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

TEMPE, Arizona – Per The SportyAccording to the study, 25 percent of athletic directors in major conferences received a bachelor's degree from the institution they represent. These include BYU's Tom Holmoe, Indiana's Scott Dolson and Vanderbilt's Candice Storey Lee.

Arizona State's Graham Rossini joined that group last week, but his connection to the Sun Devils extends well beyond his college days. Rossini, 44, says he has thought about Arizona State every day since he was 11. That may be an exaggeration, but it's not entirely inaccurate.

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

A seed has taken root.

From 1,736 miles away, Rossini began following the Sun Devils. He saw Paul Lo Duca and Antone Williamson at the 1993 College World Series. He saw Jake Plummer and Pat Tillman at the 1997 Rose Bowl. One day, a high school English teacher asked his students to write letters to universities asking for admissions information. Rossini's first letter was to Arizona State. The school sent back a poster of Sparky, their maroon-and-gold mascot. Rossini hung it on his bedroom wall.

Rossini's father worked at Chevron. His mother first worked in the software industry and later 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 to the desert and tried to walk on, but at 6'5″ he was unsuited to his position. “The biggest, skinniest catcher of all time,” recalled former Arizona State catcher Tuffy Gosewisch.

Murphy, now manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, was honest with Rossini. “You're good enough to make the team,” he told him, “but you might never play.” He asked if Rossini would like to work as a student assistant instead.

That's where Rossini differs from other ADs, according to former Arizona State players. “That's a special story for me because he literally did laundry for this program,” said Dennis Wyrick, who played for Arizona State from 2000 to 2003. When asked about it last week, Rossini recalled a trip to USC where he drove around Compton looking for a place to wash uniforms. “And it was like, 'Hey, whatever it takes,'” he said.

Murphy eventually made Rossini the program's director of operations, or as Gosewisch put it, “He was like his own front office.” Today, friends and former colleagues describe Rossini as approachable, humble, trustworthy, passionate, sincere, attentive and determined, but the word that comes up again and again is “detailed.”

“He literally had everything under control, from recruiting to scheduling to how the uniforms looked, everything,” Murphy said before the Brewers recently left for Houston to play the Astros. “Everyone who was part of the program at the time calls one of those players. They all knew Graham had everything under control.”

When Rossini left Arizona State in 2008 to take a job with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Brendan Cunningham, a former student manager and director of operations, said it felt like the head coach was gone. The void was so big. Everyone was wondering, 'What are we going to do without Graham?'” he said.

Per The SportyAccording to a study by , 40 percent of major conference athletic directors were first-time ADs when they were hired. These include 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's joining of this group of newcomers last week sparked local criticism, even though he has held senior positions over the past three years and been involved in important projects for the state of Arizona, such as securing the naming rights for Mountain America Stadium.

It's an interesting time for Arizona State. With the Sun Devils reluctant to accept NIL and the football program in trouble due to an NCAA investigation, many fans turned against former AD Ray Anderson, who resigned under pressure in November. Despite Rossini's background and experience, fans preferred an outside candidate who had worked as AD to lead the university's transition to the Big 12, where it will compete in the fall.

During Rossini's introductory press conference, school president Michael Crow said the school considered every possible candidate for the position, but over the course of a six-month selection process, Rossini's promotion emerged as the best choice. When asked how many others he had formally interviewed with, Crow replied, “Zero.”

Friends and colleagues of Rossini didn't understand the initial negative reaction. One said anyone who disagreed with the AD's choice simply didn't know Rossini. Another called it a byproduct of Rossini himself, a manager who had always worked in secret and cared more about performance than publicity. (In fact, a Google search for Rossini doesn't yield much more than his work biographies.)

Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall, himself an Arizona State product, met Rossini during Rossini's time at Arizona State Baseball. When the Sun Devils traveled to Los Angeles, Rossini and Hall, then with the Dodgers, would team up and Rossini would bring the team to Dodger Stadium. When Hall joined the Diamondbacks in 2005, he created a position for Rossini to handle the customer experience.

Hall said it didn't take long for Rossini to show he was capable of more. One big job led to another. Over the course of 13 years, Rossini became Hall's “go-to guy,” a vice president who oversaw some of the organization's biggest projects. Rossini played a key role in bringing the 2011 All-Star Game and the 2013 World Baseball Classic to Phoenix. He also became Hall's project manager in the construction of Salt River Fields, the organization's spring training complex.

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

In 2020, as the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, Rossini spoke with Jim Phillips, commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The two had met when Rossini was student manager of the baseball team and Phillips was finishing up his master's degree at Arizona State University. They had stayed in touch since then, with Phillips serving as a mentor. During their conversation, Rossini asked Phillips about the state of college sports.

Phillips told Rossini not to dismiss it. There's something special about working with college athletes, he told Rossini. And the environment is perfect for raising a family. If your kids are interested in sports, they have access to it. If they're interested in 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 administrative officer.

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

Per The SportyAccording to the study, 43 percent of power conference schools have changed their athletic director in the past three years. This is partly due to athletic directors leaving schools for better opportunities, but also reflects the need for institutions to find leaders who can navigate a changing environment.

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

Crow said Arizona State has spent six months building a financial structure for the sport that can withstand “any hurricane and any tumult that may come our way.” This, the president said, will allow Rossini and his team to focus on ticket sales, raising NIL donations, corporate sponsorships and winning.

Arizona State has been known for years as a “sleeping giant,” a label that people here have heard so many times that they roll their eyes. Alignment between administration and athletics has often been poor, leaving fans wanting more, especially from the school's major programs. As athletic director, Rossini's biggest job will be to mend relationships and convince fans and donors that Arizona State will not be left behind.

When Rossini left the Diamondbacks, Hall told him he hoped Rossini would one day become Arizona State's athletic director. Rossini downplayed the idea, telling Hall he just wanted to focus on the job at hand. On a recent trip to Scottsdale for the Pac-12 baseball tournament, Rossini said that while becoming Arizona State's athletic director may have been in the back of his mind, it was never his driving force. He was more concerned with the goal, less with the title.

Friends, however, insist they saw this coming. Harvey Jabara, a longtime Arizona State supporter who owns a minority stake in the San Diego Padres, said he would have loved to bring Rossini to San Diego, but in the back of his mind he always knew Rossini's heart belonged to the Sun Devils.

The is the dream job for him,” Jabara said. “I think that's unique in this day and age where so many people – not just in sport but in all parts of society – are always looking for the next job. Knowing Graham Rossini, that's not happening here.”

Murphy said firmly: “He will never leave ASU for another college job – that's guaranteed.”

Throughout his career, Rossini has joked that he is a “professional problem solver,” someone who does his best work when the stakes are highest. That's the environment he's entering at Arizona State University, whose reality has rarely matched outside expectations. He welcomes that challenge.

“There are changes all around us,” Rossini said. “We are ready to be relevant in the areas that are required today, but also flexible enough to respond to the changes around us. It's a cliché – I don't like to use it – but I don't see them as changes or challenges, just 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)

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