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Pitt football coaching staff forged by friendship

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011

Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was sitting in his dorm room at East Central (Okla.) University one day in the mid-1980s when his roommate walked in.

"Let's go," he said.

"Where are we going?" Patterson asked.

"We're going to see the defensive coordinator," Todd Graham said.

Patterson was co-captain, and Graham, his roommate and a year his junior, was his partner at safety. Then, as now, Patterson followed Graham almost anywhere.

"We sit down in the coach's office, and he commences to tell him what we should be doing," Patterson said. "It was really uncomfortable for me. I grew up in the home of a coach. But we went to spring ball, and we made those changes."

The story is one Graham loves to tell.

"I walked in there and said, 'What we're doing is unsound,' " he said. "I thought Keith was going to have a heart attack. He is a coach's kid. He never questioned anything."

They're still together — in Pittsburgh, of all places — with Patterson entering his fifth consecutive season as Graham's defensive coordinator after spending the past four at Tulsa.

Patterson's mission: Take a Pitt defense that finished eighth in the nation in yards allowed (305.1) and returns eight starters, reshape it from a 4-3 base set to a 3-4 and turn up the heat so pass-rush pressure can come from almost anywhere.

And, just as important, keep his best friend and boss happy at the same time.

That might be the easiest job: For their many differences in personality and approach, they make a formidable pair.

Graham was a city kid from Dallas who never shut up and always wanted to change the coach's play call. Patterson was a quiet country boy who grew up in western Oklahoma during the oil boom, earning respect by doing the right thing and being where he was supposed to be.

"Keith just followed him around — and he didn't have to, you know," former East Central coach Pat O'Neal said. "He is aware of what is going on, but Keith kind of locked onto him. Todd was the strong safety; Keith was the free safety. Todd was more aggressive; Keith was more conservative."

A bond formed on the field, and two opposite personalities meshed into a lifelong friendship.

They began coaching together at Texas' Allen High School in 1995, where Graham was the coach and Patterson a trusted assistant. Allen won no games the year before they arrived, but the team earned playoff berths in five of the next six seasons.

At Allen, the coaches decided to change the culture by painting the word "champions" above every doorway. No one was unsure of the goal.

"We believe what goes into your mind takes root in your heart," Patterson said.

Later, they took different paths, with Patterson coaching at Allen and Ardmore (Okla.) High Schools for seven years until they were reunited at Tulsa in 2003 — Todd as defensive coordinator, Patterson as linebackers coach.

Except for 2006, when Graham went to Rice to take his first head coaching job and Patterson succeeded him as defensive coordinator at Tulsa, they have worked together since.

Like Graham, Patterson learned his craft at high schools in Oklahoma and Texas. Patterson has great respect for Graham, but he insists his father, Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Patterson, is "the best coach I have ever been around."

One night in the late 1990s, after his father had retired from a career of 30-plus years, Patterson's Ardmore team was having trouble moving the football. The game was particularly distressing to Patterson because his father was watching from the top row of the bleachers.

Headed to the locker room at halftime — nearly defeated — Patterson looked up to see his dad walking toward him.

"I'll never forget it," Patterson said.

They didn't say a word, but the elder Patterson reached in his pocket and pulled out a napkin. On it, he had scrawled, "Give the ball to the fullback."

That was all his son needed to hear.

"We ran the fullback belly dive seven times on the last drive to win the game," Patterson said.

Winning won't be as easy in the Big East, where five starting quarterbacks return among Pitt's seven conference opponents.

Patterson said he has an advantage he seldom enjoyed at Tulsa: superior physicality. Tulsa lived by its offense last season while finishing 10-3; the defense was ranked 111th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, allowing an average of 450.8 yards. The pass defense was last in the nation (319 ypg).

"Nothing against the young men at Tulsa, but there were a lot of times — there were two or three games, maybe more — where we were outmatched physically," Patterson said. "There is not one time I look at it (at Pitt) and we are outmatched physically. We had very smart kids at Tulsa, but there is no doubt we have more quality players at Pitt."

Additional Information:

By the numbers

How the Pitt and Tulsa defenses ranked among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools last season:

Total defense: Pitt 8th; Tulsa 111th

Run defense: Pitt 17th; Tulsa 34th

Pass defense: Pitt 19th; Tulsa 120th

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