08 June 2011
It's no secret that one of Todd Graham's major selling points was the "high octane, no huddle offense." That generally makes a sense for Pitt since Dave Wannstedt's offenses - for the fair amount of success that they had - were far from being innovative. Sure, it was fun to watch Shady juke out a linebacker and take off into the secondary, but there's really only so many explosive plays one can run out of an I-formation. And if you're a casual sports fan in Pittsburgh, you probably already have a favorite local team that runs a pro offense - the professional team.
However, Graham spent his time as a college assistant on the defensive side of the ball, first as the linebacker coach at WVU, then as their defensive coordinator before being the same at Tulsa. So how has the seeming defensive-minded Graham earned a reputation as an offensive coach?
The answer is simple: hire well.
If there is one thing we can learn about Todd Graham from his five seasons as a head coach it's that the man knows how to hire offensive coordinators. Through some combination of savy and luck, Graham was able to bring several up-and-comers into the C-USA assistant ranks. And when they inevitably left for BCS-level jobs, more often than not replaced him without missing a beat.
Since the only alternative in June is pointless speculation about the upcoming football season, I decided to take a look back at Graham's offensive assistants, past and present.
When he first became a head coach at Rice in 2006 after serving as Tulsa's defensive coordinator, Graham took a risk on former Longhorns quarterback Major Applewhite. Applewhite was a phenomenally successful quarterback at UT in the late 90s / early 2000s. After his playing days, he stayed in Austin as a graduate assistant until 2005 when Greg Robinson (*gasp*) hired him to coach the Orange's quarterbacks.
After one GERG-ly unsuccessful year in upstate New York, Graham took a chance on Applewhite as offensive coordinator. During his only year as Graham's play-caller, the offense put up 33.6 points per game against non-BCS foes (you can't really hold it against a coach at Rice that he couldn't score on the likes of Texas and Florida State, can you?), up from 23.3 the year before against the same level of competition. The increase from one win in 2005 to seven in 2006 could probably be attributed to that extra 10.3 points per game. Understandably, Applewhite didn't follow Graham to Tulsa and instead took over the OC duties at Alabama under then new coach Nick Saban. He's now the new co-OC for Texas.
At Tulsa Graham took another risk, this time hiring a disgruntled first year coordinator from a dysfunctional Arkansas Razorback squad: a former high school coach named Gus Malzahn. The legend of Malzahn began in the backwoods of Arkansas's high school football ranks, where he created some of the most dominating teams in the history of The Natural State. His offense set the national record for high school touchdown passes and won three state championships. From there, Houston Nutt - then the head coach of Arkansas, now of Ole Miss - hired Malzahn but it was a poor match. Nutt favored a traditional run-first offense (understandable since they had Felix Jones and Darren McFadden in the backfield) while Malzahn wanted to run the handcrafted spread that led to his hiring. Despite winning 10 games and the SEC West, Malzahn left Arkansas to join Todd Graham at Tulsa. It was not a friendly goodbye.
Under Graham Malzahn found the freedom to perfect his creation. In his first year, quarterback Paul Smith threw for over 5,000 yards with 47 touchdowns (!) and only 19 interceptions. Malzahn's backs ran for 2,255 yards, not including the 100+ by Smith who also put up 13 scores with his legs. In the 2008, first year starter David Johnson put up a ho-hum 4,059 yards, with 46/18. The running backs in '08 put up over 3,500 on the ground. In both seasons, Tulsa finished with the nation's top rated offense.
Malzahn's gaudy stats had obviously attracted some attention among programs that could offer a bit more than Tulsa. Before the Golden Hurricanes' GMAC Bowl, Malzahn left to become the offensive coordinator at Auburn. You know the rest of the story. Newton. Heisman. BCS Championship.
To replace Malzahn, Graham promoted offensive assistant Herb Hand (which really wasn't a promotion since Hand was already co-offensive coordinator with Malzahn, but I think it's a safe assumption that Malzahn ran the show offensively). Hand would go on to be Graham's first and only below par offensive coordinator. The offense fell from explosive to pedestrian, scoring only 44 touchdowns after scoring 87 the year before. Total yardage was similarly reduced from nearly 8,000 to under 5,000. During the 2009 season, Hand was stripped of play-calling duties in favor of several different coaches, including Graham himself.
