Q&A: Rossini on the opportunities, challenges ahead as ASU's new athletic director


Portrait of Graham Rossini

In response to criticism that ASU should've looked outside the athletic department for the hire, new Athletic Director Graham Rossini says, "I get it; I’m not a known commodity. But, as I said, I’ve thought about ASU every day of my life since I was 11 years old. I feel very confident that no one else is as prepared to understand this university, at this moment in time, in this market, with this fan base, than I will be able to." Photo by Bruce Racine

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Graham Rossini opened a drawer in his office and pulled out a rookie baseball card of Atlanta Braves outfielder Mike Kelly.

Rossini bought the card when he was 11 years old and a Braves fan growing up in Mobile, Alabama. The card featured Kelly in an Arizona State University uniform; just months earlier the outfielder had won the 1990 Golden Spikes Award as the National Player of the Year.

Rossini wanted to know more about Kelly. So, he started following the ASU baseball program.

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What he didn’t know then — what he couldn’t have known — is how that baseball card would lead him to enrolling at ASU, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Business Administration from ASU's W. P. Carey School of Business and now, becoming the Sun Devils’ new athletic director.

“When I say I’ve thought about ASU every day of my life since I was 11 years old, that is the precursor to the moment we’re about to walk into,” said Rossini, who worked for the Arizona Diamondbacks for 13 years before becoming a senior associate athletic director at ASU in 2021.

ASU News talked to Rossini about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead of him as he takes up the mantle of ASU’s next athletic director.

Answers has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: You’re an ASU graduate and a Sun Devil through and through. What does it mean to you to lead the athletic department?

Answer: I’m ecstatic. I’m honored. I’m excited. I’m eager. I never had aspirations to be an athletic director; I’ve had aspirations to find something that fulfills purpose while impacting others.

ASU is so incredibly important as part of my backdrop that there’s just a sense of responsibility and a sense of being honored to take a leading role in something that I’ve benefited from directly. I’m at a point of my career where I’m still learning and still motivated to accomplish, but I’m also at a level where I can start to give back and use my insights and lived experience to help others get on a positive path in their own lives. So, a combination of emotions, but mostly just excited for the responsibility.

I understand the hard work in front of us, but I’m very eager to roll up my sleeves and get after it.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: I like to lead by example. I like for my interest and passion and the things I represent to come through to others. I’m also very big on attention to detail. So, how do we win these little details while focusing on the big moments? And just showing an exhilaration and enthusiasm for the work. There’s a lot coming at us. It’s not easy in college athletics at this point. But it matters to a lot of people. So, we need to be the ones, as an athletics department, to project confidence and enthusiasm and excitement for the aspects of it we do control.

I’d like others to look at me and have poise and confidence and assertiveness. There are a lot of moments where you need to lead and be out front. There are times that you need to be in locked arms with a team and walk side by side. And then there are the moments where you want to walk behind and let others gain the important experience and take a leading role.

Q: Whom have you worked with or for who has influenced the kind of athletic director you’ll be?

A: One is (former ASU baseball coach) Pat Murphy. The other is (Diamondbacks President) Derrick Hall. A lot of my style is derived from those two individuals. They both share just an enthusiasm for leadership. They both possess these incredible leadership traits of identifying something in an individual or an opportunity that others may not see. Also, ASU President Michael Crow as well, just his ability to recall information and be in depth on so many different topics that interrelate and interconnect.

Q: You know there are critics of your hiring. They believe ASU should have looked outside the athletic department. How do you respond do that criticism, and what advantages do you think there are to already being embedded in the department and knowing what needs to be done?

A: My approach has always been to focus on trust over attention. I’ve had great success in my career and the challenging tasks I’ve been asked to accomplish. I understand there are great challenges in front of college sports nationwide, and there’s an expectation that ASU quickly ascends to the top of that space. We’re prepared to take those challenges head on. I get it; I’m not a known commodity. But, as I said, I’ve thought about ASU every day of my life since I was 11 years old. I feel very confident that no one else is as prepared to understand this university, at this moment in time, in this market, with this fan base, than I will be able to.

My lived experience as a Sun Devil and somebody who’s been in the Valley for 25-plus years is what I believe gives me a great head start over anybody else who would have been selected for this responsibility.

Q: As you know, success in college athletics is tied to NIL (name, image and likeness). What’s being done or needs to be done at ASU to make it competitive in the NIL market?

A: We’ve embraced that as a core function of the department. We understand that there’s four ways for fans to support what we’re doing. There’s buying a ticket, be a donor, invest in a corporate partnership or now, you can support NIL. We want our fans and our community to understand the importance of all four, but particularly NIL at this moment.

It is the most relevant conversation in our space on a day-to-day level. I would like to find ways for the community to understand that the recent recruiting success of ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham and ASU men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley is very much a derivative of the work that we’ve been putting into NIL. They’re proving that given an equal playing field, we’re going to win these recruiting battles. Kenny has the No. 1 recruiting class in the Big 12. Bobby has the seventh-best national class. They’re working their tails off, and their staffs are skilled and very effective recruiters. But we’ve also been able to grow into our relevancy around NIL.

Q: ASU has made a lot of facility upgrades in recent years, but everybody talks about the need for improvements to Desert Financial Arena or the need for a new basketball building. Is there anything on the table regarding the arena, and how important do you think it is to improve the experience there?

A: I think it’s incredibly important given the importance of basketball at this institution. We’re studying a lot of pathways and opportunities to improve Desert Financial Arena. I’m excited to focus on the fan experience. What is the experience like when you get to the parking lot, when you walk into the arena, as you navigate the concourses, as you engage with the concession stands? We’re looking at all those aspects of the game day and fan experience.

But, tying it back to the physical space, I think there’s a lot that we can bring out of Desert Financial Arena. How do we bring out the best attributes of that building while also identifying the areas that need to be improved on? I think there’s a great opportunity for us in terms of updating the concourses, improving the lighting, improving the historical attributes of the building.

How do we showcase the Sun Devil Hall of Famers? How do we improve the food and beverage? How do we improve the sound system and the scoreboard? Just focusing on the things that our fans value the most. We’re going to get feedback and information from our fans and then build some improvements around that feedback.

Q: Last question. ASU is moving to the Big 12 this fall. What excites you about being in a new conference, and what challenges does that move present?

A: I don't see any challenges. It's our reality. So, we're accepting that, and we're taking it on full speed.

What excites me the most about it is twofold. It's a national footprint. It's truly an East-to-West national footprint from Orlando, West Virginia, Cincinnati, maybe on the eastern edge of the conference, to the Four Corner schools going in, and then a heavy presence throughout Texas and the Midwest. These are really key recruiting markets for us. They're important to ASU from an enrollment standpoint.

So, now we're able to kind of grow the ASU brand on a national scale. But we’re also going to maintain relevancy in California. That becomes a great solver for non-conference scheduling. A lot of these Pac-12 legacy schools become great options for us, focusing on strength of schedule, historical rivalries and geographical proximity. We want to maintain a lot of those rivalries in many of our sports. But I’m also excited for our fans to see these new campuses and just experience the spirt, pride and tradition of college athletics in some new ways and new settings.

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