SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Not long after Arizona State was eliminated in the inaugural Pac-12 baseball tournament, Willie Bloomquist stood in front of the third base dugout and spoke about his first season coaching his alma mater.
Arizona State, a program that was once among the nation’s elite, has not made the College World Series since 2010, the longest drought in school history. Ranked No. 8 in the conference tournament, the Sun Devils lost to Stanford and beat No. 4 Oregon before a loss to rival Arizona ended their season 26-32. A lack of timely batting hurt Arizona State. So does pitching depth.
“Obviously we didn’t get the right score from that game, but that’s what college baseball is about,” Bloomquist said. “You have guys who leave everything on the field. Mistakes happen here and there, but everyone gives their best on every pitch. You can definitely see the guys (and) care.”
This is not a good time for Arizona state’s big three men’s sports. While baseball is being rebuilt under Bloomquist, Herm Edwards’ football program remains mired in an NCAA investigation that has cost him five assistant coaches and more. After back-to-back losing seasons, Bobby Hurley’s basketball program is still looking for his pre-pandemic mojo.
That’s not to say Arizona state athletics as a whole has stuttered. The softball team won the Pac-12 and just finished a remarkable season, falling one win short of the Women’s College World Series. The wrestling team finished fourth at the NCAA championships. The golf, swimming, and gymnastics programs are strong. Hockey will soon open a new arena. Women’s basketball has taken a new direction. There’s plenty for the fans to cheer for.
But the big three drive the conversation. The health of an athletic department begins with them. If you fight, ok. Two fight, not good. All three fight and social media anarchy reigns. Here we are.
Fan Poll: Of the three main men’s programs in the state of Arizona, what do you think is best for the future?
— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) May 28, 2022
Football draws the most attention because that’s the nature of the sport. It’s the moneymaker, the driving force behind college pride. The Sun Devils finished 2021 8-5, but more had been expected. Since December, the program has lost a slew of talent through the transfer portal, including quarterback Jayden Daniels, receiver Ricky Pearsall, defensive tackle Jermayne Lole and linebacker Eric Gentry.
The state of Arizona is not alone in this regard; Transfer rules and name, image, and similarity compensation have forced teams across the country to regroup and reload. It’s the new normal. But the uncertainty surrounding the NCAA investigation has added a hurdle that Sparky has had a hard time overcoming. When Edwards arrived, he wowed fans with an unspoken promise of better days. He had a talented quarterback. A young defensive core. Better size on the offensive line.
Hope carries a fan base through growing pains, but today that vision is hazy. three year plan? It’s difficult to look beyond the coming season. The program’s biggest question doesn’t pertain to new quarterback Emory Jones or any other player on the field. It’s just, “How long will Edwards be around?” That doesn’t hold out much hope.
“I’m disappointed they let this whole thing slip by,” said Nathan LaDuke, a defenseman who played for the Sun Devils from 1987-1990. “Whether you want to say that everyone else (breaks the rules) or not doesn’t matter. And they could be. And that could have been them. It doesn’t do it right. And it’s not a great situation to be in.”
For the record: In a last appearance On the Speak of the Devils podcast, athletics vice president Ray Anderson said the state of Arizona has moved beyond personnel movements and that Edwards is in no trouble. “We have no doubt that we have the right head coach and the right staff to move forward,” he said. “(We) are not questioning our decision (to keep Edwards) at all. We have the information we have and we are very confident that we are going in the right direction. Herm is our leader and will be our leader.”
Basketball has had a frustrating season for a variety of reasons. Arizona State struggled early, recovered late and then positioned to advance in the Pac-12 tournament. In Las Vegas, the Sun Devils led Stanford by 14 points in the opening round with three minutes left. They lost 71-70 to finish 14-17, the program’s second straight losing season.
Hurley, who has a contract through 2024, is 118-100 in seven seasons. Before COVID-19 cut short the 2020 season, he had positioned Arizona State for a third straight NCAA tournament, a feat unmatched since the JFK administration. But the winter of 2020 seems to be a long time ago.
Some of it is just the nature of Arizona State basketball. Since program legend Ned Wulk retired after the 1981-82 season, the Sun Devils have entered just seven NCAA tournaments. Inconsistency is a program theme here, and the pandemic has complicated things. Is Arizona State the scrappy team of 2018-2020, or the program that has slipped under difficult circumstances for the past two seasons? It’s difficult to say.
The home court, forever on the athletic department’s to-do list, isn’t helping. Stepping into the Desert Financial Arena is like stepping back to the 1970s without a disco ball. This is not news. Before his freshman season, a reporter asked then-Arizona State coach Bill Frieder about the Desert Financial Arena, then known as the University Activity Center. “Sure, on the surface it looks great,” Frieder said. Then he listed everything that needed an upgrade. “This place is ten years behind the times,” Frieder said. “Archaic. But we’re going to flip it.”
That was 1989! The program still hasn’t caught up.
Which brings us back to baseball, once considered the jewel of Arizona state athletics and the holder of five national championships. With Bloomquist in place, it might rank at the best spot of Arizona state’s anchor programs — new beginnings, new hope — but it’s also had the longest rise. A strong tradition can be both a blessing and a curse. While the coaching staff can measure growth in one way, the fanbase can do so in another way.
The good news: Arizona State played well in the Pac-12 tournament. Losers in a row going into the event 37-14 overall could have seen the Sun Devils fold. Instead, they led in the seventh inning of all three tournament games. They competed. They were aggressive. This is a start.
Outside the dugout after Friday’s loss, Bloomquist sounded like a man who understood the road ahead. He said the Sun Devils seemed close at times this season and not so close at others. He credited the players for struggling through injury and adversity. He expressed the need for better pitching depth and defense. But the bottom line was obvious. “It’s not a panic town,” Bloomquist said, “but we have to get better.”
He’s not alone.
(Top Photo: Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)