TEMPE, Ariz. — Nearly two decades have passed since Mike Gundy was named head coach at Oklahoma State, where he once had set school passing records as a hotshot quarterback. On the day of his hire, the 37-year-old called the promotion from offensive coordinator his “New York Yankees job,’’ adding that he was so fired up he couldn’t stand it.
This story sounds familiar here in the desert.
Kenny Dillingham didn’t play at Arizona State — a knee injury cut short his football career in high school — but he graduated from the Pac-12 school. He got his coaching start there as an offensive assistant. And like Gundy, when last November he was hired as head coach of the Sun Devils, Dillingham made it clear that he was stepping into his dream job.
A before-and-after picture came into focus Saturday night at Mountain America Stadium. Over the last 19 years, Gundy has become synonymous with his alma mater, leading the Cowboys to 17 consecutive bowl games. Dillingham is trying to build something similar with the Sun Devils.
The latter had a chance to post his first major victory Saturday, taking a five-point lead into the second half, but Oklahoma State stopped the Sun Devils on a questionable fourth-down decision late in the second half and left with a 27-15 win. With Arizona State jumping to the Big 12 next season, its next matchup against the Cowboys will have conference implications.
Gundy, 56, and Dillingham, 33, had talked on the field before Saturday’s kickoff, the temperature still a suffocating 104 degrees. Of the 10 Power 5 head coaches leading their alma maters, no one has been in place longer than Gundy. If anyone knows what this experience is like, it’s him.
“If those guys ask me for advice, I tell them what my core values are, which is, you got here for a reason,” Gundy said. “This is what you believe in. Do what you believe in.”
Gundy had followed Dillingham’s career, but because of Dillingham’s youth, he didn’t know a ton about him. He did, though, understand what Dillingham was experiencing at Arizona State because he had lived the same thing in Stillwater.
“He talked about how his first year he had a losing record,” Dillingham said. “Then he won seven games, two of his lower-winning seasons in his career, for two seasons. And then it clicked in Year 4 with his culture.”
“It does take a little time,” said Gundy, mentioning his first season in which he started 3-0 but finished 4-7. “My first year was ugly. It was ugly. I had to change a lot of the roster and try to figure out who we were. I wasn’t any good at what I was doing as head coach. And it was a mess. (But) then you start to figure it out a little bit.”
Dillingham’s situation might be more challenging. With the football program under NCAA investigation for alleged recruiting violations, the university self-imposed a postseason ban days before the season opener. Like Gundy his first season, Dillingham still is trying to establish a culture and identity. How long this will take is anyone’s guess, but the Sun Devils (1-1) are off to a shaky start. After beating Southern Utah, 24-21, in Week 1, they were shut out in Saturday’s second half.
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A key moment: Trailing 20-15 with six minutes left, Dillingham decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the ASU 33-yard line with six minutes remaining.
The Sun Devils already were 0-2 on fourth-down conversions. But anyone who last season watched Oregon, where Dillingham worked as offensive coordinator under Dan Lanning, knew Dillingham wouldn’t hesitate in these situations. In a win last season over UCLA, the aggressiveness contributed to a Ducks victory. In a loss to rival Oregon State, it contributed to a loss. Overall, Oregon’s 32 fourth-down attempts led the Pac-12.
One thing Dillingham did not anticipate: Oklahoma State had focused on this all offseason. The Cowboys had ranked 75th nationally last season in fourth-down defense. With the emphasis on analytics, Gundy knew teams across the country would go for it even more. And he knew the Cowboys needed to improve.
“We worked on fourth downs more than anybody in the country in spring and August,” said Gundy, before slightly correcting himself. “I’m going to guess we did.”
Dillingham said college teams convert fourth-and-1 situations 75 percent of the time. In the fourth quarter, he felt like the Sun Devils had a solid plan. But in this case, Arizona State quarterback Jaden Rashada threw a short pass to running back Cam Skattebo that fell incomplete. Oklahoma State took possession and scored six plays later for a 27-15 lead.
Arizona State finished 1 of 5 on fourth downs.
“That’s the story of the game,” Dillingham said.
In a sense, the Arizona State coach had followed Gundy’s advice. He did what he believed in. He stayed aggressive. This time it didn’t work out. Maybe next time it will. Or maybe Dillingham will alter his approach. A young head coach has no choice but to learn as he goes, one week to the next.
On the 2005 day he was introduced at Oklahoma State, Gundy sat at a news conference with 3-year-old son Gunnar. Gundy wore a black suit and orange tie. Sitting on his father’s lap, Gunnar wore a gray and orange shirt. How fast does time move: Against Arizona State on Saturday, Gunnar, a redshirt-sophomore, rotated in at quarterback. He completed 5 of 7 for 32 yards and a touchdown.
That brings us to one last piece of advice Gundy gave Dillingham on the field. After welcoming Arizona State to the Big 12, he told the Sun Devils coach, who has a young son named Kent, to remember to make time for what’s important.
“Make sure you go to your kids’ events,” Gundy said, according to Dillingham. “That’s what this is about. That’s the balance you need if you want to do this for a long time.”
He would know.
Arizona State has a strange dynamic that isn’t going away anytime soon
(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)