Pat Tillman's life-size portrait is the last image Arizona State football players see before entering Sun Devil Stadium through the "Tillman Tunnel."

The snapshot of the former ASU star looking ready to lead the charge onto the field might seem as if it were lifted from the Hollywood playbook of "Friday Night Lights." But the Sun Devils have a strong appetite for imagery this season as second-year coach Todd Graham has reawakened the long sleeping giant by getting players to embrace the school's most influential player.

Nearly 10 years after his death while serving as an Army Ranger in the mountains of Afghanistan, the memory of the former linebacker from San Jose continues to inspire the imagination in Tempe.

In this Oct. 18, 1997, file photo, Arizona State linebacker Pat Tillman, left, holds up the ball as he is congratulated by free safety Mitchell Freedman,
In this Oct. 18, 1997, file photo, Arizona State linebacker Pat Tillman, left, holds up the ball as he is congratulated by free safety Mitchell Freedman, right, after Tillman intercepted a pass by Stanford quarterback Chad Hutchinson during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game at Stanford, Calif., Stadium. Tillman was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2004. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

"Pat has become a symbol of what it means to be a Sun Devil," longtime athletic administrator Jean Boyd said. "Now that memory is living, walking and breathing in the program."

As the Sun Devils (10-2) prepare to play host to seventh-ranked Stanford on Saturday in the Pac-12 championship game, many have marveled at the turnaround in the Valley of the Sun.

ASU had just one winning record in five years under former coach Dennis Erickson, going 31-31 overall. The Sun Devils had a reputation for unruly play and were the country's most penalized team in 2011.

Enter Graham, the 2013 Pac-12 coach of the year who arrived two seasons ago from the University of Pittsburgh. The former history teacher wanted to instill disciplined and passionate play, hallmarks of Tillman's style.


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Graham had rules on what players could wear in the football offices. He asked referees to conduct classes on the game's rules.

The Sun Devils went 8-5 and won the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in Graham's first season. Now the team ranks third nationally in fewest penalty yards, averaging just 28.5 per game.

The change started with an indoctrination in Sun Devil football lore. In one of their first actions in Tempe, coaches wrote ASU's history on the walls of their offices to mark the program's highlights.

Former Arizona State football player Pat Tillman, is shown in a June 2003 file photo. (AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions,
Former Arizona State football player Pat Tillman, is shown in a June 2003 file photo. (AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions, FILE)

That's when Graham discovered Tillman's name all over the place.

The coach ticked off the list: "Academic All-American, All-American on the football field, all-conference, player of the year. What he did in the community with service. Led his team to the Rose Bowl."

The more Graham learned about the longhaired, buck-the-norm Tillman, the more the coach felt a kinship.

"He wasn't just a cookie cutter, easy guy to deal with," Graham said. "That's the kind of guys I want. Guys who will challenge, guys who are passionate about what they're doing. But that dynamic individuality never came in front of his family, his team or, ultimately, his country."

Graham preached relationship building and a team-first mentality. The catalyst: Tillman's dramatic story.

"Coach Graham has embraced all that is great about youth sports and college sports and made it all about life lessons," said Tillman's widow, Marie, now remarried and living in Chicago. "He has weaved Pat into the story in what he does."

There is a virtual Tillman museum in the ASU football offices and a camouflage PT 42 practice jersey is awarded on the rare occasions that a player matches Tillman's passion for playing, scholastics and fraternity among teammates. The jersey has been presented four times since its inception last spring.

Off the football field, the school honors Tillman with the Pat Tillman Veterans Center in the student union. Thousands participate in the annual Pat's Run each spring, finishing on the 42-yard line of Sun Devil Stadium in honor of his number. "Tillman Scholars" -- some of whom are attending ASU on scholarships that the charity run sponsors -- focus on public service.

But the steel-wired connection to Tillman is tightest with the No. 11 Sun Devils, who are on the cusp of playing in the Rose Bowl for the third time in school history.

It culminates in the "Tillman Tunnel," the maroon-and-gold hallway that connects the locker room to the field. At the end of the tunnel, on the gate that opens onto stadium turf, looms the portrait of No. 42, his back to the locker room, ready to lead the charge.

"We understand for the first time in a long time it is bigger than ourselves," fifth-year linebacker Granville Taylor said. "It has been decades since Pat has been on this field, but we still talk about him."

For most people, Tillman's legacy began when he rejected a $3.6 million contract from the Arizona Cardinals and left his NFL career to enlist in the U.S. Army shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He died in a controversial friendly fire episode two years later. He was 27.

For many Arizonans, though, the connection goes back to the mid-1990s. Tillman, an undersized linebacker out of San Jose's Leland High, joined ASU as its last scholarship player in 1994. As a junior, he led the Sun Devils to the Rose Bowl. As a senior, he was the defensive player of the year in the Pac-10 conference. He earned a degree in marketing in 31/2 years and, despite the naysayers, he was drafted into the NFL by the hometown Cardinals in the seventh round, No. 226 overall.

Tillman set a Cardinals team record in 2000 with 224 tackles as a safety. The next season, out of loyalty to the team that gave him his chance, Tillman rejected a $9 million offer by the St. Louis Rams.

Those are the values that Graham seeks from his players. With another page taken from Hollywood, he reminds them by preaching: "One heartbeat, one identity, one vision."

Can't lose.

PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12)
at Arizona State (10-2, 8-1),
4:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN

Arizona State linebacker Pat Tillman chases after Ohio State quarterback Stanley Jackson during the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1997. The Sun Devils lost 20-17.


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