TEMPE, Ariz. – Kenny Dillingham’s rapid rise through the coaching ranks took him from the Southwest through the South, into Florida and up to Oregon.
His successes along the way pushed him to become the youngest head coach at a Power Five program, a 32-year-old tasked with resuscitating an Arizona State program mired in mediocrity.
Back in the Valley of the Sun, where he grew up and graduated from college, Dillingham had a hard time containing his emotions Sunday after being introduced as the Sun Devils' next coach.
“I’m home,” said Dillingham, pausing several times to compose himself. “I say that because this place is special, this state is special, the people in this room are special. Pretty emotional. That’s just who I am. That’s one thing about me, I am who I am. I’m the same person every day I show up for work. I’m fired up to be here, fired up to be a Sun Devil.”
Dillingham takes over a program in need of a jolt.
Arizona State's Herm Edwards experiment fizzled out after five years and interim coach Shaun Aguano, while well respected, was not able to turn things around. Arizona State went 2-7 under Aguano and finished 3-9 for its worst non-pandemic season since 1994.
Arizona State also is in the NCAA’s crosshairs for hosting recruits on campus during an NCAA-mandated COVID-19 dead period in 2020.
The reigns are now in the hands of Dillingham, the enthusiastic coach who played and coached at Scottsdale's Chaparral High School before being hired as an offensive analyst by former Arizona State coach Todd Graham in 2014.
Dillingham spent two seasons at Arizona State before following Mike Norvell to Memphis, where he spent three seasons. Dillingham was named Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2019 and spent two seasons in the same position at Florida State.
He joined Dan Lanning's staff in Lanning's first season at Oregon and helped turn the Ducks into one of the nation's most explosive offensive teams.
“As young as he is at 32, the multitude of accomplishments and successes that Kenny Dillingham brought to the table was undeniable,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said. “This is a place where you need someone who loves this community, loves this university, loves this state, and I believe when you get a chance to bring them home, you bring them home.”
Anderson took a calculated gamble in 2018 with the hiring of Edwards, a former NFL coach and TV analyst.
The loquacious coach won over Arizona State’s fan base his first couple of seasons, proving to be an adept recruiter while leading the Sun Devils to consecutive bowl appearances.
Arizona State couldn’t sustain the success on the field and the program fell into the NCAA’s crosshairs for hosting recruits on campus during an NCAA-mandated COVID-19 dead period in 2020.
Edwards was fired a day after the Sun Devils lost to Eastern Michigan of the Mid-American Conference as heavy home favorites. He went 46-26 in five seasons at Arizona State, including 17-14 in the Pac-12.
In Dillingham, Arizona State gets a coach who knows the program and football in Arizona and has strong connections to high school football in the state.
“We need the Valley behind us," he said. "We need everyone behind us. We need everyone all in because I am all in.”
One of Dillingham's first moves was to announce that the popular Agauno will remain on staff.
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