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Pitt's eyes are upon Texas

Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011

Housing developments in Texas rise like cotton from fertile soil.

With them come home owners who start families that get caught up in the state's rich tradition of scholastic football. Interest is so intense there that Allen High School is building a $59.7 million stadium that will include a video scoreboard.

"I live in Spring, Texas," said Ahmard Vital, who writes about high school recruits for , "and within five minutes of my house, you can touch six high schools. There are enough athletes in Texas to satisfy pretty much the entire country."

Not that anyone at Pitt was noticing — until a month ago, when the school hired Todd Graham. Former coaches Johnny Majors, Walt Harris and Dave Wannstedt largely ignored the second-most populous state in the union.

Graham grew up in Mesquite, played and coached high school football in Texas and coached at Rice (in Houston) and Tulsa (in nearby Oklahoma) before coming to Pitt. Last week, he received letters of intent from four Texas and Oklahoma recruits.

Among that group is defensive back Lloyd Carrington of Lincoln High in Dallas, who had offers from 14 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, including one from Oklahoma State. Running back Isaac Bennett of Booker T. Washington High in Tulsa found his way to Pitt because his coach, Darrell Hall, was Graham's teammate at East Central (Okla.) University.

"People know him and trust him," Allen coach Tom Westerberg said of Graham, who initiated the stadium project when he was coach and athletic director from 1995-2000.

Despite Graham's background, Pitt doesn't hold the Big East rights to Texas. West Virginia coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen, a former assistant at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, found two Texas high school products this year: quarterback Paul Millard of Flower Mound and running back Dustin Garrison of Pearland. Holgorsen isn't the first WVU coach to lure players from Texas. Graham did it when he was a Mountaineers assistant in 2001-02.

A look at Pitt's recruiting classes from 2002-10 reveals only two players from Texas: reserve defensive backs Kolby Gray (Houston, 2009) and Saheed Imoru (Navarro Junior College, '10), both of whom are on the roster.

The Panthers have not had a prominent player from Texas since running back Curvin Richards of LaPorte and receiver Billy Davis of El Paso from the Mike Gottfried/Paul Hackett years in the late '80s and early '90s. Quarterback Alex Van Pelt was recruited from Winston Churchill High School in San Antonio in 1989 after transferring from Grafton, W.Va.

Under Graham, whose staff includes six assistants with Texas ties, the recruiting target broadened. Perhaps the most interesting hire is quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge, who led Southlake Carroll High to four Texas Class 5A state championships and a 79-1 record in his final five seasons. He also spent three-plus seasons as head coach at North Texas before being dismissed in October.

"With the 'Todd and Todd Show,' we can get the quality kids out of there," said Tony Gibson, Pitt's recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach. "We don't want to get the seventh- and eighth-best players. We want to try to compete and get the best."

Said Vital: "If you have those two guys sitting in a living room of a kid, that is going to make a tremendous difference."

Receivers coach Mike Norvell grew up in Texas and spent the past four years on Graham's staff at Tulsa. He calls Texas high school football "an incredible thing," with stadium capacities approaching 30,000.

"I have a bunch of relationships in the state," Norvell said, noting that the addition of TCU to the Big East in 2012 makes recruiting that area especially vital. Spreading Pitt's recruiting net is important, but Gibson, who used to live in Uniontown, emphasized that the focus must remain in Pennsylvania.

"We have to take care of home first," said Gibson, who scoured Western Pennsylvania as West Virginia's recruiting coordinator in 2007 and spent the past three seasons at Michigan. "It used to be hard to go in and recruit against (Pitt). Now, we have to keep everybody else out."

Procuring a balanced mix of national and local recruits remains an important part of the process. Wannstedt plucked 18 recruits from Florida in six seasons, even while keeping a close eye on local players.

Gibson, who was at Michigan when quarterback Denard Robinson arrived from Deerfield Beach, Fla., said the trick is keeping everyone happy.

"Every kid gets homesick," he said. "A lot of kids won't admit it. Guys are out there getting yelled at for the first time, (saying), 'These aren't the same (coaches) who recruited me.' They aren't sleeping in their own beds. They're eating cafeteria food, washing their own clothes."

Pitt looked to the southwest this year because of its coaches' connections, but Gibson said next year's recruiting may not have to stray so far.

"(Western Pennsylvania) is going to be loaded," he said. "We can sign 10 to 15 kids right there at home. We would love to do that."

Note: Graham completed his staff Wednesday, adding Randall McCray as safeties coach and special teams coordinator. McCray spent last season as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Middle Tennessee. From 2006-09, he coached defensive linemen, linebackers and safeties at Wisconsin.

Additional Information:

Southwest flavor

Pitt football coaches with connections to Texas and Oklahoma:

Todd Graham. head coach: Coach at three Texas high schools for 10 years, head coach at Rice and Tulsa.

Todd Dodge, quarterbacks coach: Former Texas quarterback, coached Southlake Carroll High to four state championships.

Spencer Leftwich, offensive line coach: Played at Stephen F. Austin, coached at Tulsa and North Texas.

Shawn Griswold, strength coach: Held same position at Tulsa.

Paul Randolph, co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach: Assistant at Rice and Tulsa.

Mike Norvell, co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach: Assistant at Tulsa.

Keith Patterson, defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: High school coach in Texas and Oklahoma, eight years as assistant at Tulsa.

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