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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Pitt's Todd Graham always selling

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

NEWPORT, R.I. -- I just finished breakfast with Pittsburgh head coach Todd Graham, and boy, are my ears tired. My plate is clean. His oatmeal is largely untouched. I think his spoon gave up.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham arrived at Pittsburgh after stints at Rice and Tulsa.

In 45 minutes, he spoke some 7,500 words. I'm pretty sure I asked fewer than 10 questions, and one of those was to the waiter about the oatmeal. Researchers have determined that the number of words an infant hears has a positive effect on his educational development. That means Graham must have the smartest children in Pittsburgh.

After one season as coach at Rice (2006) and four at Tulsa (2007-10), with a record of 43-23 (.652), Graham has moved to a program with national tradition and a large following. He is amazed at the attention that the Panthers draw. Take his post-practice press sessions.

"Golly," Graham said, "it's 45 minutes just to get off the field just to do the media stuff."

I'm guessing that Graham could get off the field earlier if he wanted to. But he doesn't know how. He will talk to anyone at any time about football, his philosophy, his upbringing.

"I took the job at Rice [in 2006]," Graham said. "Everybody told me not to take that job. Couldn't win. We went in there and we were able to win. We didn't go in there being conventional. Went back to Tulsa and did the same thing. It wasn't like I was in a situation where you could be very conventional and be successful. I've had to be very innovative and very unique about our approach. And I like that. I've liked that style."

Graham, 46, has the brush cut, the friendly manner and the handshake of a Kiwanis Club president, circa 1979. You half expect him to offer you a 10-year term policy for only pennies a month. He is a salesman, peddling old-school values and new-school schemes with a patter that makes Dale Carnegie sound like a monk.

"You be genuinely who you are," Graham said. "That's the way I'm going to operate. I can't operate like everyone else. I got to do it like I do it. And I'm one of those guys, I like to be really connected to my team. My greatest asset is my passion, my enthusiasm and inspiring the kids every day."

Graham could sell tax hikes to a Republican or lawn mowers in Manhattan. He sold a locker room full of Panthers on the virtues of saying, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir." Earrings are gone, too.

 Todd Graham
Graham wants to win over his new players with his unique blend of passion and enthusiasm.

"I talk to them about, 'We want to be unique,'" Graham said. "'There's 120 Division I schools. I got a lot of respect for every one of them. But I'm not trying to be like any of them …. When we come into the building, I would like to ask you to take your earring out as a physical gesture that this ain't about you. It's about our team.

"And I'm here to tell you, it's the little things. It's the buy-in. If I make you do something, you're only going to do so much. If you're bought in and inspired, now, we got a chance.'"

The Pitt locker room had been whipsawed by the forced resignation of Dave Wannstedt and the abrupt dismissal of his successor, Mike Haywood, after 17 days because of a domestic altercation. Graham came in and captivated the Panthers.

"The first day he walked in," senior defensive end Brandon Lindsey said of Graham, "he walked in with a lot of energy. You could just tell that's how he coached. He was talking with energy, saying he was excited about being here. But he didn't force himself on us. It was a gradual thing. He said, 'I'm not going to demand your respect. I'm going to earn your respect.' [As] a college student, you're used to just respecting your elders, your superiors. [Graham] saying he was going to earn it meant a lot to us."

Graham is a defensive coach known for his team's offenses, a Texan coaching in the Rust Belt, a bootstrap guy now making $2 million a year. As the fourth of five children raised by a single mom, as the second child in his family to graduate from high school, Graham has experienced a lot of life.

And he's here to tell you about it. Graham didn't climb from being a head coach at Allen (Texas) High in 1999 to being an FBS coach in seven years by being self-effacing.

"I heard [a coach] the other day talking about Facebook," Graham said, "and he said, 'I don't Facebook. I'm old school. I'm a look-you-in-the-eye-and-handshake guy.' I said, 'Well, good luck. You're going to talk to the kid one time.' I don't like Facebooking either. I'm a Facebooking machine. I've got to build a relationship with these kids. I'm not Joe Paterno. I'm a young, up-and-coming guy. I've got to establish myself. You're darn right. I'm Facebooking like crazy. I need every advantage I can get, man. I don't walk down the road and everybody knows who I am. You know what I'm saying?"

Phew. Do we ever.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.