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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Coaching Moves

Grading Pittsburgh’s Coaching Move

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Pittsburgh’s initial failure was in dismissing Dave Wannstedt, whose team — horror of horrors — finished tied atop the Big East after winning 19 games from 2008-9. The second misstep was in hiring Mike Haywood as his replacement; 16 days and an allegation of domestic abuse later, Haywood is no longer employed by the university. In an attempt to calm the waters, athletic director Steve Pederson hired the coach he likely should have considered in the first place. Todd Graham is fresh off three 10-win seasons in four years at Tulsa, a record that meant more before Steve Kragthorpe crashed and burned at Louisville but remains an impressive resume of success.

Positives Graham has won at two non-B.C.S. conference stops: Tulsa is one, Rice the other. Winning at Tulsa was expected: the system and the players were in place for immediate success, though Graham deserves credit for maintaining and building upon the success experienced by his predecessor. His one year at Rice saw the Owls finish 7-6, landing the team its first bowl trip in 45 years. That was impressive.

He’s already compiled a strong staff. It’s clear that Pittsburgh will run the spread, based on the assistants Graham has added since being hired earlier this month: three are from Michigan — Calvin Magee, Tony Dews and Tony Gibson — with another handful coming along with Graham from Tulsa. Graham also added Todd Dodge, formerly of North Texas, as his quarterbacks coach. Yes, the spread will be in full effect.

Give Graham credit for one thing: a defense-first coach, he’s very hands-off with the offense. This worked wonderfully for him at Tulsa, where he turned the keys to the offense over to Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris, both times to terrific results. Look for more of the same at Pittsburgh.

Confidence. Graham has it. It also can’t be underestimated. While the Big East has undergone rampant coaching changes since 2008, I’m not sure if another coach enters a better situation, one more conducive to making an immediate splash. With how Graham has fared in his debut seasons at Rice and Tulsa, how infectious his confidence can be, don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh pulls a reverse: the Panthers might enter the 2011 season without any hype but exceed all expectations, not fall short of massive early-season goals.

Negatives Is this another stepping-stone for Graham? Rice certainly was. As was Tulsa. Is Pittsburgh his last stop? Yes, the Panthers are in the Big East, playing for a B.C.S. berth every season, and the university can certainly pony up a large enough paycheck to keep Graham’s attention. But what if he wins 10 games in three of his first four seasons? You think Graham wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to take over at a more prestigious program?

I’m not sure what we can take from his period at Tulsa. We can take away the fact that Graham is certainly a good coach; that’s not under debate. Whether going 36-17 at Tulsa is truly meaningful, however — that is up in the air. He inherited a wonderful situation, for starters. He had the help of two of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He played a relatively weak schedule. Is 36-17 really something to get excited over? At least to such a high degree?

The level of competition will be far more difficult, even if the Big East is the nation’s weakest B.C.S. conference. There’s the conference schedule, for starters, which sends the Panthers to Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia in 2011, as well as a tough non-conference slate: in his debut season, Pittsburgh will face Iowa, Notre Dame and Utah outside of the Big East.

Grade B. Pittsburgh loses points for firing Wannstedt in the first place, though that’s not necessarily fair to hold against Graham. Further points are deducted because of the ineptitude with which Pederson addressed the original vacancy — again, not a judgement against Graham. When looking merely at the coach, the only factor that precludes this from being a great hire is the fact that the last Tulsa coach to move to the B.C.S. conference ranks failed so miserably. Graham’s his own coach, but the jury remains out whether it was the coach or the system in place that led to such success with the Golden Hurricane.

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  1. [...] Myerberg of the NY Times Pre-Snap Read gives the hire a “B” while openly assessing the penalty points. Pittsburgh loses points for firing Wannstedt in the first place, though that’s not necessarily [...]

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