Former athletic director Ray Anderson has come under fire for coaching hires for years, but the same can’t be said for the hiring of ASU soccer head coach Graham Winkworth.
Since taking over the helm in 2016, Winkworth has transformed the program into a reliable NCAA Tournament team with a bright future.
His coaching career started many years ago across the pond before coming stateside for his first gigs at Cumberland University and the University of Central Arkansas as an assistant coach.
Winkworth’s big break came when he took the helm at the University of North Alabama in 2003. He spent 10 seasons there to finish his tenure as the winningest coach in UNA history with a 111-81-8 overall record. He wrapped up his decade of coaching there on a good note by taking the program to four straight NCAA Division II Tournaments in his last few years.
After writing himself into the UNA history books, Winkworth’s next job was just down the road at the University of South Alabama. He took the new opportunity in 2012 to build the South Alabama program from the ground up.
South Alabama had only recorded one .500 winning percentage in the last five seasons before his arrival. Then, Winkworth changed the program’s direction and took the Jaguars to three NCAA Tournaments, three Sun Belt Tournament championships and back-to-back regular-season championships.
Some may have settled into that solid role, but Winkworth didn’t. Following the 2016 season, former ASU head coach Kevin Boyd left for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. ASU needed to fill Boyd’s void in the locker room and called on Winkworth.
He earned the ASU job thanks to Anderson, who was impressed by his track record of success. Anderson also cited Winkworth’s vision and recruiting as the main reasons he gave him the job.
Seven years later, Winkworth has built the ASU program into a consistent tournament team after a lackluster decade. Things didn’t start out easy for him in Tempe, though.
“It got three or four years to get to the level that we were looking for,” Winkworth said about the evolution of the program.
The Sun Devils finished 10th, 7th and 12th in the Pac-12 his first three seasons. Winkworth was initially plagued with massive roster turnover that left him without a reliable 11 to call on. He was forced to call on 23 different players in his first season, only scoring 19 goals.
The Sun Devils made a meteoric rise in the 2018 season to finish 7th in the conference, but slipped right back down the next year to finish at the bottom of the conference.
Winkworth’s tough start in Tempe was the worst of any ASU coach. However, all previous coaches inherited far better teams than Winkworth, who was given control of a group that finished in last place the year before. Winkworth said he still appreciates the efforts of his players back in 2017. He credits players like Kylie Minniefield for helping attract new recruits and leading the program to where it is today.
“If it wasn't for players like that building a strong foundation for this program, we would not have been able to attract the Nicole Douglas and Alexia Delgado to the program,” Winkworth said.
He capitalized on their good play to expand his recruiting efforts. He was initially able to bring in forward Douglas and midfielder Eva van Deursen before the 2018 season. Douglas would go on to score 60 goals as a Sun Devil, while van Deursen was the centerpiece of his midfield for five years.
Douglas and van Duersen are from England and the Netherlands, respectively. Winkworth has made a point to recruit some of his most vital players from Europe. Unlike some American coaches, he’s got the upper hand on the continent due to his English roots.
“In the recruiting process, he was probably one of the main reasons why I was so intrigued,” freshman defender from England, Emilie Simpson said. “Obviously being English, he understands where I'm coming from, and he knows the whole process back home.”
Winkworth takes advantage of tournaments to scout and recruit potential Sun Devils in Europe. Early in his tenure, he watched senior defender Lucy Johnson play for England at the UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship. He may recruit players to a college team at international tournaments but recognizes that he must let his athletes play for their country first to sign them.
“When I recruit them, I'm very open to that because they want to be able to play for their countries,” Winkworth said. “It's the biggest thing, and if we try to hide them away and take that honor away, then they don't want to come.”
His mentality of focusing on player development has made ASU a more desirable place to play. Simpson said he was easy to talk to in the recruiting process which made her interested in signing at ASU.
“He's a really genuine, nice guy,” Simpson said. “It's the way he showed passion for the program. He's so passionate about what he does. It really translates to all of us. I've played under loads of coaches, but I've never seen someone so passionate.”
His recruiting efforts boil down to his goal of creating a desirable culture for players. In past seasons, Winkworth focused on bonding and mental health efforts to ensure a healthy locker room environment. Those goals are cemented by a track record of prioritizing his players with gestures like a trip to Rocky Point in Mexico, with no soccer balls or training included.
Winkworth believes that it's important for the team to bond so they trust each other when something goes wrong. He’s coached vastly different players and teams throughout his career and knows athletes must trust their coaches. His culture has helped land recruits who want to play on a supportive squad.
Recruiting and culture has correlated with wins for Winkworth. As his culture’s built up, the Sun Devils have turned a corner in the past four seasons. ASU has qualified for three NCAA Tournaments in the last four years while posting a winning record each season.
This season, Winkworth led the Sun Devils to a 10-7-4 overall record and a fifth-place finish, tied with California, in the Pac-12. ASU’s schedule came to a heartbreaking conclusion, with four straight losses in regular season play before the team fell to Santa Clara in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Winkworth may not have finished the year how he wanted, but his team played beyond expectations after van Deursen and Douglas graduated. Their departures left a massive hole in the Sun Devils’ offense that had to be filled by far less experienced players like sophomore forward Enasia Colon and freshman forward Savannah Maley.
The lights have been turned off, and the pitch is empty; it’s time for ASU to focus on its first season in the Big 12. Conference realignment means no more UCLA and Stanford standing in their way. That may help the program’s chances in the Big 12, but Winkworth will still need to face off against top ranked opponents like Texas Tech and BYU on the regular.
His team does have a young core to rely on for a few seasons, but recruiting is always a top priority. Winkworth’s already worked on filling holes by welcoming a 2024 class with a forward and two midfielders and surely has his sights set on 2025.
ASU now has a long offseason ahead to train for yet another gauntlet of opponents. Winkworth has his players’ backs, and they have his. The Sun Devils are getting better and better throughout his tenure and can improve thanks to Winkworth’s caring coaching style that makes ASU the place to play.
“He cares so much for us, and he cares about so much about what he does,” Simpson said. “So it really comes through us and helped us be able to keep our promises.”
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Jasmine Kabiri and Shane Brennan