Arizona State relies on new AD Graham Rossini in uncertain times for college sports

Arizona State relies on new AD Graham Rossini in uncertain times for college sports

TEMPE, Ariz. – According to He AthleticAccording to the research, 25 percent of power conference athletic directors received college degrees from the institution they represent. This includes BYU’s Tom Holmoe, Indiana’s Scott Dolson and Vanderbilt’s Candice Storey Lee.

Arizona State’s Graham Rossini joined this group last week, but his association with the Sun Devils goes far beyond his college days. Rossini, 44, says he thinks about the state of Arizona every day since he was 11 years old. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not far from the truth.

Growing up on the Gulf Coast in Mobile, Alabama, Rossini learned about the state of Arizona while collecting baseball cards. As a fan of the Atlanta Braves, he came across the card of first-round pick Mike Kelly. On the back of Kelly’s card, Rossini read that Kelly had been a star at Arizona State, winning the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the best player in college baseball.

A seed took root.

From 1,736 miles away, Rossini began following the Sun Devils. He watched Paul Lo Duca and Antone Williamson in the 1993 College World Series. He watched Jake Plummer and Pat Tillman in the 1997 Rose Bowl. One day, a high school English teacher asked students to write letters to colleges requesting admission information. Rossini’s first letter was to the state of Arizona. The school returned a poster of Sparky, his brown and gold mascot. Rossini hung it on the wall of his bedroom.

Rossini’s father worked at Chevron. Her mother first worked in software and then became a teacher. Rossini was a baseball player. He wanted to play at Arizona State but then-coach Pat Murphy did not offer him a scholarship. Rossini flew into the desert and tried to keep walking, but at 6 feet 5 inches, he was uncomfortable in his position. “Tallest, thinnest receiver of all time,” recalled former Arizona State receiver Tuffy Gosewisch.

Murphy, now manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, opened up to Rossini. “You’re good enough to make the team,” he told her, “but you might never play.” He asked if Rossini would prefer to work as a student assistant.

This is where former Arizona State players say Rossini differs from other ADs. “It’s a special story to me because he literally did laundry for that program,” said Dennis Wyrick, who played for Arizona State from 2000 to 2003. When asked about this last week, Rossini recalled a trip to USC, driving by Compton looking for a place to wash uniforms. “And it was like, ‘Hey, whatever it takes,’” he said.

Murphy eventually named Rossini the program’s director of operations, or as Gosewisch put it, “he was like a front office in his own right.” Today, friends and former coworkers describe Rossini as approachable, humble, trustworthy, passionate, genuine, thoughtful and intentional, but the word that keeps coming up is “detail-oriented.”

“He literally had everything in his hands, from recruiting to scheduling to the look of uniforms to anything,” Murphy said before the Brewers left for a recent trip to Houston to play the Astros. “Anyone who has been a part of the program right now, call one of those players. “Everyone knew Graham had it under control.”

In fact, when Rossini left Arizona State for a position with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008, Brendan Cunningham, former student manager and director of operations, said it felt like the head coach was gone. The emptiness was that big. Everyone was like, “What are we going to do without Graham?” he said.

By He AthleticAccording to the research, 40 percent of power conference athletic directors were first-time ADs when they were hired. This includes Syracuse’s John Wildhack, who spent most of his career at ESPN, and Colorado’s Rick George, who worked in Major League Baseball and on the PGA Tour.

Rossini joined this group of rookies last week and drew local criticism, even though for the past three years he had held senior positions and been involved in major Arizona state projects, such as securing the naming rights to Mountain America Stadium.

This is an interesting time for the state of Arizona. With the Sun Devils slow to adopt NIL and the football program hamstrung due to an NCAA investigation, many fans turned on former AD Ray Anderson, who resigned under pressure in November. Despite Rossini’s background and experience, fans favored an outside candidate, one who had worked as an AD, to lead the university’s transition to the Big 12, where he will compete this fall.

During Rossini’s introductory news conference, school president Michael Crow said the school was considering everyone imaginable for the job, but over a six-month process Rossini’s promotion emerged as the Better option. When asked how many other people he had formally interviewed, Crow responded: “Zero.”

Friends and colleagues of Rossini did not understand the initial negative reaction. One said that anyone who disagreed with AD’s choice simply didn’t know Rossini. Another called him a byproduct of Rossini himself, an executive who has always worked in the shadows, more concerned with performance than publicity. (In fact, a Google search for Rossini doesn’t yield much more than his working biographies.)

