ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham sets sights on building united, passionate program ahead of 2023 season

Arizona State football coach Kenny Dillingham spoke with reporters Monday about his focused approach to overhauling the program in his first year at the helm. (Video screenshot by Erin Patterson/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – The offseason for Arizona State’s football program has been anything but quiet.

The Sun Devils began preparations for the 2023 season with the hiring of former Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham as their new head coach last November and continued with his swift reshaping of the roster to rebuild the program to prominence.

Under his leadership so far, ASU has welcomed 25 players from the transfer portal with a simple yet sharp focus: retain and acquire players who want to wear the maroon and gold. On Monday, with Sun Devils Fall Camp set to begin soon, Dillingham underscored his desire to build a program full of passionate and hard-working players.

“Would I love to win, would I love to set a precedent that we’re going to help these guys be successful in life and those guys flock here? Yes,” Dillingham said. “Only if they want to be here though. I am not going to trip them up to be here.”

Dillingham’s preference for players who want to be part of his program stems from his roots that are deeply planted in the Valley area. Dillingham attended Chaparral High School in Scottsdale and graduated from ASU, where he also served as a graduate assistant under former coach Todd Graham.

“There’s no tricks, there’s no gimmicks, there’s no promises,” Dillingham said. “This is a special place, and I have a passion for this place.

“You want to be a part of something that could be special, and if you do, great, and if you don’t, great … There’s a lot of athletes out there.”

Among the offseason programs is a return to Camp Tontozona for the first time since 2019. The annual visit to “Camp T” was a tradition started by former coach Frank Kush in 1959 and will open to the public Aug. 10-12.

“One of the things that I got from the former players here, the most successful teams here was the togetherness and brotherhood they had,” Dillingham said. “The only way you can build that is by doing things like this and putting them in environments that they don’t want to be in.

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“Nobody wants to go stay in a bunk, I don’t want to go stay in a bunk, but we’re going to tell the stories about how this team and how this culture was created, and there is going to be something that happens at Camp T that the players tell stories about.”

Besides the heat, some of the challenges at Camp T are the facilities’ limited showers and the food available that resulted in some players losing weight in seasons past, both issues Dillingham and the staff have addressed beforehand.

“One of the issues was showers and the bathrooms, so we’re going to bring some of that stuff in to help them,” Dillingham said. “The other one’s food and we’ve got the nutritionist to solve that issue, so we’ve mitigated those issues on the front end. That way we can really try to have the best of both worlds.

“But part of this (trip) is to be uncomfortable. Football is not comfortable. You go on the road at Washington State, Oregon State, those aren’t comfortable games but that’s football and that’s life.”

Building a culture has been Dillingham’s priority, even more so than acquiring the top talent in the country, as he believes motivation and passion are contagious in the locker room.

“If you can create such a recruiting pipeline where you get 75 five- or four-star players, then you take the chance of having 15 kids who kill your culture,” Dillingham said. “They’re just going to weed themselves out because you’re so talented, they don’t matter and they just disappear.

“But if you’re trying to build a culture, you need to have the same vision. So I want people that want to be here. It’s the most important thing in recruiting, it’s not the sales pitch.”

Dillingham takes over this season after the Sun Devils finished last year with a 3-9 record and fired Herm Edwards three games into his fifth season as coach. The change in leadership came after a shocking home loss to Eastern Michigan in Week 3, accompanied by a lingering NCAA investigation into alleged illegal recruiting practices.

Although Dillingham, 33, is now the youngest coach at a Power 5 school, his ability to adapt and simplify things bodes well for ASU fans.

“You don’t know how you are going to react until you’re put into that situation,” Dillingham said. “I haven’t been on the field since I was a freshman high school coach, I have been up in the box. That’s a change for me but football is football. That’s the adversity, and it’s all about how you respond to it.”

Before the Sun Devils Fall Camp officially gets underway, Dillingham will travel to Las Vegas for Friday’s 2023 Pac-12 Football Media Day along with tight end Jalin Conyers and defensive back Jordan Clark. The event features the conference’s 12 head coaches and two selected players from each school.

Safe to say it’s an unwelcome break from the grind of his first year as head coach.

“I am looking forward to it (Pac-12 media day) being over,” Dillingham said. “I just got back from vacation and I am ready to be back here and get to work.”

Josh Amick jaw-sh ey-mick (he/ him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Josh Amick expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Amick has written and interned for AZPreps365 and is working toward a job as a beat writer or sideline reporter.