The pillars of Kenny Dillingham: How Arizona State’s new coach built toward his dream job

TEMPE, Ariz. — At his introductory news conference, Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham talked for 32 minutes and 48 seconds. During that time, the former Oregon offensive coordinator mentioned certain words several times.

Relationships. Attacking. Honesty. Passion.

This week The Athletic talked with several former players and coaches who have worked with Dillingham, a 2013 Arizona State graduate. Those conversations painted a clear picture of Dillingham’s meteoric rise within the sport. How he got started as an offensive assistant at Arizona State and how he progressed to bigger positions at Memphis, Auburn, Florida State and Oregon. What makes him worth the risk.

The knocks against Dillingham are obvious. At 32, he is the youngest Power 5 head coach in the country. As an offensive coordinator, he has served as a primary play caller for only one season, this one with the Ducks. How that translates to Arizona State’s rebuilding program is not known. The Sun Devils are coming off a 3-9 season. They face likely penalties that stem from an NCAA investigation into program recruiting.

But those who know Dillingham best suggest he’s more than ready. They point out he twice has worked under first-year head coaches, first Mike Norvell at Memphis, then Dan Lanning at Oregon. “That’s going to help him,” current Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield said. They also know he has prepared for this for most of his professional life. “He’s going to crush it, man,” former Memphis quarterback Brady Davis said.

Here’s a closer look at the pillars of that preparation.

Relationships (Press conference mentions: 13)

“How do you build a roster? Relationships.”

Norvell met Dillingham in the spring of 2014 at a coaching event. Norvell, then the offensive coordinator at Arizona State, invited Dillingham, a young offensive coordinator at nearby Chaparral High, to a quarterbacks meeting. He had no idea what he was in for.

“I don’t even know the number of consecutive days that he showed up, but he was always there early and he sat in the back taking notes,” said Norvell, now finishing his third season as head coach at Florida State. “He was always present.”

Not much later, Norvell visited Chaparral to watch practice. Although he was there to recruit, Norvell also wanted to check out Dillingham. He loved everything he saw — the young coach’s organization, energy and enthusiasm. After the season, Norvell offered Dillingham a quality control position on the Arizona State staff.

“That was really just the start of it all,” said Norvell, who later hired Dillingham onto his staffs at Memphis and Florida State. “All the things that I had seen or thought in that early stage, he brought every day that he was at the office. He’s great with relationships. He cares about people. He’s a really hard worker. That was the start of our journey together. We ended up working seven of the next nine years together.”

Once Dillingham starts a relationship, he seldom lets it go. He communicates with players through group texts. Every quarterback he has coached is in one group. Memphis quarterbacks and tight ends are in another. Brady Davis, who started his career at Memphis before transferring to Illinois State, looked at his phone one morning and saw quarterbacks introducing themselves.

This is Bo Nix from Auburn.

This is David Moore from Memphis.

“I was still down in Auburn and figuring out what my next move was,’’ former Auburn quarterback Wilson Appleton said. “And I just got a text on this random day, and he was saying, ‘Hey, I want you guys to meet the Memphis quarterbacks.’”

“He just thinks outside the box,” Davis said. “I never touched the field for the man (outside of a) few snaps. I went on to have my career at Illinois State, but he’s still the coach that I go to when I need anything, and he’s probably the closest coach at that high of a level that I’m with to this day.”

Attacking (Mentions: 7)

“Everything about this program is going to be attacking.”

Dillingham was the offensive coordinator at Memphis, but Norvell called the plays. Same at Auburn with then-coach Gus Malzahn. And again with Norvell at Florida State. It wasn’t until this season at Oregon that Dillingham took full control of the play calling.

His former players say not to read much into that.

Dillingham has revealed little about how his offense at Arizona State will look, but it’s not a mystery. In 2019 at Auburn, Dillingham described himself as a run-first coach. In 2020 at Florida State, he described the Seminoles’ offense as a pro style that plays fast.

This season at Oregon: “This system is built for playmakers. We are going to put our playmakers in space. If our running backs and our best players are up front, we’ll run the football. If our best players are on the perimeter, we’ll get them opportunities. In years past, we’ve thrown the ball for over 4,000 yards in the system (4,355 at Memphis in 2017). We’ve run the ball for over 4,000 yards in the system (3,919 at Memphis in 2018). It’s adaptable to the people that we have on our team.”

Dillingham has coached quarterbacks throughout his career, but he never played the position at a high level. In high school, he was a linebacker.

In 2018, Dillingham said he thought his background gave him an advantage. “The key to football is understanding defense,” he said. “Offense stems from understanding what the defense is trying to take away, understanding why they’re trying to take it away and understanding the weakness of the defense.”

