May 18, 2011

Graham putting his stamp on Pitt program

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By now, new Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham should know all about the challenges and headaches that go into shaking up an offense.

At Rice and Tulsa, he learned a few lessons, and with the Panthers, he still is in the process of changing old habits and putting his own stamp on the program.

"You ever watch 'Men in Black,' where they take that little wand and they kind of beep it and it makes them forget everything?" Graham says. "I wish we could do that a little bit."

Pittsburgh ran a pro-style offense under former coach Dave Wannstedt. But it isn't the biggest challenge Graham, 46, has had in his head-coaching career, at least in terms of changing the offensive approach.

His first head-coaching job was at Rice in 2006, and he oversaw a change from the wishbone offense to the spread. After a few bumps early, including a 0-4 start, the Owls rebounded to reach a bowl in Graham's only season at the school before moving on to Tulsa.

Graham wishes he could wipe the memories of the old offensive and defensive schemes from his players' minds, and he probably wouldn't mind erasing any memories of Pittsburgh's tumultuous coaching search as well. In reality, the Panthers had two coaching searches, and Graham basically was Pittsburgh's fourth coach between Dec. 7 and Jan. 10.

First, Wannstedt resigned Dec. 7 after a disappointing 7-5 regular season. Nine days later, Pittsburgh hired Mike Haywood, who had led Miami (Ohio) to the MAC title. Haywood stayed around long enough to introduce himself to the team before he was dismissed Jan. 1 after a domestic violence arrest the day before.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett served as interim coach in the BBVA Compass Bowl victory over Kentucky; Pitt officials then hired Graham two days later, on Jan. 10.

When he arrived, Graham described the team as "hurt" and in disarray. In March, the off-field turmoil continued when Sports Illustrated and CBS found Pittsburgh had more players charged with a crime (22) than any other team from last season's preseason top 25.

"Sometimes through great adversity, that allows something great to happen," Graham says. "I believe that's the case in this situation."

While Graham wasn't the first choice for coach, athletic director Steve Pederson said Pittsburgh was interested in Graham from "day one." And Graham has made an early splash reminiscent of one of Pittsburgh's former coaches.

"The common theme we've heard around here is how much Coach Graham reminds them of Johnny Majors coming here in 1973," Pederson said. "I think some of that is the style. Coach Majors is a high-energy guy who brought a lot of energy to our program. He came from the South. [Graham] has some ... similarities."

Graham is from Mesquite, Texas, and aside from a two-year stint as linebacker coach under West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez in 2001-02, Graham has spent his entire college and high school coaching career in Texas and Oklahoma. Wannstedt spent most of his career in the NFL and major-college football before returning to his alma mater. His predecessor, Walt Harris, had been a major-conference assistant and NFL assistant before taking over.

Tumultuous times
There was nary a dull moment at Pittsburgh beginning in late November through early February. Here's a timeline.
Nov. 26: Pittsburgh loses the Big East lead in a 35-10 loss at home to rival West Virginia.

Dec. 3: Coach Mike Haywood leads Miami (Ohio) past Northern Illinois 26-21 in the MAC championship game.

Dec. 4: Pittsburgh wins its regular-season finale, 28-10 over Cincinnati, to finish 7-5.

Dec. 7: Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt resigns after going 42-31 in six seasons at his alma mater.

Dec. 16: Pittsburgh hires Haywood to replace Wannstedt.

Dec. 31: Haywood is arrested on a domestic violence charge in South Bend, Ind.

Jan. 1: Pittsburgh fires Haywood.

Jan. 8: Pitt defeats Kentucky 27-10 in the BBVA Compass Bowl under interim coach Phil Bennett, who had been defensive coordinator under Wannstedt.

Jan. 10: Pitt hires Tulsa coach Todd Graham.

Feb. 2: Pitt signs the Big East's fifth-ranked recruiting class on National Signing Day
Graham moved his way up through the small-college and high school ranks. Even when he reached major-college football, he served at two of the smallest schools in the bowl subdivision. Tulsa and Rice have a combined enrollment of 9,756; Pitt's enrollment is 28,328. Meanwhile, his "soft spot" for high school coaches has served him well -- he gave current Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn his second college job and current Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris his first.

But Pederson throwing out comparisons with Majors -- that is eye-raising. Majors took over in 1973, after Pitt had gone 1-10 in '72. Four years later, the Panthers won the national championship.

