John Klein: Todd Graham embracing his latest challenge at Arizona State
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Sunday, July 15, 2012
7/15/12 at 5:58 AM
Go to John Klein's Blog Original Print Headline: Graham embracing his latest challenge
Todd Graham knew he would become the target of widespread criticism when he decided to leave Pitt after just one season to be the coach at Arizona State.
But Graham said the real mistake, the big mistake he made in the whole affair, came a year earlier.
"I shouldn't have left Tulsa," said Graham last week in an interview with the Tulsa World. "I should have stayed another year at Tulsa. There is no question in my mind that I made a mistake at the time because I made a knee-jerk decision to go to Pitt.
"I knew we were losing (Tulsa President) Steadman Upham. He was such a huge reason for our success in football. I knew there were challenges at Tulsa, but I reacted too quick to what I knew were going to be changes. It was and will always be a special place to me and my family. It was a good place to coach football, actually a great place with terrific people. I jumped. I should have stayed."
Another year at Tulsa probably would not have changed Graham's trajectory that has taken him from the smallest to the largest school playing FBS football in less than a year.
Folks in the Valley of the Sun are hoping that Graham's hiring is as successful as the last time Arizona State hired a TU football coach. John Cooper left Tulsa for Arizona State in 1985 and in three years he led the Sun Devils to three bowls, including the 1987 Rose Bowl.
Considering Arizona State's shaky football in recent years, Graham's immediate goals would be to make modest improvement.
That would certainly fit the Graham model.
He left TU as an assistant to become head coach at Rice and led the Owls to their first bowl in 45 years.
Graham left Rice, the first time he left a school after just one year, to return to Tulsa as head coach. Again, he had an immediate impact, taking the Golden Hurricane to 10-plus victories in three of his four years.
He bolted for Pitt where he was one point shy of putting the Panthers in the Orange Bowl.
History would indicate Graham's immediate impact at Arizona State will be immediate.
"You embrace the challenge at your school, wherever that may be," said Graham. "We loved Tulsa. Still do. Always will.
"But everyone knows there are challenges to winning football at Tulsa. You have to be willing to embrace the academics and make that work for you. We did that with the kind of players we brought in. Those kids could handle the academics and play football at a very high level. It was a unique situation, but it was so much fun."
Graham went off to Pitt and everything was different. He said the football situation was not what he believed it would be. He said the football culture, everything from high schools to the Big East Conference, was foreign to him.
"Because of the situation at Pitt when I was hired (Pitt had to back out from hiring its first choice at the last minute), it was a decision that I made too quickly." said Graham. "It turned out to not be the kind of situation I believed it was going to be. It was not what we thought it would be.
"The entire culture was different up there. I just never felt comfortable there. You've got to fit into a place to be successful, and I don't think we fit there."
So, Pitt ended up being nothing more than a temporary stop.
Even if Graham had stayed another year at Tulsa, he believes he would have eventually gone to Arizona State when that job opened last winter.
"Every coach believes they can win big at whatever school they are at," said Graham. "That's just the way coaches are. They have to feel that way to devote the time and effort it takes to win at this level of college football.
"But, the truth is, some schools have a lot going for them. Arizona State has everything you need to win at the highest levels of college football. They have resources, the school, the fan support, an attractive hometown, everything. I have no excuses, and that's what you want as a coach."
The truth is that Graham will be trying to win at a school that should be one of the top college football programs in the country.
Arizona State has terrific facilities that are about to get better. There are plans to put a canopy over a totally renovated Sun Devil Stadium, to protect fans and teams from brutal sun and heat, as part of a $300 million stadium project.
ASU has a huge alumni and fan base including more than 72,000 students.
It has the ability to recruit just about anywhere because of weather, and the new coaching staff has strong recruiting ties from Texas to southern California.
If Graham believes he made the decision to leave Tulsa too quickly, he couldn't have made the decision to leave Pitt for Arizona State any quicker.
Arizona State is one of those schools out there that everyone believes has everything it needs to be a football power.
Graham is among the believers.
"Anyone that knows me knows how competitive I am," he said. "That's just my personality. I love to compete.
"If you are a college coach, the goal is to hold up that big crystal football at the end of the season. There is no doubt that this is one of the places where you can do it. You have everything you need here to compete at that level."
That includes players. Graham, always a hard-driving optimist, believes the Sun Devils are already on the road to college football's elite. Arizona State was 6-7 last year including a blowout loss to Boise State in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. ASU lost six of its last seven games.
Still, the Devils have a roster loaded with potential, although they were unable to settle on a quarterback to replace Brock Osweiler in spring practice.
Plus, ASU faces a huge hurdle in the Pac-12 where two teams, USC and Oregon, are expected to be national-championship level. Washington State (Mike Leach) and Arizona (Rich Rodriguez) hired big-name coaches. The nonconference schedule includes Illinois and a trip to Missouri.
"It won't be easy," said Graham. "It wasn't easy in Tulsa, either. But we found players who fit the academics and were passed over by some of the big schools. They turned out to be terrific players.
"We embraced what we had at Tulsa. We'll embrace what we have here at Arizona State."
Former TU head coach Todd Graham celebrates after the Golden Hurricane defeated Notre Dame 28-27 on Oct. 30, 2010 in South Bend, Ind. TOM GILBERT / Tulsa World file