32-year-old Kenny Dillingham has a plan to make Arizona State a power

TEMPE, Ariz. — Wearing a Jake Plummer jersey on his back and Arizona State paint on his face, Kenny Dillingham attended his first Sun Devil football game.

It was Sept. 21, 1996. He was 6.

ASU won that day, a 19-0 stunner over then No. 1 Nebraska. The stadium was packed; the team headed to an 11-1, Rose Bowl season, one of the greatest in school history. It wasn’t long after that, Dillingham started telling people what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Head football coach at Arizona State.

“This was always the plan,” Dillingham said last week, sitting in a spacious office inside the Sun Devils’ plush football offices.

He’s 32.

You could say this all came together quickly — Dillingham will be the youngest FBS coach in the country next year. Or you could say it was a tad slow — for a while his stated goal was to get the job by age … 30.

Actually, this feels more like right on time. A place with immense possibilities but scattered results has tried just about everything else. Since 2001, Dirk Koetter, Dennis Erickson, Todd Graham and Herm Edwards arrived with acclaim and a track record of success. None were quite able to harness the potential.

So why not go with a guy with excessive energy and a drive not just to coach, but to coach Arizona State? And despite his youth, he’s already been a highly regarded offensive coordinator in the SEC, ACC and Pac-12.

Dillingham attended Chaparral High School, a local power. When a knee injury ended his playing career, the then senior began his coaching career by working the junior varsity. “The kids were 15, 16,” Dillingham said. “And I’m 17.”

A year later he enrolled at Arizona State but kept coaching Chaparral, progressing to offensive coordinator at 21. He later spent two years on the staff at ASU (2014-15), then three at Memphis, where he became the offensive coordinator at age 27. He followed that with OC stops at Auburn, Florida State and, last year, Oregon.

“I’ve been prepping for this,” Dillingham said. “I was always doing the job I had, but also preparing for the job I wanted. I've always been the dude who asked too many questions.

“I knew the whole time that I wanted to be the head coach here.”

Arizona State's new football head coach Kenny Dillingham his son and wife Briana, right, attend the Sun Devils' NCAA college basketball game against Arizona, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Arizona State's new football head coach Kenny Dillingham his son and wife Briana, right, attend the Sun Devils' NCAA college basketball game against Arizona, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

And so he arrives with a full understanding of what the place has — location, campus, weather, commitment, conference.

“We are the fifth-biggest metropolitan area in the country, with one major university in a city that is a top-five growing city in the country in a place where people come to retire,” Dillingham said, in almost rapid fire. “We are the second largest university in the country that can create connections for you down the road.

“Why not come here?” he continued. “You can live here the rest of your life, make connections for the rest of your life, live in a place you want to live, have an unbelievable college experience and have the second largest network in the country.”

That’s the sales pitch, beyond coming to a program with a young, fun staff and a high-octane environment with a “pro-style offense that plays fast and puts playmakers in space.” It was enough to land 27 transfers and 20 recruits for next year.

Still, why hasn’t this pitch worked in the past?

“The media controls where kids are allowed to go to school,” Dillingham said. “Point blank. The media chooses these are the schools you are allowed to go to if you are a four- or five-star. The media says these are the coaches you are allowed to play for. Kids read that. Kids hear that. The media has chosen the 10 schools that are allowed to do that.

“Kids see what is publicized,” he continued. “When you publicize ‘blank school’ more or ‘blank coach’ more they think, ‘I have to go.’ If kids begin to realize, ‘I don’t have to follow the narrative that if I am a five-star so I have to go play at that SEC school, I can come play here in an unbelievable situation, probably be showcased at a higher level, because I’ll be a big fish in a small pond.”

Dillingham is a new head coach, but this isn’t a new lament. Does Alabama develop NFL draft picks or does Alabama recruit NFL draft picks? It’s a combination of both, of course, but Nick Saban doesn’t own an exclusive formula.

And so Dillingham keeps coming back to the same thing. If you can live here, then why would you go live [insert small college town in a small distant state]? He says “over 50 percent” of local kids who sign elsewhere wind up transferring.

“Everybody gets sold on these 48-hour visits,” Dillingham said. “‘OK, well I never left the facility.’ That should be a red flag. Why didn’t they have you leave the facility a lot? Why didn’t they show you around?

“You still have to live there,” Dillingham said. “If you go to a place where you don’t want to live the rest of your life, you naturally lose out on a lot of relationships that you could have capitalized after graduation had you gone to a place where you want to live for the rest of your life.”

This is where he says he wants to live the rest of his life. This is where he grew up. This is where he became a football fan. This is where he went to school. This is where he wants to coach “the next 30 years.”

“This,” he said with telling enthusiasm, “was always the dream job.”

Perhaps he's the one, at last, to convince everyone else.