Low Budget Can't Shade Arizona State's Sun Devils
The fans of this season's Arizona State University football team took to throwing tortillas onto the playing field in a gesture of wild celebration.
After all, they had a lot to celebrate. For the first time in recent memory, the Sun Devils completed a perfect 11-0 season and clinched the Pacific-10 title.
On New Year's Day, they will meet Big Ten opponent Ohio State (10-1) at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
The second-ranked Sun Devils will be in hot pursuit of a national crown.
Depending on the Rose and other bowl results, ASU could finish No. 1, especially if top-ranked Florida State is toppled.
What makes Arizona State's season all the more impressive is that, compared with other football powerhouses, the university has a relatively low-budget athletic program.
ASU coach Bruce Snyder has adapted to that reality by emphasizing mental preparation of individual players as much as recruiting or physical training. His philosophy is to focus on each game as it arises, and not before, and to demystify opponents.
That was evident in September when the Sun Devils defeated defending national champion Nebraska, 19-0, setting ASU on its way to a Rose Bowl bid.
Reflecting on that game, Snyder said, "I wasn't going to allow the team to play against a national championship trophy, or against Nebraska's reputation, or against their undefeated season.
"What I did was ... I started using people's names and really wiring them into how you perform against that person in terms of your technique and your assignment,'' he said. "I'm going to do the same thing against Ohio State.''
Snyder said players have accomplished something that "a lot of people didn't think we could do.''
The challenge of keeping the team and coaches focused on winning despite school budget constraints isn't daunting, he says.
The school's resources are not much different today than four years ago, but "it is the chemistry of the people that you bring in that really matters.''
A lot, he says, depends on perseverance, consistency, and attracting student-athletes with the proper frame of mind.
Snyder says he tells players, "'This is how we are going to treat each other. If you buy into it, great. If not, you are not going to be here very long. We are going to treat each other with respect, we are going to work hard at what we do and believe in what we do.'"
It hasn't always been an easy road for Snyder, however, who is in his fifth year as ASU coach after having left the University of California at Berkeley in 1992.
HIS first season at ASU was marred by team injuries, as well as by players who got into trouble. Two players were arrested for using a stolen credit card, and a third - the starting quarterback - was arrested for theft.
In the 1994 season, injuries forced him to play 19 freshmen, the most of any team in the country. Snyder stuck with his players, and the loyalty he showed them was returned in kind.
Senior left tackle Juan Roque says Snyder's guidance "is so heartfelt that everybody on the team understands it.''
"There's no mystery involved in what he tells us. It's just a matter of attitude and going out there and having the right mentality,'' says Roque, a contender for this year's Lombardi Award honoring the best college lineman.
Things began to turn around at the end of the 1995 season, when the Sun Devils won four straight games to finish 6-5.
For Snyder, this year's Oct. 12 game against UCLA was pivotal. After a lackluster first-half performance, Snyder told his players during a relaxed locker-room talk to focus on the present.
"'If we do that, I guarantee you it will start to turn for us, and when it starts to turn, things will be fine,''' he recalls saying. "They went out. We took each play as it came up, and we ended up winning the game.''