No one is predicting a national title in four years, but a modest improvement could mean big things for the Panthers. Graham didn't inherit a program in shambles, just one that has underachieved.

The Panthers return 14 starters, including eight on defense, from a team that regrouped to beat Kentucky 27-10 in the bowl game. That Pitt didn't come unglued in December was something of a victory in itself, quarterback Tino Sunseri says.

"It just goes to show that you get what you put into it," says Sunseri, who was 35-of-55 for 416 yards in the April 16 spring game. "Our team really came together. We thought the best thing we could to do to represent was to play as hard as we could."

The bowl win may have boosted Pittsburgh's confidence going into the offseason, but it won't help Pittsburgh run Graham's no-huddle spread offense. To do that, Graham wants his team to shape up. Now that spring practice is over, the major task for the players is to work on conditioning to run Graham's preferred high-tempo offense.

"It almost takes three years to get where we want to be from a conditioning standpoint, where we can play a football game at our pace," Graham says. "Coming out of spring, we can play at half at the pace that we want to go at."

Graham's Tulsa teams led the nation in total offense in 2007 and '08, when Malzhan was the coordinator; the Golden Hurricane were sixth and second, respectively, in scoring offense those seasons. Tulsa was fifth in the nation in total offense and sixth in scoring offense last season, when Morris was the coordinator.

Graham, a defensive coach most of his career, will have co-offensive coordinators at Pitt. One will be former Michigan and West Virginia offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, who will double as running backs coach; the other is Mike Norvell, who spent four seasons with Graham at Tulsa and also will oversee the wide receivers. The quarterback coach is Todd Dodge, who was fired as North Texas' coach in November -- but he's also a former ultra-successful high school coach in Texas.

The change in the offense could be taxing on a group of players used to running a pro-style system. Sunseri has rarely taken snaps out of the shotgun, but he'll be in the formation almost exclusively now. Sunseri said the biggest adjustment actually will be for the receivers, especially in conditioning.

"Those guys are used to running routes, going to the huddle and getting their legs back and catching their breath," Sunseri says. "Now they have to sprint back. They're getting calls from the sidelines. They have to do all the running."

Despite the challenges, Graham's offense represents a change in tactics but not necessarily strategy. Like Wannstedt and former coordinator Frank Cignetti, Graham wants to run the ball first to maximize gains in the passing game. As with the previous staff, Graham will use a fullback and a tight end -- only Graham's fullbacks ideally will get their hands on the ball.

While there's a tendency to lump all spread offenses together, the Tulsa and Rice offenses have had unique wrinkles. Graham's best teams have run more than they've passed; overall, his teams at Tulsa and Rice ran the ball 54.1 percent of the time. Although his teams may start a play in a different formation, Graham said his offense snaps the ball in a two-back formation more than two-thirds of the time.

"We are a run-play action pass [team]," Graham says. "The big difference is we want to be a physical team. We play with a fullback/tight end-type guy. To be able to run the ball, you got to be able to incorporate two backs and tight ends and stuff like that.

"We're not just a four-wide, five-wide 'throw it first, run it second' type of spread. We're very different from what some of the others are. That's a different type of spread."

Still, Pitt has a roster full of offensive players recruited to play in a pro-style system, and as Graham builds his program, he'll look to Majors' recruiting plan. Despite his ties to Texas, Graham plans to recruit regionally in Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

"The last time Pitt owned western Pennsylvania was in '76, when they won a national championship and they kept the best and the brightest here," Graham says. "We'll spot-recruit in places where we have existing relationships. You're not going to be at Pitt and primarily recruit Texas or Florida."

With his current batch of players, Graham does have an intriguing group to run the offense. Running back Ray Graham (no relation to the coach) emerged as a big-play threat as a sophomore last season (6.2 yards per carry, eight touchdown runs); he also is a good receiver out of the backfield, an important component in Graham's offense.

Coaches are hoping wide receivers Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will emerge as reliable targets after spending last season in the shadow of first-round pick Jon Baldwin. Illinois transfer Hubie Graham (no relation to the other two Grahams) and sophomore Brock DeCicco could fill the tight end/H-back role.

The group may be competent, but Todd Graham knows from experience that proficiency is a long-term process.

"We are not going to go from A to Z, not in one year," he says. "When I was at Rice, we went from A to G. When I went back to Tulsa, we went from A to M. We're hoping we can be somewhere in there.

"We will look very different from Year One to Year Four."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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