TEMPE, Ariz. — Kenny Dillingham has had plenty of time to think. Never mind that, at age 32, he is the youngest FBS head coach. Never mind that his recruiting philosophy resembles that of a teenager who has been given a Corvette for his birthday.
The only certainty? In both cases, things will go fast.
Time is relative when you’re willing to wait. To Dillingham — this Phoenix native, this valley of the son of the desert — becoming Arizona State’s next coach is a destiny fulfilled.
“I gave that [acceptance] speech every day in my car for the Arizona State job for 13 years to and from the office,” Dillingham told CBS Sports. “I’d be pulling up to a light talking to myself. People would be looking at me. They’d think I was crazy.”
There is definitely a little bit of crazy in ASU’s transition. It traded in a 68-year-old embattled coach who is the subject of an NCAA investigation (Herm Edwards) for a Sun Devil for life (ASU Class of 2012). Arizona State may have lost 36 net years of experience, but that’s kind of the point.
ASU needs a little bit of crazy infused by Dillingham’s youth. He bopped into a recent interview sporting a strained calf, courtesy of a pick-up basketball game. The finalization of this week’s late-period recruiting class could include as many as 27 transfers. That’s not counting gaining the commitment of blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada on National Signing Day.
“I’m home,” Dillingham said at that introductory press conference.
Then, he cried. This is a kid — we can call him that — who has heard all the sleeping-giant stuff. By-gosh, he’s ready to activate it.
This week, as the Class of 2023 wraps up with National Signing Day, Dillingham is zeroing in on those 27 transfers. That would be a record in the short history of the transfer portal, which first opened in October 2018.
Those ASU transfers project to be part of an incoming class that could grow to as large as 40 members. That comes more out of necessity that some sort of imitation of Lincoln Riley at USC.
When Dillingham arrived, there were a record-low 47 returning scholarship players on the roster, according to 247sports. Seven of those were former walk-ons. (For this recruiting period, the NCAA is allowing unlimited signees as long as programs adhere to the 85 total scholarship limit.)
“This isn’t just, ‘Hey, scrap the team,’ and ‘screw the team,'” Dillingham clarified. “This is how we had to field the team.”
Among the players expected to make immediate impacts are Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne, UNLV center Leif Fautanu and Texas defensive end Prince Dorbah.
“It’s not flipping a roster; we’re filling it,” Dillingham continued. “The hardest part is there are really talented kids that go in the portal that don’t fit your culture. We probably said ‘no’ to four or five kids who are about to play Pac-12 football because they culturally they didn’t fit what we’re trying to build.”
Dillingham may have gotten here sooner than expected because Edwards’ off-script hire and the adoption of the NFL model was — in the end — an abject failure. Dillingham knows the town, the campus, the university and the future.
He also knows himself. Playing football wasn’t an option when Dillingham blew out his ACL at 17. He began helping with the junior varsity team and became an offensive coordinator at 21 (nearby Chaparral High School). A year later, in 2014, he was an analyst for Todd Graham at Arizona State.
Dillingham considers himself a key influence for what should be two top-five Heisman Trophy favorites to begin the 2023 season: Oregon’s Bo Nix and Florida State’s Jordan Travis.
He comes to Tempe after leading Nix to a breakout season at Oregon. He talks to Travis’ parents each week from his time at FSU.
“We obviously went there, and it was a rebuild,” Dillingham said of the Seminoles. “I watched Mike Norvell navigate it and flip a roster in terms of character and no guarantees.”
Dillingham sees things that the last regime — and a large swatch of college football — do not. As an analyst earlier in his career, he drew up a play on the white board one night and forgot to erase it. Then-offensive coordinator Norvell saw it the next morning and began asking questions.
“I’m like, ‘Oh crap, I shouldn’t have put it on the board. I’m in trouble,'” Dillingham recalled.
But Norvell liked the blocking scheme for the RPO that Dillingham had drawn up.
“That was the first time I really gave an opinion and then slowly [coach] said, ‘What do you think about this now?’ … That was the first piece of [people thinking], ‘OK, maybe he’s probably not just going to talk a lot. Maybe I should ask his opinion.'”
So, perhaps at this tender age, Dillingham isn’t so inexperienced. He has already been an offensive coordinator at four FBS programs (Memphis, Florida State, Auburn, Oregon). There is an ongoing group chat of Dillingham’s former QBs supervised by the coach.
And he remembers. Oh, he remembers. After calling Travis a top-25 quarterback before last season, Dillingham saved the receipts. The critics who lashed out on social media got called out. Dillingham retweeted their criticisms as Travis led the ‘Noles to their first 10-win season since 2016.
“I’m so used to the narrative of, ‘Oh, he’s young,'” Dillingham said, winding up again. “The best thing last year would be everyone would recruit against me and they’d just spill lies. ‘Oh, he’s never called plays. You [don’t] want to go put your career in the hands of a guy who hasn’t called plays.’
“Now, the whole thing is, ‘Oh, he’s never been a head coach. You’re going to put your life in the hands of him.’ I’ve always been the youngest. I’m used to it.”
The youngest head coach in FBS since at least 2018 (Sean Lewis, Kent State) isn’t going to sit still for it.
The end for Edwards played out laboriously. With an NCAA investigation swirling since June 2021, the Sun Devils finished 103rd a year ago in the 247Sports Composite team rankings for the Class of 2022. What followed was predictable. Edwards left by “mutual decision,” and Arizona State finished 3-9.
“They stopped recruiting,” Dillingham said incredulously. “I don’t know why. Stopped everything.”
On this day, Dillingham continues to bounce off the walls, figuratively. There is work to be done in the nation’s No. 11 market. Phoenix has all the major sports, but …
“There’s only one of us,” the coach said.
Dillingham is the embodiment of the big question for any program in the future Pac-12. With the loss of USC and UCLA, why can’t we compete for a College Football Playoff spot? Yes, it’s come to that with an expanded 12-team playoff.
The Pac-12 champion will all but be guaranteed a bid.
“I love marketing,” Dillingham said, “I think marketing is creativity. Marketing is: How can you be cutting edge? You look at what Lane Kiffin has done [at Ole Miss]. He’s an elite marketer.
“We’re marketing. We’re going to have more fun than anybody in the country.”