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Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Pitt gets its man this time (maybe)

By Brian Bennett

If Todd Graham simply makes it to signing day as Pittsburgh's head coach, he will already have proved more successful than his immediate predecessor.

How much more success Graham will have with the Panthers remains to be seen, of course. But it looks like the school made the best of a messy situation with a solid hire this time around.

Todd Graham
Panthers coach Todd Graham will bring the spread offense to Pitt.
I thought that Pitt should be bold and go after Rich Rodriguez or Gus Malzahn. Instead, it landed a coach who once worked under Rodriguez at West Virginia and who once was Malzahn's boss at Tulsa. Graham has a terrific record, going 43-23 in five seasons at Tulsa and Rice, winning at least 10 games in three of the past four years with the Golden Hurricane. He has also been a part of some major turnarounds, leading Rice to its first bowl game in 45 years in his lone season as head coach at that school, and working on the staff that brought Tulsa back from the dead.

Pittsburgh doesn't need to be resurrected. The Panthers just need a steady hand who can realize the potential for a program that has long underachieved. The foundation is in place, as former coach Dave Wannstedt left things in good shape before being forced out. Graham will have to hastily patch together a recruiting class that has gone up in smoke since Wannstedt's departure and the hiring and firing of Mike Haywood. It won't be easy, and the team could feel the impact of those losses in years to come.

But one recruiting class is less important than having the right man in charge. Graham makes for a considerably better choice than Haywood, who led his own impressive turnaround this season at Miami (Ohio) but had nothing else on his résumé as a head coach. Why didn't Pitt hire Graham in the first go-around, when he was one of the men considered? Mostly because of money, since Graham made $1.3 million at Tulsa and wanted a raise to leave. The notoriously budget-conscious Panthers didn't want to open their wallet the first time but were far more willing to do so now after the public relations nightmare of the Haywood arrest. Graham will reportedly be paid in the $2 million range.

Now he must prove he is worth it. The last Tulsa coach to take over a Big East program was Graham's former boss, Steve Kragthorpe. He flamed out in spectacular fashion at Louisville. Rebuilding a team at the Conference USA level and guiding one to a BCS game in an AQ conference, even one as wide open as the Big East, are not the same thing.

Whatever happens, Pitt fans shouldn't be bored, as they might have been with Haywood's style. Graham's teams score points in bunches; the Golden Hurricane led the nation in scoring in 2007 and 2008 when Malzahn was their offensive coordinator and averaged better than 41 points this year, breaking the 50-point barrier four times. That has to sound great to Panthers fans who were sick of Wannstedt's conservative offenses.

It's interesting, though, that Graham's background is on defense, as he was Rodriguez's defensive coordinator in Morgantown. Yet Tulsa has often been terrible on defense and allowed more than 30 points per game this season. Graham won't have Malzahn or Chad Morris -- who left Tulsa this week for Clemson -- to call plays at Heinz Field.

Regardless, Pitt is about to fully embrace the spread, even if all the current players were recruited for a pro-style system. Get ready for some big-time Backyard Brawl shootouts between Graham and new West Virginia offensive coordinator/future head coach Dana Holgorsen. The offensive doldrums that plagued both schools this year -- and the Big East in general -- are about to end.

Had the Panthers simply hired Graham instead of Haywood in December, they could have saved themselves a lot of grief. He looks like a solid choice going forward. He'd better be, since athletic director Steve Pederson's job and the future of the program are riding on it.

Graham will be introduced at a news conference Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. I'll have more thoughts after that media briefing.