Graham’s classless departure for ASU nothing new
Until Wednesday, there was a video on the Pittsburgh athletics website that basically was a marketing vehicle for Todd Graham’s coaching style and personality. The best part of the video was when Graham said, with spectacular insincerity, “My favorite thing about coaching is the relationships with the players.”
Via Twitter, here’s an update on how your relationships are going with the Pitt Panthers, Todd:
Adam Lazenga called you a “liar and a fraud.”
Devin Street called you “The liar.”
Edited into English from Twitterese, Mark Giubilato Jr. says, “Trust nobody but yourself and your family, because nobody else cares about the implications their lies have on you as a person and your future.”
Max Gruder: “A lot of empty promises.”
Graham shattered about 105 of the relationships he allegedly cares about the most when he fled Pitt like a bandit Wednesday for Arizona State. Leaving after less than a year at Pitt was bad enough, but the goodbye was even worse – an email to your director of football operations with a message for the players.
It went like this: “I have resigned my position at Pitt in the best interest of my family to pursue the head coaching position at Arizona State. Coaching there has always been a dream of ours and we have family there. The timing of the circumstances have prohibited me from telling you this directly. I am on my way to Tempe to continue those discussions. God Bless, Coach Graham.”
God bless? God forbid you put the brakes on the self-advancement train long enough to meet your players and tell them face to face that you’re jilting them after 11 months on the job. There are no “circumstances” that justify such cut-and-run cowardice. Arizona State had gone 17 days without a coach; it certainly could have made it an 18th and let you take care of business properly at Pitt.
But this sort of behavior is consistent with the Graham that I and other people know.
When I was working for ESPN.com in 2008, we arranged an all-access piece with Tulsa for its game at Arkansas. Graham was the coach at Tulsa and the Golden Hurricane were undefeated and ranked 19th in the country at the time – largely because Gus Malzahn was orchestrating an explosive offense. I had full access to Tulsa starting about 24 hours before kickoff – team walk-through at the stadium, meetings at the hotel, on the sideline during the game, in the locker room both pregame and postgame.
Leading up to the game, Graham made multiple mentions of his faith. He led the team in the Lord’s Prayer before taking the field. And when a defensive back blew an assignment on the first series, Graham F-bombed him as viciously as any coach I’ve seen since Bob Knight.
OK, so he’s hardly the first coach to play both sides of the piety-profanity line. What happened postgame is where I lost respect for him. When Tulsa lost a game it should have won (30-23), I was stopped at the entrance to the locker room by a nervous graduate assistant.
“You can’t come in,” he said.
“Yes, I can,” I said. “We already worked this out. Win or lose, I’m in the locker room.”
“No,” the GA said. “Coach Graham doesn’t want you in here.”
This was my version of the director of ops email. I wouldn’t have liked being shut out by a sore loser who reneged on an agreement under any circumstance, but having a graduate assistant deliver the news made it worse. After that season – Graham’s second at Tulsa – word started to circulate that he was looking for other jobs. He had bailed on Rice after just one season as head coach, in 2006, to go to Tulsa and left behind some angry people.
“We had just announced his [contract] extension two days earlier,” a Rice source told me. “He did meet with the players, first thing in the morning, but the news had already broken a bit at that point. He said, ‘I had to do this for my family.’ ”
[Related: College football coaching carousel]
Sound familiar? That family of his sure is demanding. You have to wonder whether a big-time job in Texas might provoke another sudden familial need to relocate.
“But I think everyone was happy he was gone,” the Rice source continued. “A lot of guys opted to graduate early rather than play another year.”
Graham didn’t get out of Tulsa in ’08 or in ’09, after a 5-7 season set him back. But last season, he rode a 10-3 record to the Pitt job. A native Texan with no ties to the Panthers’ program or the region, he was an odd fit – another in a series of questionable hires by Pitt AD Steve Pederson – but it was no surprise that he took the job.
“He’d crawl across broken glass to get away,” was the text I got from a former Graham staff member.
At Pitt, Graham worked his usual confidence game. He trotted out the same talismans and same slogans he used at his previous stops – there was a rock, and a rope, and a lot of talk about togetherness and commitment and team. He could always sell it to his audience, whether it was players, fans or media.
“The 80th time you heard the speech was just as interesting as the first,” said the Rice source. “But then when you hear it at another school and he’s just changing the names from Team A to Team B, you start to figure it out.”
You start to figure out that Todd Graham is all about himself. Not all about the team he’s coaching.
By now, Graham’s reputation has taken enough hits that Arizona State may have its Bobby Petrino – a guy who couldn’t make another abrupt job change even if he wanted to. So this may work out for the Sun Devils.
As for Pittsburgh? There’s no sympathy for the administration, which earlier this year abruptly fled the Big East for the ACC. Hopefully, chancellor Mark Nordenberg can appreciate a good trap-dooring from the other end as well.
But I feel for the players, who at some point will be introduced to their fourth coach in a little more than a year – from Dave Wannstedt to Mike Haywood (dismissed after two weeks on the job following a domestic incident) to Todd Graham to Next.
They’ll undoubtedly get a speech from the new guy about how much he cares about them. Hopefully he’ll mean it more than the last guy, but don’t blame the players if they don’t trust the words.
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