As Arizona State’s defensive coordinator, Danny Gonzales might have the coaching staff’s toughest job, and it has nothing to do with scheme or fundamentals.
The task: Building toughness.
Keep in mind, every staff in America is trying to do this. Toughness is one of those football buzzwords – similar to character – that’s much discussed but difficult to measure. You don’t have to look at previous stat sheets to understand ASU’s recent defenses lacked toughness, among other things.
But here’s what Gonzales means. When San Diego State visited ASU last September, the Aztecs entered Sun Devil Stadium with confidence.
“(ASU) had no idea what they were getting into, our boys did,” said Gonzales, who coached under Rocky Long for seven years at San Diego State before joining Herm Edwards’ staff in December. “Our guys, they thought they were a good football team, they knew we could come in here and win.”
That’s what Gonzales is trying to build in Tempe, and it’s important to understand the construction part. As Gonzales talked with azcentral sports during a recent interview, Edwards walked in, saw what was going on and said:
“He’s going to have the best defense … just write that. Maybe not this year, but we’re working on it.”
‘It’s so nice they get spoiled and soft’
They know they have work to do, and given their surroundings, it won’t be easy. Just look around, Gonzales said. ASU’s facilities are so nice that it easily can dull a player’s edge. After all, it’s hard to grind in comfort.
“We have so much stuff here and it’s so nice they get spoiled and soft,” Gonzales said. “We didn’t have nearly as many nice things at San Diego State. It was a great setup, but it wasn’t nearly as nice as it is here. I mean, we have this beautiful cold pool tub down there. At San Diego State, we put them in buckets and you know what – it worked just the same.”
ASU coach Herm Edwards compares second day of practice to second day of school — not as much fun.
Jeff Metcalfe, azcentral sports
He’s not complaining, just pointing out the obvious. It’s a different time and that shows up in different ways. When Gonzales first arrived, he researched all the great ASU teams and tried to figure out what they had in common. Like others before him, he kept going back to Frank Kush and the toughness the legendary coach instilled.
“Coach Kush, he was unbelievable,” Gonzales said. “And talking to people that played for him and knew him, he was a mean son of a gun. And I love it. That’s what I’ve been around. You can’t do that stuff that they did, but the thing that everything came back to with Coach Kush … It didn’t matter who they played, those guys knew they were the toughest, baddest suckers going into the game and they were going to have a chance to win.”
That’s the toughness Gonzales seeks. Something he estimates might take three years to construct. His method: Follow the leader.
4.2 miles at the hottest time of day
Every day, Gonzales leaves his office and goes for a run. Residents here know you have to be careful with such things during the summer, but Gonzales embraces the challenge. He looks up when it will be the hottest time of day, and he schedules his run for that exact moment. During a recent three-day stretch, he ran around Tempe Town Lake at temperatures of 116, 117 and 116.
Gonzales asks other coaches to join him. They decline.
“He invites me every day and every day he gets the same answer,” said cornerbacks coach Tony White, who also worked with Gonzales at San Diego State. “It’s no. Capital N-O.”
Gonzales says he does this for one reason: To shows his players that he’ll never ask them to do anything he can’t do himself. He’s 42. He runs 4.2 miles at the hottest time of day. If he can do something like that, then players can bust their tails every day at practice. Toughness comes in many forms, he said. It’s a mindset, it’s confidence but it’s also simply playing hard, and to Gonzales, that last part is non-negotiable.
He throws out this stat: Over the past three seasons, San Diego State intercepted an absurd 63 passes. Gonzales estimates that 15 to 18 came off tipped passes that the Aztecs got just because they had so many guys around the ball.
“I’ll go back to Jalen Bates,” Gonzales said, referring to ASU’s junior defensive end. “He’s got that deal of – and it ain’t for everybody – ‘I can go as hard as I can until I either die or you stop me.’ Some guys have that and some guys don’t. Some guys want to tap out and either find something hurt or they just physically can’t do it. And that’s OK. I told them that a long time ago: The way we do things around here isn’t for everybody.”
There’s structure, of course.
“There’s a fine line between beating ‘em up and doing too much and giving them enough opportunity to refresh,” Gonzales said. “We have a good plan. The good thing is they’re buying in. Everybody believes in what we’re doing.”
Asked to describe Gonzales, junior linebacker Malik Lawal thought for a second.
“Let’s see,” he said. “Driven, passionate, clear-focused. He loves and adores his players. You can see he puts his heart into his work. … He wants to turn this place around.”
If you haven’t figured it out, Gonzales is old-school.
“I am,” he said.
And these days, that’s often looked upon as a negative.
“It is,” he said.
He’s OK with that.
“I am because (the players) know who I am,” Gonzales said. “They know my expectation. They know that anything that we do – especially on defense – is in the best interest of them. I’ll never put them in position where they don’t have a chance.”
Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller. Download and subscribe to the ASU Pick Six Podcast, available on iTunes, Stitcher and the Google Play Store.