ASU hiring Kenny Dillingham as its head football coach is exactly the kind of move the University should have made years ago. Dillingham, a young leader with local roots, has exactly what it takes to become a great head coach at ASU, the first great head coach the University will have had in a long time.
To start out, I know what you're thinking. When I listed the "obvious" candidates for ASU's next head football coach, Dillingham didn't make the cut. I saw your emails, your comments and your messages. My bad!
At the time, my reasoning went that Shaun Aguano and Danny Gonzales had more recently coached at ASU. Jonathan Smith, Justin Wilcox and Kalani Sitake had previous college head coaching experience that Dillingham did not. But, nonetheless, Dillingham should have been on the list.
Dillingham is replacing Herm Edwards, and one of the biggest separating factors between the two is age — Dillingham is 32 years old, while Edwards is 68.
Dillingham is more dynamic, while Edwards fits into the classic mold of a football coach.
"You really do need somebody who is willing and able not only to keep up with all of the changes, but really embrace all those changes, and I get the sense Herm Edwards and his staff was reluctant to adjust to the current state and the future state of college football," said Sarah Kezele, a voice on Bickley & Marotta Mornings on Arizona Sports radio.
Local roots for a head coach are crucial, and Dillingham has those roots when Edwards never did. Dillingham grew up playing football at Chaparral High in Scottsdale before becoming an offensive assistant at ASU in 2014-15. He recently had a conference call with dozens of high school coaches in Arizona.
He went on to assist and coach at Memphis from 2016 to 2018. Importantly, Dillingham recruited well at Memphis; he was named the 2017 No. 2 recruiter in the American Athletic Conference by 247Sports.
That kind of recruiting talent is sorely needed at ASU, as the University has struggled in that department. The 2023 ASU recruiting class includes no Arizona players. ASU is supposed to be the best University in Arizona to play football (or at least, it should be). Hopefully, Dillingham can make that statement ring true by bringing in the state's best recruits.
"If you want to score points, if you want to get the football, if you want to go up and down the field, if you want to (have) your play on SportsCenter, this is a great place for you," Dillingham said in his introductory press conference Sunday. "On the defensive side of the ball, we're going to attack. If you like sacks, if you like (tackles for loss), if you like playing man-to-man coverage to put on tape for NFL teams that you can play man-to-man coverage, you're going to want to come here because that's what we're going to do. Everything about this program is going to be attacking."
However, local roots and recruiting chops aren't the only necessary assets to win games – Dillingham needs to be a good offensive coach and know how to lead a team. Luckily for the Sun Devils, Dillingham has those skill sets.
Through his time as an offensive coordinator at Memphis, Auburn, Florida State and Oregon, Dillingham led high-scoring, prolific offenses. His 2018 Memphis squad set a school record for rushing yards in a season, and at Auburn and Oregon, his teams averaged 33.2 and 39.7 points, respectively.
In terms of Dillingham's ability to lead a team, there seems to be little doubt: He is a natural leader.
"This is literally home," Dillingham said Sunday. "I say that because this place is special. The people in this room are special. ... I'm going to be fired up to be here, fired up to be a Sun Devil. What this place needs to be successful, we need the entire Valley to come together. When you talk about a person and family that's rooted here, that's me."
Outside of being an offensive wizard and his leadership ability, Dillingham also worked as a quarterbacks coach at Memphis, Auburn and Florida State. Most notably, he coached Bo Nix at Auburn and Oregon, who has developed into one of the top quarterbacks in the country and is already a potential 2023 NFL Draft pick.
ASU could use a long-term quarterback, especially after Jayden Daniels transferred to LSU. It doesn't help Sun Devil fans to see Daniels shining at LSU in a way he never really did at ASU. The task is tall, but if Dillingham can find a quarterback and create a winner out of him, that would do a lot for ASU to stay afloat in the high-scoring Pac-12.
Yet, there are questions to be had with Dillingham. He has never been a head coach at the college level — will the learning curve be handled quickly enough by Dillingham to satisfy University leaders? How will his team look outside of the offensive side of the ball? Dillingham will need a strong defense in order to climb to the top of the Pac-12.
He also has a lack of play-calling experience. His one season at Oregon is the only time he has called plays at the collegiate level. Of course, it's not a guarantee he will be calling the plays at ASU, but if he does, it is something to keep an eye on.
Even with those concerns, Dillingham is clearly the best hire ASU football has made in a long while. If he can answer the few questions that remain about him and bring the team to success within a few years, it's likely Dillingham will be in Tempe for the long term.
Edited by Sadie Buggle, David Rodish, Piper Hansen and Grace Copperthite.
Editor's note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.
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Aaron Stigile is an opinion columnist at The State Press. He previously wrote for The Defiant Movement and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication. He is also working toward a minor in Spanish and a certificate in Cross-Sector Leadership.