But it's the Hand experience that's maybe the most telling about Graham. When the offense struggled, Hand was replaced. Perhaps that was premature (the offense didn't really get much better and became more unstable), but Graham saw a problem and took midseason to attempt to fix it. Compare that to Wannstedt, who stood by Matt Cavenaugh after the 3-0 Sun Bowl debacle ("Matt Cavanaugh knows more about quarterback play than 99 percent of the people. He's forgotten more about quarterback play than most of the other guys know, and you can quote me on that.")
Loyalty is one thing, stubbornness is another. After 2009, Graham kept Hand on the staff, but wanted to bring someone else in to call the plays. This time he turned to high school coach, and Malzahn disciple, Chad Morris:
When Graham called Morris, Malzahn did a little arm-twisting.
“I had to convince him,” Malzahn said. “He had a great job where he was, one of the top high school programs in the entire country. I told him, I think this’ll be a great opportunity for you to get into college.”
Following some more tears, Morris left for Tulsa, and as expected, invigorated the Hurricanes’ offense.
Last fall, Tulsa was the only program in America to rank in the top 15 in both passing and rushing offense; it ranked fifth in total offense, averaging 505.6 yards per game, and its 41.4 ppg ranked eighth nationally.
Graham insisted hiring Morris wasn't a knock against Hand, but clearly there was dissatisfaction there. (Hand is now the offensive line coach at Vanderbilt) Morris and Graham parted ways the day before accepted the Pitt job, with Morris taking the OC position at Clemson. Whether that was because he wasn't invited to come along or he decided he'd rather be in South Carolina is something I don't know. The numbers show that like Malzahn, Morris was able to recreate a top offense in the plains of Oklahoma.
While Morris didn't join the staff at Pitt, Graham did bring along Mike Norvell. Norvell is his high energy offensive assistant since the Malzahn days, and Calvin Magee, a guy who should need no introduction to Pitt fans. How they'll work together (Magee is the play-caller) is anyone's guess, but both have been vital parts of insanely productive offenses and hopefully can do the same for Pitt as co-offensive coordinators.
But the co-coordinators may not even be the most interesting new face on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge has been generating a lot of headlines lately:
The air is a little more chilled in Pittsburgh than Dodge, a lifelong Texan, is used to. He has seen more snow in his four months on the job than he has his entire life. But the spread offense that he is helping first-year coach Todd Graham install makes him feel right at home.
Dodge, of course, can be credited with revolutionizing the way high school offenses are run throughout the state because of his success with the Dragons, who were 79-1 with four 5A state championships from 2002-06. He earned two national high school coach of the year awards, and caused much of Texas to ditch its "3 yards and a cloud of dust" ways.
"When I took the Rice job in 2006 I tried to hire him then," said Graham, who is from Mesquite. "I wanted to hire him then when he was on his last state championship run. Then he went to North Texas. When I interviewed for this job I called him and he expressed to me that if something worked out that he wanted to come with me. I would have brought him to Tulsa or brought him here."
"The reason why I brought him here with me is because he is one of the best football coaches I know," Graham said. "It was a no-brainer for me. He is simply a winner. The quarterbacks he has developed -- Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy -- he has done a tremendous job of developing that position."
Selling McElroy and Daniel on the recruiting trail should pique the interest of a lot of high school quarterbacks. And even though he failed to get it done as a college head coach at college level, Dodge is an undisputed legend in talent-rich Texas. We'll see how he functions as a college assistant, but his body of work is the stuff of "guru" status. The ESPN blog ran a similar piece on Dodge today.
While it's great to have big names and big personalities running the offense, there's always the threat of "too many cooks in the kitchen." Balancing egos, responsibilities and ideas will be a full time job for Graham, who has co-coordinators that double as separate assistants for the running game and passing game.
We'll see how it turns out, but if history's an indication, the offense should at least be fun to watch.
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