Moore: Kenny Dillingham is too young for the Arizona State job. And? So what?
One of the first things Kenny Dillingham said when he was introduced as Arizona State’s new head football coach was that he isn’t scared of the truth. That means he shouldn’t be afraid of this reality: At 32 years old, he’s too young for this job.
But so what? That doesn’t mean he’s not going to be successful taking over a program that has scuffled between irrelevant and underachieving for most of his life.
He’s aware of the whispers and has a message for anyone who thinks he’s getting too much too soon, that he rose too fast, that he couldn’t possibly be ready for the coming challenges because he’s never had to deal with failure or disappointment.
“It’s all about leading people,” Dillingham said.
“That’s what it’s all about. Relating to people. Leading people.”
He ticked off his experiences with being what others might call “too young.”
“I was an offensive coordinator at 21, dealing with parents who’re worth multimillions of dollars,” Dillingham said. “I was an offensive coordinator at Memphis. I’ve been leading men at Auburn at 27. I’ve been leading men at Florida State at 29. I’ve been leading men at Oregon.”
At each stop, Dillingham’s youthful influence and exuberance led to energy, points and wins — like when his Auburn Tigers stripped the Alabama Crimson Tide for 48 points in a 2019 Iron Bowl victory.
Besides, Lincoln Riley is one of the best coaches in college football, and he was 33 when he took over at Oklahoma. Lane Kiffin was the same age when he got the job at Tennessee. And Oregon coach Dan Lanning is just 36.
Still, the mixed results from these youth experiments mean Dillingham will need support to get through the inevitable growing pains that will come with being the youngest coach in big-time college football and doing something he’s only previously been able to imagine.
It seems like he’s got the right backing.
“There are difficulties, always difficulties,” ASU President Michael Crow said.
“There are defeats. There are problems. There’s the conduct of other people that’s beyond your control. There’s all these things going on all the time. So, this is where he will need support, and he will need us to be supportive of him. I view this as a long-term thing. We need to take a long-term view here, and that’s what we’re really looking to do.”
Athletic director Ray Anderson echoed Crow’s stance.
“I alluded earlier (in the hiring process) that we were going to go young; I didn’t know we were going to go this young,” Anderson said with a laugh.
“But his 32 years? His experiences are way beyond 32 years when you look at the accomplishments for what we needed … Nobody bats 1.000. Nobody checks all the boxes. But he came very close. And it’s all based on ‘what do we need in this unique place?’ I’m telling you, he just kept rising up, rising up, and it became clear that, very frankly, this is a unanimous decision.”
It’s telling that influential boosters love him already.
Nap Lawrence compared Dillingham stepping into a major role for the first time to legendary ASU baseball coach Bobby Winkles and the godfather of Sun Devil football, Frank Kush. They were unproven, yet had huge successes.
Lawrence was rooting for Dillingham.
“I’ve had my wish come true,” Lawrence said. “I want to donate $1 million to encourage other people to join and give donations to the (Sun Angel Collective.)”
That’s a huge part of why Dillingham got the job.
He’s from the Valley. He’s an ASU graduate. And he started his career as a youth coach with the Scottsdale Argonauts and a graduate assistant with the Sun Devils under Todd Graham.
Dillingham knows how to inspire people in Arizona to dream big.
The real question is whether the fanbase and program insiders will give him a chance.
Dillingham’s predecessor, Herm Edwards, faced everything but an open revolt when he was hired, and his tenure was ultimately brought down from within by a whistleblower hellbent on tracking his every move. Was it someone on staff who never wanted him to get the job in the first place? Was it someone secretly loyal to the departed Graham? Was there another, more despicable, motive that haunted the first African-American coach in program history?
None of those questions matter much for Dillingham, unless that same sort of bitterness greets him in his return to Tempe.
Dillingham is retaining former interim coach Shaun Aguano, who did everything he could to get the job for himself.
If Aguano and others support Dillingham, the program has a chance to flourish, but if hidden agendas and jealousy crop up, then Dillingham could be doomed before he calls his first team meeting.
For his part, Dillingham said he isn’t afraid to face reality — even as he ignores it to move forward toward his goals. He even embraces that into his personal philosophy.
“Today more than ever, people say, ‘Kids are changing,’” he said. “I completely disagree. … I think people are scared to tell kids the truth.
“That’s the one thing I can stand on: If I tell you something, it’s going to happen. And I think that’s a big reason for why I’m sitting here today. I’ve never been scared of the tough conversation.”
He might be too young, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t going to work.