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Mandate for Change: Todd Graham brings Pitt up to speed

New coaches and the schools that love them (for now). Today: Pittsburgh's Todd Graham.

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The Old Guy. Technically, Graham is replacing Pitt's first choice, Mike Haywood, whose tenure lasted all of 17 days before he was shown the door on the heels of a domestic assault arrest on New Year's Eve. But the roster, culture and lingering sense of underachievement Graham inherits are entirely the result of six years under Dave Wannstedt.

In fact, the first five of those seasons seemed like a slow but steady uphill slog, beginning with a 5-6 slump in 2005 on the heels of a top-25, Fiesta Bowl season in 2004 under former coach Walt Harris. It took Wannstedt two more years — and three top-30 recruiting classes — to break through to a bowl game, but it really did seem like a breakthrough: The '08 Panthers won nine games and finished with the highest ranking (No. 15) of any Pitt team since it joined the Big East in 1991, and the '09 team was seconds away from a conference championship en route to shcool's the first 10-win campaign since 1981, when Dan Marino finished fourth in Heisman voting. The 2010 team, with All-Americans Dion Lewis and Jonathan Baldwin back on offense , was poised to finish the job.

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Instead, the overwhelming Big East favorite went down in flames in three high-profile non-conference games against Utah, Miami (both Thursday night losses on national television, the latter a blowout) and Notre Dame, and blew a chance to take a wide open conference race with losses to UConn (another Thursday night flop) and rival West Virginia. An icy win at Cincinnati in the finale ensured the Panthers of another winning record at 7-5, and technically earned them a share of the Big East title. But it couldn't cover up the obvious regression in a season that offered a golden opportunity to break back into the big time, and UConn's Cinderella Fiesta Bowl run with talent the Panthers had mostly ignored didn't help Wannstedt's case, either.

The New Guy. Where Wannstedt's methodical, NFL-bred conservatism made him perfectly contend to bore opponents to death if necessary, Todd Graham showed up ready to set things on fire with the relentlessly up-tempo spread philosophy that served him so well in Tulsa: In four years under Graham, the Golden Hurricane won 10 games, took at least a share of the Conference USA West title and went to a bowl game in three of them — easily the best four-year run at Tulsa in 60 years, if not ever, and entirely the result of one of the most prolific offenses in the country.{YSP:MORE}

Because his background is one defense, and Tulsa's defense was consistently terrible on his watch, the instinct has been to minimize Graham's role in that success. Instead, credit for the No. 1 total offense in the nation in both 2007 and 2008 was heaped mainly on offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who quickly ascended to greater fame, fortune and championship glory at Auburn. Even without Malzahn and respected running game coordinator Herb Hand, though, Tulsa bounced back from a losing season in '09 with a return to the top 10 nationally in both total and scoring offense last year, sparking an upset win at Notre Dame and a seven-game winning streak to close the year that ended with a 62-35 rout over heavily favored Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.

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If nothing else, Graham knows what he wants offensively and knows how to hire for it. One of his new offensive coordinators is an old one, Mike Norvell, who tags along from Tulsa to reprise his role as the passing game coordinator. His counterpart in the running game will be Hand's old boss, Calvin McGee, who helped pull the strings on the attacks that terrorized the Pitt D for 45 points and well over 450 yards on the ground alone in both cases. (McGee also comes from a spread 'n shred-style offense in Michigan that led the Big Ten last year in total yards.) Also joining the staff: Former North Texas head coach Todd Dodge, the new quarterbacks coach, whose 15-year, spread-led run through the Texas high school ranks prior to flaming out at UNT earned him a reputation (along with Malzahn) as one of the nation's leading spread innovators at the prep level. If the Panthers sputter, it's certainly not going to be because the coaches aren't willing to open things up.

Immediate Impact or Slow Burn? The "underachiever" tag fits even better now that the NFL saw fit to take five Panther players in last month's draft, including Baldwin and Lewis, two of the most disappointing skill guys in the country after breakout campaigns by both in '09. But their exit doesn't make the Panthers any less likely to take a conference that still refuses to accept a frontrunner — indications from the earliest preseason polls suggest West Virginia is the only Big East team that will get a sniff from the real thing this summer. The opening for an immediate impact in the form of a conference championship and long-awaited return trip to the BCS is right on the surface, just as it is for the rest of the conference.

But that's been more or less the case on an annual basis for the last three years. In terms of moving the program forward nationally and putting some space between it and the rest of the conference, it's still probably years away as Graham searches for a quarterback and remakes the team in his more aggressive image. But the window for taking advantage Big East defenses' spread learning curve won't be open long: With West Virginia looking to spark its own attack with a new up-tempo philosophy of its own, the lo-fi ethos that ruled the rest of the conference last year will be forced to evolve or die.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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