Football: Graham brings discipline, respect for tradition to Pitt

By Lauren Kirschman

Todd Graham decided he wanted to be a football coach in seventh grade.

After his dad left… Todd Graham decided he wanted to be a football coach in seventh grade.

After his dad left his mom with five kids in the southeast side of Dallas, Graham didn’t have a lot of guidance in his life, he said. Without an education, his mom worked three jobs to support the family.

He wasn’t sure where his life was headed. Then he started playing football for Buddy Copeland.

“[Copeland] was the meanest, toughest guy I’d ever been around,” Graham said. “He never said a positive thing to me — ever. He would grab you by your facemask and kick you in your tail end.”

But then Copeland would whisper in Graham’s ear and tell the young athlete that he was a stud football player.

He told Graham to stop feeling sorry for himself because he didn’t have a father. Graham said he thought Copeland was the most insensitive person he ever met.

“But somehow I knew this guy loved me,” Graham said. “I knew that he really cared. He never did anything but coach seventh and eighth grade football. He made a difference in my life in every way you can change a person’s life. And from that point, I knew I wanted to coach.”

Graham wanted people to look at him they way he looked at Copeland — as a teacher and a disciplinarian. Copeland was hard and tough, Graham said, but he made a difference.

Graham moved on from seventh grade football to become an All-State defensive back at North Mesquite High School and a two-time NAIA All-American at East Central University, where he graduated with a degree in education in 1987. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college.

After a brief stint in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams, Graham returned to his junior high dream of coaching. He established himself in Texas high school football as both a coach and an athletic director, but eventually his competitive nature led him to the collegiate level.

He served as a coordinator for both West Virginia and Tulsa before taking his first head coaching job at Rice in 2007, a season after the Owls finished the year 1-11. In Graham’s first year, he coached the team to a 7-5 record and its first bowl game since 1960.

College Hall of Fame Coach John Cooper, who coached at Tulsa and Oklahoma State, said in a University news release that he couldn’t “say enough good things about Todd Graham.”

“If I was named the head coach of some school tomorrow, I would send my entire coaching staff down to Tulsa to learn a few things,” he said. “I really believe TU’s football staff is on the cutting edge of what is going on in college football these days,” Cooper said after Graham was hired in January.

Soon after his first and only season at Rice ended, Graham returned to Tulsa as head coach, a position he held until he caught Pitt’s attention following the 2010-2011 season.

Coming to Pitt

Graham said he felt comfortable at Tulsa. He was happy with an established, top-25 program that led the nation in total offense in 2006 and 2007 and ranked fifth nationally with 505.6 yards in 2010.

He’d been at Tulsa seven of the past eight years. He loved his players, he loved the University and so did his wife, Penny, and their six kids. Three of his children are enrolled at the school.

Before the position at Pitt opened, Graham said that his wife stated emphatically that she didn’t want to move.

But the job at Pitt intrigued him because of his experience in the Big East while coaching at West Virginia. Once again, Graham’s competitive nature had him considering a move to the next level of football.

He approached the Pitt job by thinking of both his family and his football family — his assistant coaches and their wives and kids. Pitt offered an opportunity for all of them to better themselves because of the benefits of a major conference job, he said, and he was intrigued by the University’s tradition and potential.

Graham wouldn’t have left for just any job. As the head coach of a mid-major, top-25 team, plenty of schools showed interest in Graham on an annual basis, but most of those teams were at the bottom of their conferences.

After helping turn Rice’s and Tulsa’s football programs around, Graham said he didn’t want to take on another rebuilding project. He called Pitt “the best job in the Big East.”

He took the long road to the position — Pitt first hired Michael Haywood to take over after former head coach Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure.

But on Dec. 31, less than two weeks after the University hired Haywood, he was arrested on domestic battery charges against the mother of his child.

Pitt fired Haywood on Jan. 1. The University hired Graham on Jan. 10.

“His innovative, creative and energized approach to football makes him an exciting leader for our program,” Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson said in a University news release. “He has a proven track record of success at all levels of football and his wealth of experience on both sides of the ball gives him a unique set of credentials.”

