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Up Close with Todd Graham

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A head coach for five years, Todd Graham has made his name with “high-octane” offenses and stifling 3-4 defenses. After as one-year stint as the head coach at Rice in 2006—where he coached the Owls to a 7-6 record and reached the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl—Graham moved on to Tulsa.

He took the Golden Hurricanes to three bowl games—winning two of them—in four seasons, compiling an overall record of 36-10. Graham was hired as the Pitt head coach in January after a tumultuous several weeks that saw Dave Wannstedt fired, and his replacement, Mike Haywood, hauled off to jail. Making an immediate statement upon being hired, Graham hit the recruiting trail hard and has vowed to bring stability to a program that has had anything but. The Texas native sat down with PSR's Anthony Jaskulski.

Anthony: Issues off the field with some of the players last year plagued the Pitt football program. Is that the first thing on your mind as a coach?
We talked about how all of that was unacceptable. Our standards are a whole heck of a lot higher than that kind of stuff. But I'm going to tell you this: it's not a reflection of the core group of young men that are at this program. I've been at a lot of different places and I've never been more impressed about the character, the work-ethic, and just the hard work of the young people here. I'm really impressed by it. It makes me excited about the opportunity to move forward quickly and compete for championships, because of the character of the young men that are here.

Anthony: A lot of people have talked about your offense, calling it a spread, shotgun formation that doesn't involve a lot of the running game. What would the actual creator of this offense classify it as?
What we're trying to have is a high-octane offense that we're calling the “run-and-gun.” You have to be physical, and you have to run the football in this offense. To run the football, that involves, in my opinion, having two backs in the backfield and using tight ends.

We want to go at a very fast-pace. Our whole idea of our football team is that we want to mentally and physically wear down the other team. We are a run, play-action pass football team. Now, we've thrown for over 4,200 yards a year. We had a year where we had over 5,000 yards passing. But we ranked fifth nationally in running the football in 2008, and last year, we were 15th nationally. The key is running the football, because we want to play 80+ snaps a game. To do that, you have to be in unbelievable condition both mentally and physically; and you can't make mistakes. We can't have penalties and three-and-outs, and we can't turn the football over, quite simply.

Anthony: What about the defense?
We're an attacking defense. The misconception of our defense is that we play like a zero nose, and play two defensive ends. We actually play with two defensive tackles, we have a three-technique, a five-technique, and we have a wide-five or a “panther outside-linebacker.”

It's all about speed, speed, speed on the field. Our whole philosophy defensively is to dictate and stop the run up front. That's why we play with two defensive tackles. We want to mentally wear down the offense, and that starts with speed and explosive power on the football field.

Anthony: When Dave Wannstedt came here six years ago, people immediately drank the punch because he was a Pittsburgh guy. You come in as almost a stranger, in the sense that Tulsa football is not exactly on the radar in this city. How do you win these fans over?
Well, I have to tell you, I have a lot of respect for coach Dave Wannstedt and I have a lot of respect for coach Walt Harris. I competed against Walt. And I can tell you that I used to sit in the back of the room when I was a high school football coach and listen to Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt teach. I can tell you that I have tremendous respect for the people who have been here, and especially people like Dave who were Pitt guys.

We're going to build upon Pitt football, and when I think about Pitt football, I think about blue-collar, hard-edge and tough. We want to build upon that and get better.

All I can do is generally be who I am. We're all in this business to make a difference in young peoples lives. What you do is, you work hard, you keep your head down, you be who you are, you treat people with respect, and you develop and you teach these young people, and you make a difference and you win. After that it will all take care of itself.

Anthony: On Dec. 7, when Dave Wannstedt resigned, you were a candidate for the job. It went to Mike Haywood initially, of course. Could you have imagined at that time that you would be stepping in just weeks later?
On Dec. 7, the only thing I was thinking was beating Hawaii in a bowl game. I was focused on my football team, and where we were at. To be completely honest with you, I knew (former Pitt defensive coordinator) Phil Bennett very, very well, and he called me at that time and told me this is a great situation and that Pitt would be a great fit for me. I told him thanks, and heck, we'll see what happens. But to be completely honest with you, I was focused on my kids and winning a football game.

Anthony: What are your initial plans for this program?
We think this program has tremendous potential, and as soon as next year. Our goal is to develop and teach these kids, and get 100 percent of them to graduate. After those goals are met, we want to win a Big East Championship, and win a BCS bowl game, not just go to one. And after that, we want to win a National Championship. I have the highest expectations and great faith in this program that all of that can happen.

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