The Arizona Republic
A CHANCE TO TURN IT AROUND
Why Dillingham has what it takes to change ASU
Scottsdale Saguaro football coach Jason Mohns believes in Kenny Dillingham, and that’s a pretty good sign.
Arizona State hired Dillingham, the Oregon offensive coordinator, to take over a beleaguered program that aspires to play with the big boys on New Year’s Day.
Mohns, who leads one of the best high school programs in the nation, thinks his buddy has as good of a chance as anyone to make it work, even if he’s going to be the youngest coach in major college football at just 32 years old.
“First and foremost,” Mohns said in a phone interview with The Arizona Republic, “he’s a well-respected coach around the area. Local high school coaches like myself are very familiar with him.”
That’s going to pay dividends in recruiting a state that has a national profile thanks to a booming population, good weather for year-round skills camps and a glut of retired athletes raising families here.
How much differently would the Sun Devils have looked in recent years if Valley guys like Kyle Allen, Christian Kirk, Byron Murphy, Andrus Peat and Austin Jackson had decided to stay home?
“When it comes to keeping Arizona kids at home,” Mohns said, “I think that having a young head coach that understands the modern era of college football with (player endorsement deals) and the transfer portal … I think it’s a huge advantage. And he really understands the Valley and high school football here, the level of talent and the level of coaching and how much it’s grown. I think an Arizona guy that understands the landscape can come in and have a lot of success with that.”
Dillingham’s rapid rise is no fluke, Mohns said. Neither is it a case of nepotism or luck.
“He’s had the success that he’s had not just because he’s a good football coach, but because he’s a good person,” Mohns said. “He really understands how to connect with people. I think he’s been
very authentic to himself as far as who he is. He hasn’t tried to change.
“He hasn’t tried to be something different from who he’s always been. … The reason why he’s climbed the ranks isn’t because he played NFL or was college roommates with somebody who got a good job and they brought him along; everything that he has, he’s made for himself. He’s made it just by working hard and being who he is.”
Mohns would know, he and Dillingham met about 10 years ago, coaching the Scottsdale Argonauts youth program. Even back then, it was clear there was something different about Dillingham.
“He was pretty young at that time, but he was wise beyond his years and climbed the ladder really quickly.”
Mohns described Dillingham as “a football coaching junkie” who is “gonna outwork everybody. He’s very, very intelligent. He’s got a head for the game, and he sees things differently than most. He was an impressive coach back then and, obviously, his career has blossomed.”
Dillingham was a graduate assistant at ASU in 2014, when the program won 10 games under Todd Graham.
He was at Memphis in 2017, as the Tigers cracked the AP top-25 and finished with a 10-win season.
He was at Auburn in 2019, helping the program grind to nine wins in the SEC, including a victory over perennial powerhouse Alabama. Dillingham’s offense put up 48 points over the vaunted Tide in the Iron Bowl.
He was at Florida State in 2021, helping mentor Mike Norvell revive the program. (Dillingham was on Norvell’s staff at Arizona State.)
And this year he was at Oregon, leading the Ducks to nearly 40 points and more than 500 yards of total offense per game.
It might take time to get the Sun Devils through the h-e-double-hockey-sticks they find themselves in at the present.
ASU managed just three wins this year, and an NCAA investigation that’s been hovering since the pandemic has yet to conclude.
Dillingham needs to put together a coaching staff, finalize a recruiting class, keep guys from transferring out of Tempe and figure out where to park. Dillingham’s hire is a long-term play.
Mohns thinks Dillingham is fully aware of the challenges.
“It’s not going to be an overnight fix,” Mohns said. “Whoever comes in here is going to have to rebuild relationships with high school coaches, build trust, build relationships with the kids coming up and with the parents.
“You don’t just step in and sign a great class of seniors. Most of these kids have been recruited by the schools that they’re committed to for the last two, three, even four years. … But if you’re willing to come in and build relationships, and then you win some games and get people excited about the Sun Devils, then kids are gonna want to be a part of that.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, but I think he has the right dynamic to do that and do it maybe more quickly than others could.”