SAN FRANCISCO -- For Arizona State coach Todd Graham, who has embraced the spirit and example of the late Pat Tillman, facing the Naval Academy in the Dec. 29 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park is a fitting end to his first season.
"When I was hired, I talked to the kids about honor, character, class, toughness. We're playing a team that embodies all of that," Graham said.
"I told them the other day, I've competed against these guys, and it has been a dogfight every time. I told them the easiest thing these young men do is play football. The hardest thing you do is play football."
Graham, who considered joining the Marines out of high school, has a greater appreciation for the Navy team after becoming immersed in what ASU grad and former Army Ranger Tillman represents.
The Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year for the Sun Devils in 1997, Tillman joined the Army in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. On April 22, 2004, the 27-year-old San Jose native was killed by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan.
"I really believe in finding role models," Graham said. "What I love about Pat is I wasn't a perfect kid, and Pat wasn't, either. Pat was somewhat hard to coach, but you wanted him on your team."
Tillman graduated from ASU in 31/2 years with a 3.84 grade-point average, excelled on the field and served in the community -- all without fanfare.
"What an unbelievable, dynamic, unique individual,"
To honor Tillman, Graham has created a camouflage practice jersey called PT42 -- Tillman's uniform number -- to be worn by players who meet Tillman's football, academic and character standards.
This season just one player -- safety Alden Darby -- earned the chance to wear the jersey in practice for one week.
"Our goal," Graham said, "is to ultimately have 11 players wearing it."
The Spartans beat Navy each of the past two years on the way to a 10-2 season this fall, and Niumatalolo is convinced MacIntyre will orchestrate a similar turnaround at Colorado.
"Mike did a fabulous job. He changed the culture," Niumatalolo said. "They do what we try to do -- play disciplined, play hard, play smart."
Navy beat Louisiana Tech 37-23 in Dykes' third game with the Bulldogs in 2010.
"Super hard to defend," Niumatalolo said of the offense Dykes is bringing to Cal. "They know exactly what they're doing. There's no doubt in my mind (Dykes) will be successful there."
Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/CalBearsBANG.