Everything surrounding the job just kept falling into place, Graham said.

“It seemed like every time we turned around, that’s what happened,” he said. “I was real excited when this job first came open because I knew the potential it had. Then I was kind of like, ‘Oh well, okay.’ I was a little bit disappointed, and I thought it wasn’t meant to be. And then it came back around and it really became a better job.”

After Graham walked out of a meeting with Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, he knew he wanted the job. He says it was one of the best decisions he ever made.

Making the Transition

On the plane ride to Pittsburgh, Graham wasn’t worried about what he would say at the press conference. He said he had six or seven points he wanted to discuss in front of the media and he felt comfortable.

He was worried about what he would say to the team — a group of players who loved and respected Wannstedt and rallied around the former coach during his resignation press conference.

“These kids had been through a tough time, and they were hurting,” he said. “What we bring is relationship. Kids know if you’re genuine, they know if you care about them, they know if you’re organized, they know if you know what they’re talking about.”

Redshirt senior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said Graham’s positive attitude toward the former coaching staff impressed him the most during the first meeting.

“He talked about how great of a coach Dave Wannstedt was, which I really respected,” Alecxih said. “He said that we had a great coach, which we did. He really made us feel comfortable pretty much right away, just told us that if we bought in, we’d be winners.”

Graham started by talking about respect. He asked the team members to give him a chance to earn their trust — a gesture that made an impression on senior defensive tackle Myles Caragein.

“When he came in, he said we have to respect him and he has to respect us,” he said. “There is a trust and a relationship we have to build. It’s not going to happen overnight. He wasn’t just saying that he’s our coach and we have to listen to him. He said there was a relationship that we had to build. We met with him every day and that helped us build our relationship. It just took time.”

Graham said the key is for the team and the staff to be realistic about where they’re at with their relationship. They are continuing to get to know each other, he said, and they’ve definitely made progress.

“I think the kids have really embraced what we’re about,” he said. “We’re trying to bring out the best in each other and accept the worst.”

Old-fashioned values

Graham stopped training camp once this summer and told his players if he heard the “F-word” one more time, they would run for the remainder of practice.

None of the players said the word again.

For as much talk as there’s been surrounding Graham’s high-octane and progressive approach on the football field, he sticks to traditional values off the field.

The restriction of profanity is just one of the rules Graham brought with him to Pitt. He also prohibited the use of Twitter during training camp. He asks players to take off their earrings and bandanas in the building and not to use their cell phones in the locker room.

“I think that your discipline, not your desire, determines your fate,” he said. “One of the reasons I wanted to do all those things is I wanted them to understand they’re going to be uncomfortable. And they might not understand why. And I’m not going to be fair all the time. That’s part of them denying themselves and taking up the team everyday.”

He doesn’t tell the players to take their earrings out, he asks them to. He said if he tells them to do something, they’ll only accomplish so much.

“But if you are bought in and inspired, if you know I care about you, then I can coach you, train you, strain you harder then you’ve ever been in your life and you can go places you’ve never been before,” he said. “That’s what I believe.”

The rules don’t keep Graham from relating to his players. Redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri said Graham comes into the locker room after practice and talks to every athlete in order make them feel at home.

“That’s a good feeling whenever a head coach goes out of his way to make sure he shakes each player’s hand and asks about their day,” Sunseri said. “That keeps you motivated and keeps you moving forward.”

Sunseri added that the enthusiasm and energy Graham brings to the football field carries over to how he acts throughout the day.

“That doesn’t stop when he walks off the practice field,” Sunseri said. “He carries himself that way as he walks down these halls. It kind of rubs off on people and that’s kind of the Pitt way now.”

Graham demands the same of his team in the classroom and in the community as he does on the football field, saying that substandard morals and values will reveal themselves during a game.

“Ninety-five percent of the time they don’t, but when it counts ­­­— when it gets down to fourth and goal and the game is on the line ­— that’s when it comes back to haunt you,” he said.

Relationships are built on a foundation of discipline, integrity, work ethic and toughness, Graham said, and the coaches and players are all trying to make each other better men.

