Graham leaves Pitt for Arizona State

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Two weeks ago when three of Pitt football coach Todd Graham's assistant coaches left the team to join Rich Rodriguez's staff at Arizona, Mr. Graham referred to the trio as "nothing but mercenaries."

That term now apparently applies to Mr. Graham as well, because he announced his resignation Wednesday morning from Pitt after serving less than a year on the job, and was introduced as the head coach at Arizona State University at a news conference Wednesday night.

Mr. Graham -- who informed the team by having his director of football operations Blair Philbrick forward a text message to his players -- said that he "loved his players at Pitt and was proud of them," but had to make a decision that was in the best interests of his family. He added that Arizona State was his dream job.

Mr. Graham's wife, Penni, has family in the Tucson, Ariz., area and according to several sources around the family, she was never really happy living in Pittsburgh. He said "I'm a family guy, this is the first job I've ever taken that has benefitted my wife."


While the mood was festive at Arizona State, a few hours earlier the mood was much different at Pitt's UPMC South Side facility, where athletic director Steve Pederson held a news conference to address the coaching situation as well as introduce defensive coordinator Keith Patterson as the team's interim head coach.

"We're still excited about the future of this program and where it is heading," Mr. Pederson said. "We want to move quickly to find a permanent leader for this program and get someone here to continue the process of elevating our great football tradition."

The Panthers (6-6) will play Jan. 7 in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., against Southern Methodist University (7-5), and Mr. Graham's departure, along with the departure of the three assistants to Arizona several weeks ago, has left the staff short-handed for the game.

Mr. Patterson said he intends to pursue the Pitt head coaching job on a full-time basis. However, he and Mr. Graham are longtime best friends and were college roommates and he likely will be courted by his former boss to head to Arizona State.

"I'm going to focus on doing the very best job I can every day, for our players, for our team. I'm going to prepare to help us win a bowl game," said Mr. Patterson, who admitted he was surprised when he learned that Mr. Graham was leaving.

"I bought in here. There is great pride and tradition in Western Pennsylvania football and that hits home with me as I grew up the son of a coach," he said. "I'm truly honored to be the head coach at Pitt and I am going to give it everything I have."

Mr. Patterson becomes the fifth head coach at Pitt in the past 13 months as he joins Dave Wannstedt, interim coach Phil Bennett, Mike Haywood and Mr. Graham in that category.

Mr. Pederson, who was in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday when he found out about Mr. Graham's intention to further explore the Arizona State job, said he told the coach that he didn't have permission to talk to the school about the job.

Mr. Graham, however, said he had already had conversations with the school and was contemplating a job offer.

Mr. Pederson said that was the last he had heard from Mr. Graham, despite repeated attempts to reach both him and Arizona State athletic director Lisa Love to discuss the situation further.

A Pitt athletic department administrator then went to Mr. Graham's house Tuesday night to try to find out what his intentions were.

Mr. Graham answered the door but declined to speak to the administrator.

Wednesday morning, Mr. Graham sent his resignation to Mr. Pederson -- without speaking with him -- and he and his family hopped on an airplane bound for Arizona.

Pitt executive vice chancellor and general counsel Jerry Cochran said in a statement that the school, which had made a significant investment to bring Mr. Graham and his staff to Pitt from the University of Tulsa, was obviously disappointed in the coach's decision to leave, as well as the way he left.

"Obviously this is not the way we would have expected Mr. Graham to handle any possible departure," the statement read. "Beyond normal expectations with respect to professional conduct, he has failed to comply with the terms of his contract."

Mr. Pederson said there is no timetable for finding a replacement but the school would like to have someone in place quickly. Unlike last year, the school will not use a search firm to find potential candidates.

Some names that likely will emerge over the next few days as possible candidates are Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads, Baltimore Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin, Alabama defensive assistant Sal Sunseri, Penn State interim head coach Tom Bradley, Arizona defensive backs coach Tony Gibson, Maryland defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, Florida International University coach Mario Cristobal and Mr. Patterson, who said Wednesday he informed Mr. Pederson of his interest in the job.

Mr. Rhoads could be a front-runner for the position. He was approached about the job after Mr. Wannstedt was fired last December but said he didn't want to uproot his family at the time.

Mr. Pederson said he was disappointed in the way Mr. Graham handled his departure.

"Obviously this could have been handled better," Mr. Pederson said.

Mr. Graham started his news conference Wednesday by saying that he wanted to tell his players at Pitt that "he loved them and he was proud of them."

He also pulled out many of his familiar catch phrases -- "we want to be high octane," "we will be in the left lane with the hammer down" -- in describing the program he wants to build at Arizona State, including talking about the character and commitment he will expect from his players.

"I usually have a lot to say but I am at a loss for words," Pitt senior wide receiver Cam Saddler said, "but this is disappointing to me, and I want to apologize to all Pitt fans for being so enthusiastic when they hired coach Graham because I obviously jumped the gun in judging his character. It all sounded exciting, his offense and stuff, but here is a guy that talked about commitment, loyalty, faith and character and yet he doesn't seem to live by those things. A text message is all we get? That's just wrong."

A number of Pitt's players used Twitter to vent some of their frustrations, including senior defensive end Brandon Lindsey who tweeted "Todd grahams coaching commitments last as long as kim kardashians marriage" and "For someone who said they read the bible everyday, he must've missed the pg that said "thou shall not lie"

Mr. Pederson also had to spend some of the news conference defending himself and his own job status. He came under fire from fans and alumni earlier this year when the person he hired Mr. Graham to replace, Mr. Haywood, was arrested on a domestic violence charge in South Bend, Ind., and subsequently fired after just two weeks on the job.

Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg issued a statement in support of Mr. Pederson on Wednesday night.

"Steve Pederson has played a major role in the transformation of intercollegiate athletics at the University of Pittsburgh -- making key contributions in such important areas as success in competition across a broad range of sports, the overall growth and development of Pitt student-athletes, the construction and renovation of state-of-the-art facilities, and securing a strong conference home in increasingly unsettled times. He remains an important member of Pitt's senior leadership team."

Mr. Graham's departure looks like it could hurt the Panthers with their top recruit -- Hopewell running back Rushel Shell, who is ranked one as one of the top backs in the nation. Hopewell coach Dave Vestal said he spoke with Mr. Shell Wednesday morning at the school.

"Like everybody, he's just in shock," Mr. Vestal said. "We talked, and I told him let's just sit back and wait and see what happens from here and who the new coach is."

Mr. Vestal said Mr. Shell didn't indicate if he was going to visit other colleges. However, another source close to the player said he is talking about taking four official visits to other colleges. He already has visited Pitt.

Penn Hills receiver-defensive back Corey Jones, who committed to Pitt during the season, said he will "try to open up some new recruiting places at some different schools. I don't know what Pitt has in mind with the new coaches, but it might not be the same offense and might not be for me."

Upper St. Clair quarterback-linebacker Dakota Conwell committed to Pitt last summer. He said he talked with his family and Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render and is still 100 percent committed to Pitt.

"I'm going to wait through this next month and see who the new coach is," Mr. Conwell said.

Paul Zeise: or 412-263-1720. Twitter: @PaulZeise. Staff writer Mike White contributed to this story. First Published December 15, 2011 5:00 AM


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