Canzano: Major Pac-12 upset fueled by... equipment-rental company?
ASU takes a victory lap.
Stanford has held a Pac-12 Conference stranglehold on the NCAA’s multi-year Academic Progress Rate rankings over the years. Once athletes get into Stanford, they tend to stay and perform well academically.
There was a major upset this week.
Said an athletic-department staffer at another Pac-12 institution: “This is the first time in the history of the measurement that Stanford had to write the news release on APR and they weren’t No. 1.”
The new No. 1 in the Pac-12?
Answer: Arizona State.
ASU’s athletic department has been clouded by controversy in the last year. An NCAA investigation into football recruiting violations surfaced in June 2021. Five assistant coaches either resigned or were fired since Jan. 1. Head coach Herm Edwards and athletic director Ray Anderson have been roundly criticized. The whole mess remains an off-field distraction.
I suspect that’s why ASU celebrated so hard on Tuesday when the NCAA released the APR findings. Arizona State’s football program finished No. 4 in APR among the Pac-12 universities. The men’s basketball program was No. 1 under coach Bobby Hurley.
It goes down as a major victory for the ASU athletic department. When the NCAA began releasing APR data in 2004, the Sun Devils were in dead last place. They rose to No. 9, then No. 7, then No. 6 in recent years. But they caught Stanford this year.
How did ASU do it?
An equipment-rental company, for one.
Mike and Cindy Watts, founders of Sunstate Equipment Company, made a $30 million donation to ASU in 2018. Neither of them attended ASU, or graduated from any college at all. The Watts family just lived in the region and liked what they saw at ASU.
As a family, they’ve now gifted ASU a total of more than $40 million over the years. A $2.5 million slice of their most recent donation was earmarked specifically for ASU’s office of student-athlete development.
ASU used the money to hire tutors and staff, built out the resource center and created a more-inviting place for athletes to study. Essentially, ASU committed a little funding to an academic culture change. It resulted in a win over Stanford.
Said one ASU athletic-department staffer on Tuesday: “We finally got them.”
FOOTBALL SMARTS: Academic Progress Rate (APR) is essentially the scorecard of academic achievement calculated for Division I sports teams. It measures eligibility, graduation and retention and provides a picture of the academic performance. All teams must meet an academic threshold of 930 to qualify for the postseason.
Here are the APR rankings for Pac-12 football programs:
Oregon State (973)
Washington State (959)
Head coaching changes can damage a program’s APR. It helps explain the low scores at Oregon, Washington State and Colorado. The “multi-year” APR is based on a four-year, rolling average. UCLA’s conference-low APR showing in football jumps out to me.
Chip Kelly was hired at UCLA in 2018. He had an avalanche of defections in his first two seasons. That’s what is dragging down the program’s APR. Meanwhile, Washington’s APR performance at the Pac-12’s No. 1 football program is amazing. The Huskies just went from Chris Petersen to Jimmy Lake to Kalen DeBoer in three years and still somehow edged Utah. We’ll keep an eye on that trend, but it’s remarkable, isn’t it?
MOVING ON: It’s been 14 months since Arizona fired men’s basketball coach Sean Miller. I sat down with Wildcats’ Athletic Director Dave Heeke on Tuesday and asked him about it.
Miller came under fire related to a series of alleged NCAA violations in 2017 and an FBI probe. The NCAA charged Miller with failing to promote compliance and unethical behavior by a former assistant coach, among other things. Arizona self imposed a postseason ban.
Ex-Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson was heard on an FBI wiretap telling a runner named Christian Dawkins that Miller paid players. The FBI also had a recording of Dawkins claiming that he and Miller discussed potential payments to former Arizona star Deandre Ayton.
It was messy in Tucson.
I asked Heeke, was firing Miller a no-brainer?
“There’s a human element to this,” Heeke said. “We’re trying to do the right things always. We’re trying to have our programs head in a positive direction. Sometimes you get to points where the best decision made for everyone — the best decision made for the program — is to make a change.
“It was hard to do in men’s basketball. All the other circumstances and issues around it made it very hard and complicated things, but we just thought it was the right time. We had do to that for our program.”
Heeke said his telephone blew up in the wake of the Miller firing, not with outrage but with everyone telling him who he ought to hire.
“You quickly find out that a lot of people you didn’t think knew your phone number, know your phone number,” Heeke said. “There’s a lot of passion around the program from fans, boosters, strong supporters of ours, the network of coaches and people who represent coaches. Any of these searches become incredibly wild.”
Heeke hired six new head coaches in a variety of Wildcats’ sports in the last year. He chose Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd for the Arizona men’s basketball position.
Lloyd went 33-4 in his first season and made the Sweet 16.
“We try to hire good people who surround themselves with good people who make good decisions,” Heeke said. “There are generally good outcomes when you do that.”
LITTLE LEAGUE: I spoke with Oregon women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves on Tuesday about a variety of topics. We eventually got talking about his time as a Little League coach years ago in Spokane.
Graves had a line of future Division I athletes in his lineup, including his own son. Mark Few’s son, AJ, was also on the team.
The clean-up hitter?
Former Cal linebacker Evan Weaver, who went 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds in college.
“He was that size as a 10-year old — just huge,” Graves said. “He just mashed the ball.”
Graves talked about the transfer portal, his program and why he thinks the WNBA would work in Portland. The interview is worth your time:
The radio show airs weekdays 3-6p PT in Portland on 750-AM. You can also catch it in Eugene (1050-AM), Klamath Falls (960-AM) and Roseburg (1490-AM) or stream it.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate all who have supported, subscribed and shared my new independent endeavor with friends and family in recent months. If you haven’t already — please consider subscribing.