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Harris: Panthers embrace Graham's vision

| Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011

In case you're wondering, new Pitt football coach Todd Graham has been preparing for his dream job since what to him seems like forever.

Pressure• What pressure?

Graham is enjoying himself so much, he hasn't given much credence to the Panthers being picked to finish second behind West Virginia in the Big East Conference. He's having a blast.

"It's the best opportunity I've had in my life," Graham said Monday during Pitt's media day. "I'm not worried about the preseason poll. The last poll of the year, I want to be champions of the Big East Conference and I want to be headed to the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 9."

Graham made it sound like he would have crawled from his previous job in Tulsa, Okla., for the chance to coach the Panthers.

"It's really exciting for me," he said. "The best staff I've ever been around. We have the best support around us, administratively. There's a lot of things already in place. It's not starting from Point A."

When Graham talks, he sounds like someone who developed his coaching roots in his native Texas and spent his formative years eating chicken fried steak in the homes of high school recruits.

He speaks rhythmically, the words rolling off his tongue, his words gaining momentum -- coach-speak with a Texas twang.

It wasn't always the case, but junior running back Ray Graham said he and his teammates share their coach's fervor for success.

"I think everybody bought in," said Ray Graham, who admitted to being "heartbroken" following the dismissal of former coach Dave Wannstedt until "Coach came in and made us feel comfortable."

He added, "When he brought that enthusiasm and excitement to the table, we were like, 'OK, we're gonna give this guy a chance.' "

Good idea.

"What you see is what you get," Ray Graham said. "He's the same way every day. That's what I like about him."

It's difficult for players such as Ray Graham to temper their enthusiasm -- especially when their coach promises to keep the scoreboard operator busy, as long as the offense runs a promised 80 plays per game.

"As long as we don't turn the ball over, we're going to score 35-plus points," Todd Graham said matter-of-factly. "That's been pretty much how it works."

To hear Todd Graham tell it, however, none of this works if his players don't buy what he's selling. No way they push themselves for a new coach -- especially the seniors. No way they go all out for an outsider making a bunch of fancy promises if they don't believe him with all of their heart and soul.

"I wouldn't say everyone has bought in," Todd Graham said. "(But) I feel great about my team. I think the guys that are in key roles and that are playing have bought in. I would say we're 70 to 75 percent bought-in, sold-out to what we're doing. Everybody else kind of waits and sees what's going to happen."

The seniors were the toughest sell because they have the most to lose -- it is their final year of college football, after all.

Why trust the new coach when the old coach who recruited them was let go, and the coach who replaced their original coach barely had time to introduce himself before he departed?

To his credit, Todd Graham made it seem like trusting him was the most natural thing in the world.

That's why the Panthers embraced learning a no-huddle offense -- one that features running a play every 15 seconds -- from a coach they're still getting to know.

"It's going to be hard for the (opponents') defense to get ready," Ray Graham said. "We've put in too much time for it not to work."

Todd Graham predicts the new offense will work because of a promise he made to his players.

"I made a commitment to our seniors," he said. "We're gonna do what we've gotta do to win football games ... this year.

"I like our football team because I really believe that these guys have opened their hearts up. We don't want to revert back to old habits. We respect and honor what's been done in the past, but we want a different result, and that's a (Big East) championship."

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