The coaches’ responses were measured and polite. They attempted to deflect any controversy. You could tell they had thought about what they would say. Rehearsed it, even.
“The programs are bigger than any one person.”
“He and I are very competitive, but I have tremendous respect for what he’s done. He’s one of the best there is.”
When Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen spoke about each other, they certainly passed the P.R. test. As for the smell test, well, that’s another story. These two guys don’t really like each other, and at a time when college football is becoming more about money than tradition, that’s great news for fans of Pittsburgh and West Virginia. As the two schools try to position themselves for contention in the Big East and pretty themselves up in case another round of conference-a-go-go starts soon, it’s good to have some old-fashioned animosity on the sidelines. The fans sure can’t stand each other, and the players aren’t always thrilled to see their rivals. “You can feel the hatred,” Pitt senior defensive lineman Myles Caragein says. So, if the coaches would rather spend an afternoon shopping for women’s shoes than have lunch together, that’s a good thing.
Graham takes over at Pitt this year for Dave Wannstedt, who was unable to lift his alma mater to a conference title during his six years there, despite coming within a couple of plays of a crown back in ’09. Holgorsen, the new boss at West Virginia, is a head coach for the first time after successful stops as the offensive coordinator at Houston and Oklahoma State.
Neither coach will admit to any distaste for the other. Pitt and West Virginia are rivals, but no coach wants to channel Woody Hayes and start feuding publicly with anyone.
“I’m not going to get caught up in that,” Holgorsen says. “He can if he wants to.”
“Any time you have two people who are competitive, you are going to have that kind of stuff,” Graham says.
“That kind of stuff” refers to a verbal skirmish between the two following the 2009 Houston-Tulsa game, won by the Cougars, 46–45. Holgorsen, then the offensive coordinator for UH, accused Graham’s Golden Hurricane players of faking injuries to slow down the fast-paced Cougar attack.
The year before, Houston had routed Graham’s squad, 70–30, so it only made sense the Hurricane would try to keep Case Keenum and his people from rolling it up again. Though some defensive coaches will tell you they absolutely instruct their charges to feign cramps and other minor maladies to derail rival no-huddle attacks’ momentum, Graham copped to no such behavior. That didn’t make Holgorsen happy. While on KGOW-AM in Houston, Holgorsen gave his opinion on the matter.
“Yeah, they were cheating,” he said. “We’ve got some inside information on how they did it.
“They’ve got a signal for it. We know they’ve got a signal for it. We see it on film that they’re actually doing the signal, and then all of a sudden, one of their guys just comes down with a bunch of cramps. He falls down and then the other 10 players kind of jog over to the sideline, and they use it as a timeout.”
As you can imagine, Graham wasn’t too happy when he heard about the accusation, which was reported in the Tulsa World. His response was measured but certainly had an edge.
“I wouldn’t have any comment on that,” he said. “We do things the right way. This place is about excellence in everything that we do.”
Last year, Holgorsen and Graham met again, this time with Holgorsen at the helm of Oklahoma State’s attack. The Cowboys amassed a school-record 722 total yards in a 65–28 rout; 574 of those yards came through the air. OSU quarterbacks threw eight TD passes, including a 27-yarder with 3:48 remaining to cap a drive in which Clint Chelf dropped back four times — with a 30-point lead. Graham was gracious after the game, praising the Cowboys and referring to his team’s spotty play, but he couldn’t have been happy about the late aerial assault.
And now this all comes to the Backyard, serving as a great subplot to efforts by a pair of schools to upgrade their programs at a time when any perceived weakness could be deadly on a stage that goes well beyond the scoreboard. Neither team had a particularly bad ’10 season. The Panthers finished 8–5, with a win over Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl. West Virginia was 9–4, and had it not lost in overtime at Connecticut, would have captured the Big East title. These are not reclamation projects. But they are underperforming properties, at least in the eyes of the CEOs. At a time when looking good on the football field is paramount, as conference memberships change and programs perceived as below par risk irrelevance, good isn’t good enough.
“I think, as we looked at the program, this is a program that has been built on winning championships,” Pitt AD Steve Pederson says. “We have won nine national championships (the last coming in 1976), and we have a history of some of the greatest coaches and players in the game. The program should always be in the position of either gaining on or playing for a championship.”
Wannstedt narrowly missed that mark. In fact, had his Panthers not surrendered a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter lead against Cincinnati in ’09, Pitt would have been Big East champion, and the coach might still have his job. But college football history is littered with the rotting carcasses of near-misses and might-have-beens, and ADs like Pederson are paid to make difficult decisions, like firing coaches who helped transform flailing programs into contenders.
