Iowa State's Rhoads might be No. 1 candidate

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Pitt will not use a search firm to help identify candidates as it begins the hunt for a football coach to replace Todd Graham, and that is a sign the university already has a short list of candidates.

In fact, according to sources, the school already is reaching out to candidates, including Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who served as the interim coach of the Buckeyes this season, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren and former Illinois and Florida coach Ron Zook.

Rhoads, who has coached the Cyclones the past three years, appears to be the most coveted of the group as Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson and chancellor Mark Nordenberg like and respect him and think he is an excellent football coach.

Graham's departure timeline
  • Dec 3: Three assistants -- Calvin Magee, Tony Dews and Tony Gibson -- leave for Arizona to join Rich Rodriguez. Earlier in the week, Todd Graham said if the three left, as rumored, they were nothing more than "mercenaries." At his next meeting with the team, he said is committed to Pitt and that he will replace the three with guys who want to be at Pitt.
  • Dec 5: Graham's name surfaces as a candidate for the Kansas job. Several sources said Graham actually sent feelers, not just to Kansas, but also to Texas A&M. Graham tells at least one person there is nothing to rumors and assures people he is committed to Pitt.
  • Monday: Graham is on the road recruiting, allegedly, for Pitt.
  • 1:30 p.m. Tuesday: Graham speaks at a "Coaches Corner" luncheon, and he talks at length about the "Pitt way" as well as the importance of commitment, character, values and his vision for Pitt. One former Pitt quarterback said "he sounded like a guy who was going to be at Pitt for life."
  • 5 p.m. Tuesday: Graham talks to athletic director Steve Pederson on the phone and informs him he is considering the Arizona State job. Pederson said he doesn't have permission to talk to Arizona State. The conversation ends.
  • 11 p.m. Tuesday: After hours and hours of trying to reach Graham to no avail, Pitt sends a senior administrator to Graham's house to try and make contact. Graham tells administrator "get off my porch" and slams door.
  • 6:30 a.m. Wednesday: Players show up for mandatory conditioning session but Graham is not there.
  • Noon Wednesday: Graham sends a tweet to football operations director Blair Philbrick and asks him to forward it to players. It is informing them he is leaving.
  • 3 p.m. Wednesday: Players meet and are told of Graham's decision to leave and that Keith Patterson will be the interim coach for the bowl game.
  • 5:30 p.m. Wednesday: Pederson meets with media to discuss coaching situation.
  • 7:30 p.m. Wednesday: Graham is introduced as Arizona State's head coach at a news conference and talks at length about character, accountability and commitment as well as the "Sun Devils Way" and Arizona State's high-octane football.

The school reached out to Rhoads last year after Dave Wannstedt was fired, but Rhoads made it clear he was not ready to leave Iowa State. He is from Iowa and moved back there to be close to his family.

According to two people close to Rhoads, he is now open to at least listening to what Pitt has to say now and likely will talk with the administration about the position Graham vacated Wednesday.

Rhoads was defensive coordinator at Pitt from 2000-07. An intelligent and passionate coach, he was loved by Pitt players and breathed energy and enthusiasm into the Cyclones' program, which was left for dead before he arrived.

He became a YouTube sensation in his first season in 2009, when, after the Cyclones upset Nebraska, 9-7, he delivered a fiery post-game speech that culminated with him saying "I'm so proud to be your coach" as the players yelled things like "we love you" and then rushed to embrace him.

Fickell is 38, but he is considered an up-and-coming coach, even though he led the Buckeyes only to a 6-6 record this season. He did a good job, however, of stabilizing a program that was in shambles because of NCAA violations and investigations. Fickell replaced Jim Tressel, who was forced to step down in the midst of a scandal.

Many of the Buckeyes' top players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette High School, were ineligible for all or part of the season.

Fickell is known as a great recruiter and defensive coach with good recruiting ties to this region and Ohio.

Stoops, from Youngstown, Ohio, was set to take the defensive coordinator's position at Auburn, but he has put that on hold to see what happens at Pitt. The youngest of the Stoops coaching brothers, he steered the Seminoles to a defensive revival over the past two seasons.

His representative contacted Pitt last year when the job was open, but this time there is mutual interest.

Chryst was interviewed in January before Graham was hired, but quickly pulled out when it became clear the committee was focused on hiring Graham. Pitt, however, has reached out to Chryst again, and he has told some people close to him he is ready for a head-coaching job and will pursue the Pitt vacancy. Chryst is not a dynamic personality, which may hold him back, but is considered to be an excellent offensive coach. He successfully tinkered with the Badgers' offense enough this season to maximize the talent of transfer quarterback Russell Wilson.

Doeren, who has been a head coach for one season, led Northern Illinois to the Mid-American Conference championship this year after being an assistant at Wisconsin and Kansas. He is known as a good recruiter and disciplinarian.

Pederson is friends with Zook and tried to hire him at least one other time. Zook is an excellent recruiter. He also has had some contact with Pitt about the job, although it might be in an advisory role.

Mario Cristobal from Florida International and Delaware's K.C. Keeler, also could get into the mix, but neither has had contact with Pitt.

Other coaches -- Frank Cignetti, Sal Sunseri, Teryl Austin, Mark Whipple, Greg Gattuso, Tom Bradley -- all with some ties to Pitt or Pittsburgh, have their supporters, but none seem to be serious candidates, at least not yet.

NOTES -- Mike Norvell , Pitt's co-offensive coordinator under Graham, resigned effective immediately and will join Graham at Arizona State. That means quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge will call plays for the Panthers in the BBVA Compass Bowl Jan. 7 against SMU in Birmingham, Ala.

Paul Zeise: or 412-263-1720; Twitter @paulzeise. First Published December 16, 2011 5:00 AM


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