Trietley: Tipping point for Todd Graham

By Greg Trietley

Has Todd Graham lived up to expectations in his first season as the head coach of Pitt… Has Todd Graham lived up to expectations in his first season as the head coach of Pitt football? The heated debate has one conflicted member of the sports staff arguing with himself.

Point: Greg, how can you dislike him? He’s revitalizing the program.

Graham’s personality gives Pitt football a pulse. He’s honest, he’s outspoken and he’s passionate — which is just what the program needs.

Pitt football isn’t high-octane yet, but Graham is. He shouted “Hail to Pitt!” at the end of his postgame interview with ESPN after the Panthers dismantled No. 16 South Florida on national television. He sprints down the sideline to call timeouts and wears his emotions on his sleeves.

The results will come in time, Greg. For now, the measure of Graham’s success is who he lands on the recruiting trail. And so far, Graham has pulled in two huge names: running back Rushel Shell and four-star quarterback Chad Voytik.

Shell — who gains somewhere between 200 and 18,000 yards in his high school games — picked Graham and the Panthers over Alabama. Alabama!

The man can recruit. With Penn State and Ohio State in turmoil, and Pitt relocating (eventually) to the Atlantic Coast Conference, is there someone you’d rather have sweet-talking high school stars? Graham is as wholesome as a coach can be. He doesn’t let his players swear. Heck, his son is Little Roc, and it’s so adorable.

Graham is the first to admit that the team needs to improve, but he has done well with what he inherited. The Panthers have averaged 28.3 points in home games this year. That’s an increase over last season, and Pitt lost leading rusher Dion Lewis and top receiver Jonathan Baldwin from that team.

Comparatively, Graham actually has been high-octane.

And about that octane: Graham didn’t put up billboards and produce television commercials. Don’t think less of his infectious excitement for Pitt football because the school improperly marketed the team to wary fans.

The playbook is exciting. They will try anything once. They run reverses and end-arounds. They use the wildcat formation. Freshman wide receiver Ronald Jones has two passing touchdowns. Are you not entertained?

Execution has been the issue, not the playbook. Graham said in his speech to the Oakland Zoo on Jan. 15 that the Panthers would throw the ball “deep down the field.” He never said it would be caught this year.

Pitt has sustained too many injuries to assess Graham’s 4-5 record fairly. The Panthers are one wounded lineman away from pondering if Mark May has any eligibility left. It’s a miracle they only lost by three to a ranked Cincinnati team that blows Pitt out of the water in terms of healthy, veteran talent.

As bad as Pitt fans think the offense is, the Panthers are fourth in the Big East in yards per game, behind West Virginia, Cincinnati and South Florida — three teams that had BCS hopes in August. Pitt hasn’t overachieved this year, but the team hasn’t exactly underachieved, either.

Before you bring it up, Greg, I don’t want to hear about the putrid loss at Rutgers. Every first-year coach has ups and downs. The Panthers are a few bounces away from 8-1.

Remember when Pitt football was in shambles in January? Some believed that the Michael Haywood fiasco would lead to the death of the program. No recruits will come! Donors won’t donate! Oh, the humanity!

Have there been any lasting negative effects? Less than a year later, it’s smooth sailing with Graham in charge. Aside from Haywood’s ongoing lawsuit and an admittedly rushed 2011 recruiting class, it’s as if the debacle never happened, and Graham is to thank for that.

Counterpoint: Everything you said is propaganda, Greg. Pitt is 4-5, and Graham deserves blame.

I don’t know who this Greg character is, but his incessant cheerleading for Pitt football ends here.

“We’re a few bounces away from 8-1!” is the perpetual moaning of a perennial loser.

Graham has been all talk and no substance. At some point, he is at fault for his system not fitting his players. Graham looked at Tino Sunseri, ripped 40 pages out of his playbook and never bothered to fill those pages with new plays tailored to his quarterback.

As a result, the passing game has operated in low gear all season, overly reliant on a few wide receiver screens, check-downs in the flat and crosses over the middle of the field.

Don’t give me the injury excuse. Every team deals with adversity. A Utah squad without its starting quarterback and leading receiver beat the Panthers by 12. Louisville’s offensive line is a bigger mess than Pitt’s, and the Cardinals are 3-1 in the Big East.

“Ups and downs”? A well-coached team shows up against Rutgers, and a well-coached team doesn’t hemorrhage second-half leads to Iowa, Notre Dame, Cincinnati or Utah, let alone to all four. When it happens once, maybe the players are to blame. But four times? Repeated late-game implosions are a systemic problem.

Graham can bring in all the prized recruits he wants, but right now Pitt’s defense features the most talented front seven in the Big East and a veteran secondary, and where has that taken the team? Only Syracuse and Connecticut surrender more yards per game.

The inability to translate talent into winning is the same issue Pitt football had under Dave Wannstedt.

The obnoxious and forced “high-octane” slogan might as well be a HeadOn commercial at this point. Apply directly to the loss column. Force it down the throats of Pitt fans some more, because it isn’t a running joke already.

Did the phrase ever mean anything other than having the quarterback punt? Gary McGhee gets up a basketball court faster than Pitt’s offense snaps the ball.

Graham’s so-called dynamic offense utilizes the same gadget plays that have existed since the dawn of time. Oh! An occasional end-around for six yards! How exciting! If anything, Anthony Gonzalez at wide receiver and Mark Myers at punter is a gross misuse of talent, not interesting quirks in a unique system.

Wide receiver Mike Shanahan is struggling to match his stats from last season, when he was the second option behind Baldwin. His yards per catch have actually decreased in Graham’s “explosive” system. What happened to throwing the ball deep down the field?

At least Pitt football is high-octane for the opponents at least, with all the picks and sacks they are getting.

And Greg, you’re telling me to be patient? Patience shouldn’t be necessary in the Big East. A coach with national championship ambitions should dominate the misfits of the Bowl Championship Series right away, or at least not lose to Rutgers. Should Connecticut really be considered a statement win?

Sure, a crisis was averted when Graham replaced Haywood. But it seems that everything Pitt has done since then has been an overreaction to that fiasco. Were the Graham billboards and television spots necessary? The Panthers have hammed it up big -time since he came on board, although the other, more honest advertising option — “Todd Graham: Hhe was our second choice!” — probably didn’t test well.

A 4-5 record is inexcusable. At Graham’s salary, that’s $1 million per win (because Maine and Buffalo better come free). Maybe you’re a business major, Greg, but I’m not, and even I can tell that Graham is a bad investment at the moment.