Former Pittsburgh Steelers great Hines Ward sees teaching role at Arizona State

Arizona State football coach Kenny Dillingham knew Hines Ward was the perfect fit for his vacant wide receivers coach position. While a lot had to do with football, much of it did not.

Ward sat in on a team meeting before officially being offered the job. Then afterward he messaged Dillingham some notes. Not a single one of his points had to do with strategy or an offensive scheme. There were more points about building the right culture.

They turned out to be just the things Dillingham has been pushing since the day he arrived. The two were on the same page before they really needed to be.

"That's a guy who gets it," Dillingham said. "I wanted a guy who would come in and when he sat down, people looked at him and listened, instantly."

ASU receivers coach Hines Ward runs a drill with his wide outs during a spring practice at the Kajikawa practice fields in Tempe on April 16, 2024.
ASU receivers coach Hines Ward runs a drill with his wide outs during a spring practice at the Kajikawa practice fields in Tempe on April 16, 2024.

Ward, 48, took in the practice Saturday as an observer, but he was dressed in ASU attire and an active voice when the team took to the practice field on Tuesday for its 10th of 15 scheduled spring sessions.

He talked to the media for the first time after the team's two-and-a-half-hour practice.

"Just out of the blue I get a call from coach Kenny (Dillingham), asked me if I was interested in the receiver job," Ward said. "I relayed it to my wife and, thank God it was Phoenix. She said, `Hey that might be something.' I'm always a firm believer, God dropped this opportunity in my lap for a reason so I love coaching. I love helping young men. That's really my blessing to these guys. God wanted me to continue to touch young lives and not just making them football players but good men in life. I love coach Kenny, his enthusiasm, his direction and where he wants his program to go and so I said, shoot, sign me up."

Ward's accolades as a player speak for themselves. He played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1998 to 2011, winning Super Bowl championships in 2005 and 2008. He was named MVP of the Super Bowl in 2005 — a game in which Pittsburgh defeated the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 — after catching five passes for 123 yards including a 43-yard touchdown from wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.

He amassed 12,083 receiving yards, 1,000 receptions and 85 receiving touchdowns, and earned an NFL Pro Bowl selection four times (2001–2004). In 2002, he set a Steelers franchise record for receptions (112) and touchdowns (12), both since broken by Antonio Brown.

More Sun Devils: ASU football to end spring practice with scrimmage at Mountain America Stadium

On Tuesday he was running around the practice field with energy and passion. After sophomore Jordyn Tyson made a catch near the sideline, he ran up to the junior, slapped him on the back and shouted a few encouraging words. As the athletes ran another drill, he ran right up to each as if he were going to throw a block.

He admits he is still trying to get to know the personnel in his position group which is no doubt, the best ASU has on the offensive side of the ball.

And, yes, there are the good-natured jabs about his Pittsburgh team beating the Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

"A big day for me to learn who I have in my room but super excited," he said. "I love the people in Phoenix. Arizona, I apologize for us beating the Cardinals a few years ago. Don't hold that against me. I enjoy being here and I'm looking forward to meeting all the guys. I just want to be a blessing to these guys. I've been where they want to go. This is a chance for me to give back so I want to help them guys be able to achieve their dreams. Not everyone is going to the pros but they have to understand that there's more to life than football. I get it. They love the game, play as long as you possibly can. At the end of the day it's not just about football."

The skeptics out there are quick to point out that while Ward was an outstanding player, recruiting has never been something he had to do, other than a brief stint he had as receivers coach at Florida Atlantic in 2021. He said in the days since he was officially named, he has been on the phone with potential recruits, with more calls to come.

He's still excited about trying to help change the fortunes of a program trying to rebound from back-to-back 3-9 seasons.

"My big motto is get 1% better each and every day and if we do that then by the end of the year we'll be 356% better as men," he said.

Players are looking forward to learning from one of the game's greats.

"It's an amazing chance for us. He's a good guy. He really knows what he's talking about. He's a cool dude and he even knows how to make us laugh. That's always good," Tyson said. "He was just telling me what I needed to work on. I need to improve on this and that. He's really specifically telling you because he sees something so when he says you have to work on something you really have to take that because there is something to it."

Cooper out for season

USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) is pressured by Arizona State Sun Devils defensive lineman Anthonie Cooper (96) in the second half at Mountain America Stadium in Tempe on Sept. 23, 2023.
USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) is pressured by Arizona State Sun Devils defensive lineman Anthonie Cooper (96) in the second half at Mountain America Stadium in Tempe on Sept. 23, 2023.

The ASU football team dealt with a myriad of injuries last year and they've already been dealt a blow as sixth-year senior defensive end Anthonie Cooper is out with a torn ACL sustained during 11-on-11 drills last week.

Cooper started 12 games in 2022 but was limited to six last season because of two different injuries. The local product of Millennium recorded 13 tackles in his limited action last season. He could apply for an extra season but this was already going to be his sixth season. He has started 20 games in his tenure.

Dillingham also announced offensive lineman Max Iheanachor will be out the rest of the spring with a minor injury.

Side notes

  • The transfer portal opened Tuesday and the Sun Devils had a defection as defensive back R.J. Regan has opted to leave. He was not on the roster and had not participated in spring drills. It appears to be a case of being buried on a depth chart as the secondary is a position in which ASU is loaded. Regan's playing time was going to be hard to come by. He played sparingly in eight games and had six tackles in 2023

  • The defense recorded two interceptions in Tuesday's practice, one by new linebacker Zyrus Fiaseu and the other by returning starter Tate Romney. Romney's came on the last play of the session and he ran it back for a touchdown.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Former NFL receiver Hines Ward joins ASU for first football practice