However, the Pitt transition has a twist. After relieving Wannstedt, Pederson launched a search that resulted in the hiring of former Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, who led the RedHawks from the MAC basement to the East Division title last year. Some considered it a curious hire, since Haywood had spent only two seasons as a head coach, but he had been a highly respected assistant and was known as an excellent recruiter. Only 15 days after accepting the position, Haywood was arrested and charged with felony domestic violence, forcing the Panthers to remove him and start anew.
The second search yielded Graham, a Texan who won 10 or more games three times in his four years at Tulsa and who has a strong knowledge of the Panthers’ rivalry with West Virginia, thanks to two seasons as a Mountaineer assistant. Pittsburgh hired Graham on Jan. 10, giving him barely three weeks to salvage a recruiting class and only a month to stage an offseason conditioning program. But Pederson didn’t hire Graham with an exclusive eye on 2011. And the Panther players have the impression that their new coach is looking long term, too.
“He seems like a real guy who’s loyal to the team,” Caragein says. “He’s not just worried about his job and using the program as a stepping stone.”
Graham favors a high-speed, no-huddle offense that attempts to replicate Oregon’s highly successful model. “We play fast, faster and fastest,” Graham says. While at Tulsa, he worked with Gus Malzahn, considered one of college football’s most agile offensive minds. At Pitt, he’ll rely on Calvin Magee, who assisted Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan to build relentless attacks. Say what you want about the Wolverines’ travails during Rodriguez’s time in Ann Arbor, but there was no doubting the potency of his offense. U-M was eighth in the nation in total offense last season, while Tulsa was fifth. Similar results this season will no doubt please Pederson.
“We did not set out to find a style of play,” Pederson says. “We looked for the best person. But I do believe you have to score points in college football today. Defense wins championships, but with the way teams can score, you have to match them.”
The Panthers averaged 26.3 points per game last year, tied for 67th nationally, and were outpaced by Tulsa (sixth, 41.4 ppg) and Michigan (25th, 32.8). So, expect an upgrade offensively. But will there be a corresponding drop on the other side of the ball? Although Graham was a defensive coach before taking over at Tulsa, he is known more for his offenses. Case in point: Last year’s Golden Hurricane were 111th in the nation in yards allowed. When he talks about his attack, he speaks of trying to “outphysical” the other team with a strong running game. But he also understands the need for a “championship defense.”
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, have no problems on the defensive side of the ball. WVU finished third nationally in total defense last year (261.1 ypg) and tied for third in scoring defense (13.5 ppg), so AD Oliver Luck’s decision to bring Holgorsen to Morgantown was in no way related to that unit. In fact, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and his assistants are still on board. “They’re not going anywhere,” Holgorsen says. “They have been incredibly successful.”
Luck agrees the defensive side is in good shape, but the former WVU (and Houston Oilers) quarterback is concerned about the team’s offensive production. The scoring machine that rambled through opponents — including Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl — under Rodriguez stagnated under Stewart. Last year, the Mountaineers averaged a modest 372.7 yards per game (67th nationally) and 25.2 points (78th). That wasn’t enough for Luck, who no doubt envied his son Andrew’s Stanford outfit that amassed a full 100 yards more every Saturday.
“We slipped the last two years,” Luck says. “Under Rich, we were in the top five in points scored and yards gained, and that stopped under Coach Stew. We were in the middle of the pack. Number one, we needed to boost the offense, and it doesn’t take too much to see how successful Dana was.”
He sure was. As good as Malzahn has been, Holgorsen might have been better. He served as offensive coordinator at three different schools — Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State — from 2005-10 and was wildly successful at each stop. In 2007, the Red Raiders led the nation in passing yards and were second in total offense. Houston led the nation in total offense in ’09, and OSU topped the country in that category last year, breaking five school records in the process. Though Cowboy running back Kendall Hunter was a finalist for the Doak Walker award last year, Holgorsen’s attack is pass-heavy. “As a quarterback, you like something like that,” says WVU junior triggerman Geno Smith.
The primary difference between Graham and Holgorsen, other than their beliefs about whether the Tulsa players took dives back in ’09, is that Graham has recruited and directed a program as a head coach, while Holgorsen has been a career assistant.
“Does he have the characteristics and personality traits to be a head coach?” Luck asks. “I didn’t know. But after getting to know him and talking to people who know him, the answer is yes.”
Holgorsen and Graham will meet Nov. 25 in Morgantown for the first time as direct head coaching adversaries. The Backyard Brawl didn’t need any more fuel, but it’s about to get some.
No matter how nicely the two men speak about each other.
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