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Dillingham is young, but he checks off a lot of boxes for Arizona State

Kenny Dillingham
Kenny Dillingham (USA Today Sports Images)

Kenny Dillingham started coaching before he could vote, before he could do anything at 18 years old, certainly before he could walk into an establishment and order an adult beverage.

After sustaining a knee injury in his senior season at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chapparal, the 17-year-old Dillingham coached with the junior varsity team there and then became the varsity’s offensive coordinator at 21 years old.

His career since then has been like a rocket shooting up, up and away since then, all good and only getting better.

At just 32 years old, Dillingham has been named Arizona State’s next head coach and his career has come full circle so quickly.


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He hitched his wagon to the Mike Norvell train, learning from Norvell when he was the offensive coordinator of the Sun Devils, and then moving from grad assistant to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator when Norvell coached Memphis, to helping Bo Nix become SEC Rookie of the Year during one season at Auburn, before going with Norvell to Florida State and then spending one season as Oregon’s offensive coordinator under Dan Lanning before the ASU opportunity came up.

He’s a climber and knowing Dillingham’s rep, it’s no surprise when Nix’s career at Auburn was running on fumes and he needed a jumpstart, he came to Eugene and has been fantastic this season under Dillingham’s direction.

It will be interesting to watch five-star quarterback Dante Moore’s commitment to the Ducks now since his relationship with Dillingham was a huge reason why he picked Oregon in the first place.

Dillingham is a sharp offensive mind, an inventive and smart play-caller and he embraces recruiting. Kids genuinely like him and that can only help when “one of their own” has now returned to Arizona to try to turn the Sun Devils back into relevant players first in the Pac-12 and then maybe nationally.

This is where it gets tricky and difficult because significant challenges are ahead.

Dillingham was the main recruiter for Chubba Purdy to Florida State and for getting California four-star A.J. Duffy to Tallahassee as well but the Sun Devils’ track record - and to be fair Arizona’s track record as well - over the years of keeping in-state talent home is downright abysmal.

Of the last four full recruiting classes only three of the top 65 players in the state picked Arizona State as legions of elite prospects like Bijan Robinson, Kelee Ringo, Anthony Lucas, Benjamin Morrison, Ty Thompson, Denzel Burke, Spencer Rattler and others didn’t even really think about playing for the Sun Devils. Going anywhere else seems en vogue to in-state prospects.

After talking to former ASU interim coach Shaun Aguano about this very issue in recruiting, he said the next Sun Devils coach has to make recruiting the state a priority, not just another place to find players, but the starting point for recruiting classes. Dillingham could be that guy to make staying home cool again but it’s going to be an extraordinary challenge.

And he cannot get caught up with too many local yokels in his ear. Yes, Arizona recruiting is crucial and over the years ASU missed out on so much talent but the Sun Devils aren’t beating Georgia and Texas for in-state five-stars. Not yet anyway.

A coach once told me recruiting is like shopping in a mall, you have to know which stores are for you and there’s plenty of talent in Arizona to go around, Dillingham just has to be smart about it and not go to Nordstrom when Nordstrom Rack has a two-for-one sale. Small recruiting wins turn into medium recruiting wins turn into some surprise superstars want to play for you. Reaching into California and utilizing the transfer portal will be crucial.

His vision is going to be important. This is his program, his team and the fans and the alumni and all the people around the place who are now so excited that “one of theirs” is now the coach should step back and let him run things. We’ll see if that happens. Dillingham should nod graciously and execute on his plan, no one else’s.

Former coach Herm Edwards had no real connection to ASU other than being buddies with the athletic director. We all know how that turned out as the Sun Devils still don’t know the extent of NCAA issues they’re dealing with from alleged recruiting violations. That wasn’t enough to stop Dillingham from wanting the job.

Todd Graham wasn’t an Arizona guy and after two 10-win seasons things sputtered out for him in Tempe, too.

“Kenny’s going to bring a different energy to this program,” one source said. “Being from Arizona and an ASU alumni, it’s going to mean that much more to him to turn this place around.”

There is always talk of Arizona State being something of a sleeping giant in the Pac-12, especially now with some heavy hitters leaving for greener (read: money) pastures.

One of the fastest growing cities in America is right there, high school talent is better every single year, there are well-established high school programs that could be feeder schools, many California kids want to get away from home but not too far, the weather is phenomenal, the - let’s say - nightlife scene is second to none, Tempe is a great college town.

There’s a lot to sell at ASU.

The Herm Edwards Experiment was a ridiculous sideshow that ended, fittingly, when with a loss to Eastern Michigan and Edwards - maybe - being fired right on the field.

Dillingham is young, hungry, connected, intelligent, loves recruiting, has a unique passion for Arizona high school football and Arizona State. He gets it.

The Sun Devils could have done no better.