Commentary

Todd Graham moving on from Pitt

Originally Published: May 23, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Todd Graham made the decision to leave Pittsburgh for Arizona State so suddenly in December that he caught his own son Bo unaware, and Bo is a member of his coaching staff. Bo walked out of a recruiting visit in Philadelphia at 9:30 p.m. and his phone rang.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesTodd Graham's tenure at Pitt was short and turbulent.

"Hey," Todd Graham said, "you need to come back here. Where are you?"

"You sent me to Philly," Bo said. "Don't you remember? Why do I need to come back?"

"Because I resigned my job."

"You did what?"

"I resigned my job."

"Why? Why would you do that?"

"Because I took another one."

There have been plenty of coaches who have left their school after one season. They are called "gunslinger" or "mercenary" or, in basketball, "Larry Brown."

"Obviously," Graham said, "when you're at a place one year, and you leave like that, you're going to get your head kicked in."

Leaving early in and of itself isn't the reason that Graham incurred the wrath of the college football universe. Graham had been one-and-done before, moving from Rice to Tulsa after the 2006 season. No one thought much about it, especially after he stayed four seasons at Tulsa.

In a business with little security, coaches climb up and down ladders as if they coached in the Candy Land Conference. And Graham has won -- in six years as a head coach, Graham has gone 49-29 (.628).

Graham had reasons to justify leaving Pittsburgh. Arizona State is a bigger school. He left the Big East for the more stable Pacific-12 Conference. Most of all, he left for love.

Leaving Tulsa for Pittsburgh had split up the Graham family. Three of five children remained enrolled at Tulsa. Graham's wife Penni, accustomed to having the family together, struggled to adjust to life without them. The Grahams who moved east struggled to adapt to urban living. You ever try to parallel park a pickup truck?

Arizona State beckoned the Grahams. Penni's parents lived in the Tucson area. There are wide-open vistas, just like in Graham's native Texas, and plenty of pickup trucks, too. When Bob Beaudine, who ran the search for Arizona State, approached Graham, he said no. When Beaudine came back to the coach, he said yes.

Graham regrets the quick decision he made to leave. But it's not the quick decision he made to leave Pittsburgh. It's the quick decision he made a year earlier to leave for Pittsburgh. When Pittsburgh fired Mike Haywood in January 2011 after only two-and-a-half weeks because of his arrest in an alleged domestic dispute, the school wanted a replacement immediately.

"It was this kind of deal: 'Thishastohappenrightnow,'" Graham said. "And I kind of rushed into something."

A year after Graham got pressured into a rash decision he would come to regret, he found himself in the same circumstances. Beaudine told Graham he needed to leave immediately for Arizona State, the coach said. He made a decision in a rush. And that is what turned the college football public against Graham -- he left without telling his players face-to-face that he had decided to go.

It would wrench the gut of any coach to stand before a room full of young men who have invested their emotions and hopes and dreams in him and explain why he is abandoning them. But coaches do it. They know that avoiding it would violate the basic do-right rule.

Graham resigned one night. He, Penni, Bo and another son, Michael, got on a plane the next morning, before the sun rose over Heinz Field, and left for the desert.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinGraham feels at home at Arizona State and is putting the past year behind him.

"I drove from Philly to Pittsburgh overnight," Bo said of the five-hour trip. "I only had a little bit of time to grab what I could."

Graham acted the scoundrel. He left himself open to the phrase, "slunk away in the dead of night," previously reserved for deadbeats, cads and the Baltimore Colts.

"But it wouldn't have mattered. It wouldn't have mattered if I had talked to my team," Graham said. "It still would have been a bad deal."

It may have been only the difference between the stages of a hurricane. But it would have made a difference.

"Here's [what] people don't understand," Graham said. "Coaches don't control the process. When you don't have a job, and they say you need to be on the plane first thing the next morning, that's what you do."

Graham wondered if Pittsburgh would have allowed him to hold a meeting once he resigned. He said he asked Beaudine, who led the search for Arizona State, "several times" to delay the family's departure from Pittsburgh long enough for Graham to meet with the team and was told there was no time.

"I regret that," Graham said. "I've talked to several of the guys on the team since then. But once it gets so negative, there's nothing you can do about it."

There is something to be said for allowing something to blow over. In today's media world, it usually happens by lunch. Graham certainly has moved on. His love of his new job is noticeable, even for a man who is rarely short on enthusiasm. Graham is quick to proselytize the good word about Arizona State football to anyone within earshot.

There are the campus apartments. "We had recruits in on January 15th," Graham said, "and there were 25 girls out there in bikinis, sitting by the swimming pool." Barrett, the honors college, is the "No. 1 honors college in America." Tim Cassidy, his operations guy, "is the best administrator in America."

Graham will talk to any group, agree to any interview, shake any hand or kiss any baby to promote the Sun Devils. For a guy who started out coaching middle-school football, Graham is where he always wanted to be. If he wins, the story of how he got here will be forgotten soon enough.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com