“Here’s how you win football games: You get 11 guys to do what they’re coached to do right, the first time you ask them to do it,” he said. “We live in a society of ninth and 10th chances. Old-fashioned values is what I’m all about with the modern approach to the game. I find it easy to win if you can get the relationship.”

Respecting tradition

Graham doesn’t eat pregame meals. Instead, he gets a hot dog from every stadium he goes to. That’s what fans do at a college football game, he said, they get a hot dog and a popcorn.

And Graham, without a doubt, is a college football fan. He loves the pageantry of game day. It’s part of the reason he said he’d never be interested in coaching in the NFL.

He also said he cherishes the opportunity to make a difference in the life of each of his team members.

“I’m a teacher at heart. I want to teach,” Graham said. “I like the collegiate level, I think it’s perfect for me. These kids don’t have their mom and dad here and we basically are it. We have a tremendous influence in their lives, not just in winning games but in every regard.”

Graham also revels in the tradition of college football. He said he understands the importance of respecting the past and his elders — lessons he said he learned from Copeland and his grandfather.

The coaches and players ought to know the history of Pitt football, he said, because along with the fans and students, that’s what they represent.

At every school he’s coached at, Graham invites old lettermen into the locker room before games as a nod to the importance of the past.

“It’s better than any pregame speech I can give because they get to shake the kid’s hand that wears their number and say, ‘Son, go make me proud today,’” Graham said. “And you can look at the old warrior’s face and then walk out in that tunnel.”

Graham said the past players line the hallway, some of them growing emotional because of what the game meant to them.

“We walk through the men that have come before us,” he said. “It’s awesome. The past is also a great motivator for you to know who you represent, and I think it’s my obligation to give honor and homage to the past in a way that honors Pitt.”

Football and friendship

Graham said he wouldn’t have come to Pitt without his staff, including defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson — one of Graham’s closest friends and someone he refers to as family.

Patterson was an assistant coach under Graham at Allen High School, later becoming Graham’s defensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2006.

The two first met at East Central University in 1983.

Graham was a talkative and passionate freshman free safety, Patterson a quiet and meticulous sophomore strong safety.

Graham grew up in the inner city with a poor background; Patterson was a coach’s son with a traditional upbringing.

Graham owned a motorcycle; Patterson drove a truck.

They were inseparable from the moment they met.

Once during their time together at East Central, Graham walked into the room and told Patterson the two of them were going to visit the defensive coordinator. He didn’t tell Patterson the reason for the visit.

“He sits down and basically starts telling the coach what we ought to be doing,” Patterson said. “I thought we were going to get kicked off the team or something. But come spring practice, that’s what we were doing.”

Graham said he knew Patterson wouldn’t go with him if he told his friend his intentions.

“Keith was a guy that everyone respected,” Graham said. “He was a captain, he was very quiet, he did everything right. I was kind of a renegade guy. I knew if I went over there, they would react different than if he was with me. Keith was a little bit in a shock when I started telling him that I didn’t like what we were doing.”

Patterson said he believes their differences brought them together.

“It was kind of like opposites attract,” he said. “I saw something in him that I probably didn’t have within myself, and vice versa.”

In their years coaching together, Patterson said their personalities have rubbed off on each other. It’s almost like they’ve reversed roles, he said, with Patterson growing more aggressive and Graham calming down.

Graham said his mother, Copeland and Patterson are the people who influenced his life the most. Patterson especially helped him find a strong faith in God.

“He was raised in a church, I was not,” Graham said. “And he’s always been a great influence on me in that way, and he’s made me a better person from knowing him.”

Patterson said that even 30 years ago, Graham had a vision that they’d end up where they are now.

“Back in the ’80s we’d be out on the practice field, and he’d be talking about when we’d coach and what he wanted it to be like and what he wanted it to look like,” Patterson said. “He always had a vision.”

Coaching with Patterson at Pitt might be exactly what Graham had in mind.

“I worked for 25 years to get this job,” Graham said. “To be able to come in your first year and feel like you can compete for a championship? I’ve not had an opportunity like that.”