In the winter of 2016, quarterback Riley Ferguson, a junior college transfer, was in the Memphis weight room when he spotted Dillingham walking in wearing a bubble jacket. A recently hired graduate assistant, Dillingham was still getting to know everyone. “Who is this guy?” Ferguson said. Dillingham introduced himself and told Ferguson that he would be helping with the quarterbacks.

A week later, Dillingham was teaching the offense to Ferguson.

“He’s big on making things simple,” said Ferguson, who would throw for nearly 8,000 yards in two seasons. “These NFL offenses, and even a lot of college offenses, things can get really wordy. Just making things simple, that allows people to go out and play faster. They don’t have to think as much, and that’s when people can actually shine.”

On game days at Auburn, backup quarterback Cord Sandberg wore a headset and signaled in plays. He would hear Dillingham in the coaches’ booth talk to Malzahn on the sideline. “OK, Coach, we got a four-down front. We should have numbers.”

“That’s the way he looks at the game, as a basic math problem,” Sandberg said. “Hat on a hat, creating mismatches. If our guy’s better than yours, mathematically we should win this. He’s one of the best I’ve been around at understanding what the defense is doing and communicating that with his players.”

Honesty (Mentions: 5)

“I’m brutally honest with people, whether they like it or not.”

In 2018, sophomore David Moore was locked in a quarterback battle with junior Brady White at Memphis. During spring practice and fall camp, Moore got first-team reps one day, and White got them the next.

Because White had transferred in from Arizona State, where head coach Mike Norvell once had coached, people told Moore the competition was settled and advised him to leave.

“A juco coach called me,” Moore said. “And then some of Coach Norvell’s guys who were on staff and then left were texting me saying, ‘Hey, Dave, obviously he brought in Brady White for a reason. You’re not going to be the starter. You might as well transfer.’”

Moore said he met with Norvell and asked if he had made a final decision on which quarterback would start. Norvell said he had not. Moore went to Dillingham.

“Obviously, for me to stay on the team and be a backup, that would’ve been in Memphis’ best interest,” Moore said. “It also would’ve been in Coach Dillingham’s best interest, but he knew I was thinking about transferring if I didn’t get the job and he still told me, ‘Hey, if the season started today, Brady White would be the starter.’ He was the only one to be honest with me. I appreciate that to this day.”

White would become Memphis’ career leader in passing yardage and touchdowns. Moore played at Garden City Junior College in Kansas in 2018. He played his final season at Central Michigan.

“I have no hard feelings,’’ said Moore, who admitted he was immature at the time. “Like, I don’t mean this to put out any bad pub about Memphis or anything. This is just good on Coach Dillingham, that’s all I’m saying. I went on to play at Central Michigan and got my chance. … But that’s something (Arizona State) players can expect. Just transparency and honesty.”

Year School Title


Offensive assistant




QBs-tight ends


Off coordinator-QBs


Off coordinator-QBs


Off coordinator-QBs


Off coordinator-QBs


Head coach

Passion (Mentions: 3)

“Do you have a passion to get better?”

When word got out that Dillingham had gotten the Arizona State job, former players and coaches found clips of his introduction on Twitter. They saw him break down in tears. Others heard about it later.

“Oh, my gosh. It fired me up,” Auburn’s Appleton said.

“What you see is what you get with Kenny,” former Arizona State assistant Chip Long said.

“Dude, that’s him,” Memphis’ Moore said. “It’s so unique for a head coach. He’s not pretending to be anybody. You would think somebody who just got the biggest job of his entire life, he’d want to start pretending that he’s a hard-ass. But he’s still wearing his emotions on his sleeve.”

At Memphis, Dillingham would greet players at their offseason “Tour of Duty” workouts with more enthusiasm than was expected. “Everybody’s mad, nobody wants to see anybody and he’s coming through, making sure we’re ready to go, yelling at his quarterbacks,” Memphis’ Davis said. “It’s like, ‘After we get stretched, we can talk. I still got to wake up.’”

Asked about Dillingham, Malzahn once said, “His hairs are on fire.” After watching an explosive play during an Auburn practice, Dillingham once asked the offense, “Why aren’t we celebrating?”

“We would do something well, maybe in just a drill or in 7-on-7, and he would go nuts,” Auburn’s Sandberg said.

It was all part of the plan. Every fall camp at Memphis, the Tigers would get together around a bonfire and share their goals. Dillingham told his position group that he wanted to become college football’s youngest Power 5 head coach. It took a few years, but here he is, talking about building relationships and the importance of honesty, about attacking on the field and being passionate in life.

“This is a dream,” Norvell said. “Kenny’s been preparing for this opportunity for a long time. He’s always kept great relationships with the coaches in the state, and it just means so much to him. I know that he’s going to give everything he has to get the program back to where it needs to be. It’s an exciting time for everybody.”

(Photo courtesy of Memphis Athletics)