Graham Abruptly Leaves Pitt for Arizona State
PITTSBURGH – Todd Graham came to Pittsburgh in January promising to revitalize the Panthers.
No detail went overlooked, from the mural he wanted painted in his office to the rope he hung just inside the doors of the team facility, the one the players were required to touch on their way in and out of the building to remind them that they’re in this together.
Eleven months later, the rope remains, but Graham is gone and Pitt must rebuild. Again.
Graham’s stunning resignation on Wednesday to take the same position at Arizona State left the administration stunned, players angry and athletic director Steve Pederson on his third coaching search in a year.
“I never imagined that we would be where we are today at this particular time talking about what we’re talking about,” Pederson said.
Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will serve as interim coach when the Panthers (6-6) play SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 7, bringing about an eerie case of deja vu.
Pitt beat Kentucky 27-10 in the same bowl a year ago, with Phil Bennett serving as interim after Dave Wannstedt was forced out and replacement Mike Haywood was fired after less than three weeks on the job following his arrest on a domestic violence charge in Indiana. Graham was hired on Jan. 10 to restore a sense of sanity to the program. He preached accountability, speed and talked relentless about how the Panthers could contend for a Big East title right away.
It never happened.
The “high-octane” offense Graham brought with him from Tulsa operated sporadically at best and the team struggled to put away opponents.
Three times Pitt let double-digit second-half leads slip away, turning a promising season into a frustrating one.
“Obviously we have not accomplished what we set out to,” Graham said before the regular season finale against Syracuse.
Less than three weeks later, he was gone.
Graham called taking the job at Arizona State a family decision, echoing the same words used during his introductory press conference with the Panthers.
The school’s administration had other words for his sudden exit, “disappointing” being near the top of the list.
“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.”
Pederson was in North Carolina on Tuesday meeting with ACC officials – the program’s new conference home starting in 2014 – when he received a message to contact Graham.
The coach asked Pederson for permission to speak with Arizona State. Pederson said no and asked Graham to meet to discuss the future of the program. Less than three hours later, Graham offered his resignation. Pederson was dumbfounded but unapologetic for his stance.
“We felt like, less than a year in, like we were well within our bounds to deny somebody permission to talk to someone,” Pederson said.
Word spread quickly, with Graham notifying his players with a text message/e-mail sent by an intermediary. By the time players convened for an impromptu meeting at 3 p.m. with Pederson and what’s left of the coaching staff, Graham was already on his way West.
Patterson, a friend of Graham’s since their college days at East Central University in Oklahoma, described the meeting as positive. The players weren’t quite so sure, many of them taking to their Twitter account to vent their frustration.
“If y’all say we can’t get mad .. Y’all are crazy you grown men out there how would you feel if you been lied to and used,” wide receiver Devin Street posted.
Freshman quarterback Trey Anderson, like his teammates in the midst of finals week, was equally stunned.
“I take a nap for 2 hours, wake up to find out my head coach is gone,” he posted.
Graham was hardly the first coach out the door, however. Pitt lost assistants Calvin Magee, Tony Dixon and Tony Dews, to Arizona the day after a 33-20 victory over Syracuse in the regular season finale on Dec. 3.
It’s the kind of disarray Pederson was hoping to avoid after the team’s nightmarish search last year. Wannstedt didn’t exactly go gracefully following his ouster and Haywood’s subsequent firing only complicated matters.
Now the Panthers are looking for their fourth coach in 13 months. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who share the same training complex as the Panthers, have had three coaches in 42 years.
“It’s hard to predict behavior, as we’ve learned, no matter how much research or talk you do,” Pederson said. “But we are committed to getting the right person.”
Pederson indicated the finalists when Haywood and Graham were hired would likely be on his list while also promising to cast a wide net.
He may need one.
Many of the top candidates are helping prepare their teams for bowl games and the program’s bumpy year – including the startling announcement it is heading to the ACC at some point between now and 2014 – only complicates matters.
Whenever he’s hired, the new coach will enter a locker room full of skeptics. Pederson understands the challenge he faces.
“We’re going to have to work hard to build any trust that’s been lost,” he said. “It’s still the same young men out there. They’re terrific young people and that’s why we go to games and support them.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.