Again, The Grass is Greener for Graham
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 15, 2011
Todd Graham’s been to Ada, Mesquite, Midwest City, Allen, Morgantown, Tulsa, Houston, Tulsa and Pittsburgh. Tulsa came twice, first as Steve Kragthorpe’s defensive coordinator and then as his replacement, with those stints sandwiching a one-year stay at Rice, when he led the Owls to their first bowl berth in 45 seasons. The point: Graham’s been around, touching down in several of those one-stoplight towns prevalent in nearly every coach’s history. But it’s the way he’s left town, first at Rice in early 2007 and then Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon, that makes Graham different than the rest. He’s the Runaway Coach.
Rice went 1-10 in 2005, the year prior to Graham’s arrival, and had been on a steady decline over the final four seasons under his predecessor, Ken Hatfield. Another thing about Graham: he can coach. The Owls went 7-6 in 2006, earning Graham Conference USA Coach of the Year honors. It also made him a hot commodity.
The offseason progression followed a familiar path. Graham won big; Rice countered with a nice raise and contract extension. But he didn’t sign the extension, instead leaving for Tulsa, which had just lost Kragthorpe to Louisville, within days of receiving Rice’s offer.
A year later, Graham told the Tulsa World that he had some regrets over his one-year Rice flyby: “Should you go to a place one year and then leave? No, you probably shouldn’t.” Rice greeted the visiting Golden Hurricane in 2007 with a halftime musical extravaganza titled “Todd Graham’s Inferno,” implying that there’s a special circle in hell for coaches who leave programs at the altar.
This ties into yesterday’s events, when Graham left the Panthers after only one season to replace Dennis Erickson at Arizona State, ending that program’s laborious and tortoise-paced coaching search. For the second time in five years, Graham listened to the knock-knock of opportunity rather than heed any sense of loyalty he may have felt to his current employer.
This move has a different feel. Arizona State may mark a step up in prestige, but it’s not a massive leap: A.S.U. may have more draw than Pittsburgh, but that has more to do with the Pac-12 and the Big East, not the specific programs in question. In addition, Graham wasn’t happy up north, may have felt out of place, and recently had a portion of his staff raided by soon-to-be rival Arizona.
Of course, you wouldn’t have known that Graham had one eye on the door on Dec. 4, when he issued a statement about the trio of assistants who left to join Rich Rodriguez with the Wildcats.
“Moving forward, our coaches will be laser-focused on recruiting and having our team ready to play, and win, a bowl game,” said Graham. “We’ve got an incredibly bright future (at Pittsburgh) and I’m extremely ambitious and enthusiastic about what we can achieve.”
I’m sure that Graham regrets those remarks, just as he regrets his statement on Jan. 9, 2007, when Rice handed out its healthy extension on the tail end of the team’s seven-win finish: “I am very grateful to Rice University for the opportunity to coach this team and for the commitment the university has made to me and to my staff as we look forward to build on the efforts of our first season.”
At least the grass has always been greener. Tulsa is an upgrade over Rice – it was then, it is now, and will be for as long as the Owls struggle to replicate its 2006 success on a yearly basis. Today, Arizona State is a stronger destination than Pittsburgh, even if only because the Pac-12’s future is built on a stone foundation; the Big East’s straw house could be toppled by one more round of conference expansion.
Some coaches are never happy – or rarely happy, at least. Howard Schnellenberger built a menace in Coral Gables but threw it away for a chance at the U.S.F.L., which eventually fell through. He then transformed Louisville over the span of a decade before taking a marquee job at Oklahoma, which similarly ended in supreme disappointment.
Graham is cut from the same cloth. And like Schnellenberger, he can coach. He led Rice to its first bowl berth in nearly a half-century. He led Tulsa to three double-digit win seasons in four years, taking a strong program to newer and greater heights. While the Panthers struggled at times this fall, Graham was able to lead his team back into bowl play.
He can lead a program. But does Graham have the capacity to stay put and see things through to their conclusion? Will the grass always be greener on the other side? And if he does leave Tempe after two years, for example, will any major university trust him with its football program ever again?
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