Diamondbacks president and CEO Derrick Hall, an Arizona State product, met Rossini during Rossini’s time in Arizona State baseball. When the Sun Devils traveled to Los Angeles, Rossini and Hall, then with the Dodgers, would always connect and Rossini would take the team to Dodger Stadium. Once Hall moved to the Diamondbacks in 2005, he created a position for Rossini that dealt with customer experience.

Hall said it didn’t take long for Rossini to prove he was capable of more. One big task led to another. For 13 years, Rossini became Hall’s “go-to person,” a vice president who handled some of the organization’s most important projects. Rossini played a major role in bringing the 2011 All-Star Game and the 2013 World Baseball Classic to Phoenix. He also became Hall’s project manager on the construction of Salt River Fields, the organization’s spring training complex.

“He… doesn’t… miss… a… detail,” Hall said, emphasizing each word.

In 2020, when the pandemic put the world on hold, Rossini spoke with Jim Phillips, commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The two met when Rossini was a student manager on the baseball team and Phillips was finishing his master’s degree at Arizona State. Since then they stayed in touch and Phillips acted as a mentor. During their conversation, Rossini asked Phillips about the state of college athletics.

Phillips told Rossini not to rule it out. There was something special about working with college athletes, he told Rossini. And the environment was perfect to raise a family. If your children like sports, they have access to them. If they like arts and culture, they have access. Whatever it is, it’s there, Phillips said.

The conversation stayed with Rossini, who returned to Arizona State as a senior administrator.

“It’s amazing how things work themselves out,” Phillips said this week, noting how Rossini always seemed like an “old soul” to him, someone who listened and tried to learn. “Graham found himself exactly where he should be.”

By He AthleticAccording to the research, 43 percent of power conference schools have changed athletic directors in the last three years. Part of this is due to ADs leaving in search of better opportunities, but it also reflects the need for institutions to find leaders who can navigate a changing landscape.

In addition to NIL and the transfer portal, the NCAA recently agreed to allow schools to pay athletes for the first time directly through revenue sharing. Although the agreement is not final, it could come into force next year. The old university model is dead. The next one is still taking shape.

Crow said Arizona State worked six months to create a financial structure in athletics that can “withstand any future hurricane, any tumult we may encounter.” This, the president said, will allow Rossini and his staff to focus on ticket sales, NIL fundraising, corporate sponsorships and profits.

For years, the state of Arizona has been known as a “sleeping giant,” a label people here have heard so many times it makes them roll their eyes. The alignment between administration and athletics has often been off, leaving fans wanting more, particularly from the school’s top programs. As athletic director, Rossini’s most important task will be to repair relationships and convince fans and donors that Arizona State will not be left behind.

When Rossini left the Diamondbacks, Hall told him that he hoped Rossini would one day become Arizona State’s athletic director. Rossini downplayed the idea and told Hall that he simply intended to concentrate on his responsibilities. On a recent trip to Scottsdale for the Pac-12 baseball tournament, Rossini said becoming Arizona State’s AD may have been in the back of his mind, but it was never a driving force. It was more about a purpose, less about a title.

Friends, however, insist they saw it coming. Harvey Jabara, a longtime Arizona State supporter who owns a minority stake in the San Diego Padres, said he would have loved for Rossini to come to San Diego, but deep down he always knew Rossini’s heart was with the Sun Devils. .

This It’s his dream job,” Jabara said. “I think that’s unique in this day and age where so many people come around (not just in athletics, but in all sectors of society) that it’s always the next job they pursue. “That’s not happening here because I know Graham Rossini.”

Murphy said firmly, “You will never leave ASU to look for another college job; that’s a guarantee.”

Throughout his career, Rossini has joked that he is a “professional problem solver,” someone who has done his best work when the stakes are high. That’s the environment he finds himself in at Arizona State, whose reality has rarely matched outside hopes. He welcomes this challenge.

“There are changes all around us,” Rossini said. “We are prepared to be relevant in the areas we need today, but also agile enough to react to the changes happening around us. “It’s a cliché, I don’t like to use it, but I don’t see it as changes or challenges, just as new opportunities.”

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(Photo of Graham Rossini at his introductory press conference as Arizona State athletic director: Michelle Gardner/The Republic/USA Today Network)