Dodging cars, math lessons helped bring Dillingham home
Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.
Kenny Dillingham can’t remember if he was 23 or 24 years old. And, really, it doesn’t matter.
He was a young man, a graduate assistant at Arizona State University just beginning his coaching career. His dreams, at that point, should have been measured.
Instead, when then-ASU coach Todd Graham asked Dillingham what he hoped to accomplish as a coach, Dillingham replied, “I want your job. I want to be the head coach at Arizona State.”
Asked now, at the ripe old age of 32, whether that was a brash and presumptive comment, Dillingham smiles.
“No,” he says. “I’m just a guy who if you ask me a question, I’m going to answer it. I just say what I believe in.”
This isn’t a sports story, although Dillingham now has his dream job as ASU’s head football coach. It’s not about recruiting, the transfer portal or offensive and defensive schemes.
It’s about a family’s love of Sun Devil Football and how, out of that love, a boy learned how to do math, almost got run over in a parking lot and came to treasure ASU as a “special” place.
Sun Devil beginnings
John Dillingham, Kenny’s father, moved to Arizona in 1980 and immediately became infatuated with the Sun Devils.
“One of the very first things I wanted to do was go to an ASU football game,” John Dillingham said. “I got a standing room ticket. Back in the day, that’s all you could get. I can’t remember who ASU played, who won or what the score was. I just remember how great it was.”
John and his wife, Gerry, who moved to Arizona when she was a child, had four kids. Three went to ASU. Kenny’s older brother, Kyle, 40, went to the University of Arizona.
“He’s sort of the black sheep when it comes to football,” John said.
Or, as Kenny Dillingham put it: “He got lost.”
Over the years, the family’s connection with ASU deepened. John estimated he has close to 30 football jerseys in his closet. By the time Kenny was born in 1990, they were going to as many Sun Devil games as they could.
Kenny was just 6 years old when he attended his first game: ASU’s stunning 19-0 upset over No. 1 Nebraska in September 1996.
How about that for an introduction to Sun Devil Football?
Not that Kenny understood the magnitude of the moment at that age.
“What do I remember? Nothing, other than my face was painted, I had a (Jake Plummer) jersey on, and I was sitting there eating nachos,” Kenny said. “That’s about it.”
The combination of food and football became a staple of Kenny’s youth. His family would park a motor home near Packard Stadium before games to tailgate. But this wasn’t your typical brats-on-a-grill tailgate.
No, the Dillingham’s did it up big. Steak. Green chili burritos. Hamburgers. All the sides.
“Elite tailgaters,” Kenny said.
As the smoke from the grills wafted through the parking lot, Kenny, other children and his older brother Kevin would play a game called “Dodge Car.”
It’s exactly as it sounds. As they threw a football around, they’d pretend moving cars were defenders they had to avoid. One time, according to family lore, a defender nearly got ASU’s new coach.
Kenny insisted that’s a joke, that he didn’t almost get run over by a car, but John isn’t quite so sure.
“Apparently unbeknownst to me, he almost got hit one time,” John said. “I’m glad he didn’t tell me at the time. I probably would’ve had a little different reaction than I do today.”
It was much safer for Kenny to sit in his dad’s lap as they watched ASU’s games. At home, John would settle into a lounge chair, Kenny would hop aboard and they’d watch — and learn.
Not just about football. Math, too.
“He (John) would be like, ‘The Sun Devils kick a field goal, the Cardinals score a touchdown and the Suns make a free throw. How many points do Arizona teams have?’” Kenny recalled. “And I’d be like, ‘Three plus six plus one is 10.’ That was literally how I learned math.”
Kenny’s wife, Bri, is constantly amazed at how quickly Kenny can process numbers.
“You listen to him walk through how his brain his working and you’re like, ‘I don’t get how that adds up,’” she said. “He can do crazy math. Crazy.”
Kenny met Bri when he was a senior at Scottsdale Chaparral High School and she was a junior. Soon after they both enrolled at ASU, Bri, who was a member of ASU’s varsity dance team, understood the very specific aspiration of her soon-to-be-husband.
“Literally, from day one,” Bri said. “I don’t even think he was an assistant yet and he would talk to me about it. To have the opportunity to do it now is absolutely unreal.”
Talk to Dillingham about ASU and the words come rushing out. They are the words of a young man who truly believes what he is saying.
“There’s always going to be the other professional sports in town that people get behind, and they should,” he said. “But I think college sports is unique. There’s a different level of passion behind college sports that everybody wants to feel.
“I think that if we, as a city, we as a metropolitan area, get behind this place, we can all reap the benefits of what that feels like. Because it does feel different here. It does feel special.”
There’s just one thing Dillingham got wrong about his dream: the timing.
“I told people I thought I was going be the head coach when I was 30,” Dillingham said with a smile. “I'm two years late.”
Brash. Confident. Passionate. They all accurately describe Dillingham.
So does this:
Top photo of head ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham courtesy Sun Devil Athletics