Graham leave Pitt to coach Arizona State
AP College Football Writer
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) – Todd Graham left Pittsburgh’s fans and administration bitter that he bolted after just one year.
He didn’t get a chance to tell his players in person that he was leaving, instead sending them a text because he was short on time.
Graham didn’t intend to leave so early again, either, for the sake of his career and his family.
However, the opportunity to coach in a BCS conference in a place where he and his wife planned to retire and already have family and friends was too much to pass up.
Leaving a job after a year for the second time in his six-year career as a head coach, Graham convinced Arizona State’s leadership that he was in it for the long haul and the Sun Devils hired him Wednesday to end a tension-filled process to replace Dennis Erickson.
“It was very quick and very rapid, and I had no intention of (taking) any other job,” Graham said. “It was very, very heart-wrenching … but this is a dream situation for us.”
Erickson was fired on Nov. 28 following a fourth straight season of failing to live up to expectations.
Arizona State’s brass took a beating in its bid to find his replacement with a process that appeared, at least from the outside, to be indecisive and muddled.
The Sun Devils were reportedly interested in one coach who turned elsewhere, had all but signed the dotted line with another before a last-minute abort and fought through an almost minute-by-minute barrage of innuendo and reports – some true, some false – about every step of the process.
When the dust in the desert settled, Arizona State’s administrators moved in quickly to snatch up Graham, a fast-talking, fast-walking Texan who assured them with his enthusiasm and commitment to family that he wouldn’t pull another one-and-done.
“I believed him,” Arizona State athletic director Lisa Love said. “I saw the job movement, but I believed him. I think that he speaks sincerely about wanting to coach at Arizona State.”
Erickson got his tenure off to a great start, earning Pac-10 coach of the year honors while leading the Sun Devils to the Holiday Bowl in 2007.
His teams never lived up to expectations after that, though, three bowl-less seasons followed by an epic collapse this season – four straight losses after a 6-2 start – that sent the two-time national champion coach looking for another job after five seasons in the desert.
Love expressed her respect for Erickson and his ability to set a good foundation for the future of the program even after firing him, and showed it by allowing the 64-year-old coach lead the Sun Devils in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State on Dec. 22.
Love then set out with university chief financial officer Steve Patterson to find his replacement, the main parameters being someone who was energetic, likes up-tempo offensives and preferably had previous head-coaching experience.
After sorting through a long list of interested coaches, they found someone who fit the bill nicely in Graham.
A former assistant under new Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia, Graham had a successful stint in his first year as a head coach in 2006, took Rice to its first bowl appearance in 45 years. He left the Owls after just one season for Tulsa, where he led the Golden Hurricane to the first back-to-back 10-win seasons in school history.
A defensive player and coach coming up through the ranks, Graham made his mark with an up-tempo offense that made Tulsa a perennial Conference-USA contender. The Golden Hurricane twice led the nation in total offense and his 2007 team set 29 school records, 15 conference marks and four NCAA records, including the largest margin of victory in a bowl game, 63-7 over Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl.
Letting off the gas isn’t in Graham’s nature and he was excited about the opportunity to run with the stable of athletes he’ll inherit at Arizona State.
“Obviously, our offense is going to be high octane, it’s going to be quick-strike, explosive,” said Graham, 49-29 in six years as head coach. “Our whole deal is about explosive plays. I like to see the ball thrown down the field.”
Graham’s decision didn’t go over so well back East.
Pitt brought Graham in to energize the program following six underachieving seasons on under Dave Wannstedt and the black-eye firing of his replacement, former Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, who was let go nearly three weeks after being hired due to an arrest on domestic violence charges.
Graham went 36-17 in four seasons at Tulsa, leading the Golden Hurricane to three bowl wins, and believed he could immediately help the Panthers by wearing down opponents with his high octane, up-tempo attack.
Instead of winning its first outright Big East championship, Pitt didn’t quite follow the timetable Graham had anticipated, letting winnable games get away while quarterback Tino Sunseri struggled to grasp the complex system and spent a good deal of time on his back after the Panthers allowed an FBS-high 57 sacks.
Pitt finished 6-6 and was tied for second in the Big East, salvaging a bowl bid by beating Syracuse in the season finale.
The average-at-best season didn’t help in year that had already been tumultuous with the school’s announcement that it’s leaving the Big East for the ACC.
Three of Graham’s assistants – Calvin Magee, Tony Gibson and Tony Dews – also left earlier this month to become assistants under Rodriguez at Arizona, and Graham followed with the crushing blow, telling Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson by phone Tuesday night that he was walking away after one season.
Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will coach the Panthers against SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl as the program searches for its fourth head coach in the last 13 months.
“Obviously this is not the way we would have expected Mr. Graham to handle any possible departure,” Pitt executive vice chancellor and general counsel Jerry Cochran said. “Beyond normal expectations with respect to professional conduct, he has failed to comply with the terms of his contract.”
Graham’s hiring at least helps end an Arizona State coaching search that had become a 17-day odyssey after Erickson was fired.
The Sun Devils reportedly were in talks with Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, which broke down after Texas A&M fired coach Mike Sherman. The Aggies introduced Sumlin as their new head coach Monday.
Arizona State also was apparently close to a deal with SMU coach June Jones when negotiations broke down at the last minute. Leigh Steinberg, Jones’ agent, called the abrupt ending one of the “most bizarre endings” to discussions to bring a client to a new situation.
The administration kept plugging away and quickly found a coach who could be a good fit for what they’re trying to accomplish.
“We never lived in the space of distraction,” Love said. “We just didn’t live there. We lived in a space of delivering a great football coach to Arizona State. Patience and being relentless proved golden.”
At least on this side of the deal.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.