear Coach Todd Graham speak, you can’t help but smile. He has a rare combination of being relatable, tough yet compassionate, inspiring and just darn likable. And he is in Arizona to lead the Sun Devil football team to a winning season. What’s not to like?
But what makes this coach both engaging and a perfect fit for ASU is his outlook on education and what it means to be a student-athlete. “The vision behind ASU, President Crow’s vision, is very unique, very dynamic, and that’s exactly how our football program is,” says Graham. “We are not going to have a lower standard on anything. So when it comes to academics, it’s just like out here on this football field. It’s just like socially or in the community. We tell our athletes every day that we are after perfection and we will expect excellence. You know, that’s a Vince Lombardi quote, but that’s really what we believe and so that’s something that we think is very, very important.”
It’s easy to tell this belief is true with the passion he evokes when he speaks. It’s also evident in the life he has led. Raised by a single mother with an 8th grade education, three jobs and five kids, Graham saw her struggle. He knew education was the answer and became the second person in his family to graduate from high school and the first person to go to college. “Education has been the single most important factor in changing my life,” he says. “I was a two-time All-American safety in college, I played at all three levels: high school, college and a little pro football. But getting that degree and handing that degree to my mom is what changed my life.”
That feeling drives Graham in how he teaches and coaches his athletes. He identifies himself the most as a teacher. “Everybody I hire here as a coach, first and foremost, is a great teacher who wants to make a difference in young peoples’ lives,” he says. “That’s my background. I love teaching in the classroom as much as I love teaching on the field. I’ve been labeled as an offensive guru; I’ve been labeled a defensive-minded coach. You know, I would like to be labeled as a teacher.”
And for Graham, it is a job he knew he wanted from the seventh grade and one he considers a great “blessing.” “The great joy in coaching is teaching young men and taking guys in the prime of their life, strong, fierce competitors, and mold and teach them how to accomplish their goals,” says Graham. “And that’s in the field, off the field, in the classroom and in the community; it’s all of the above.”
Graham was especially drawn to the ASU community when deciding where to coach this year. “I call it a resort campus; it’s one of the nicest campuses I’ve ever been on,” he says. “The excellent academics coupled with such a tremendous community makes the student experience truly remarkable. It took me about one day to recruit my son to come here and it was largely the academics that we got excited about.”
Barrett College played into that excitement. “We’re in the process of really working hard to develop the students who come here. And Barrett College is the number one honors college in America. Nobody else that can say that,” says Graham. “We have a population of 56,000 students on four different campuses and online. It’s a very, very diverse and all-inclusive community.”
And it’s a community that ASU – and Graham – are dedicated to educating. “It’s very important that we educate them: we educate their mind, we educate their heart and we develop their character,” he says. “And they leave here with a diploma from Arizona State University.”
Yup, that’s life changing.
Hear more from Coach Graham on the importance of education: