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Pitt left to pick up pieces after Graham exit

Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011

Seven days ago, Pitt receiver Devin Street sat down to discuss his future with football coach Todd Graham.

"He told me he's here to stay," Street said. "He said he wanted to make me the best player he can.

"It's all a lie. It's been all a lie this whole time. Everything he told us has been a lie."

Graham announced Wednesday morning to the team via text message through assistant athletic directors Blair Philbrick and Chris LaSala that he had quit to take the head coaching job at Arizona State. He's gone after only 11 months and 12 games on the Pitt sideline.

Players were mostly "shocked and appalled," said senior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih.

"Every player I've talked to is upset, especially for guys like (sophomore defensive lineman) Aaron Donald, who was recruited by (former coach Dave) Wannstedt, was under (Michael) Haywood for two weeks, then he was under Graham. Now he is going to be under someone else.

"Your heart breaks for him."

Graham, once regarded as a savior of a troubled program, threw it back into turmoil, leaving players and recruits unsure of the future for the second consecutive December.

"There are an awful lot of people who have invested their lives in this, and all these people are impacted," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said.

Pederson and interim coach Keith Patterson met with 110 players yesterday and were hit with some tough questions.

"It's pretty hard to explain to them something that is unexplainable," Pederson said.

"They are in the middle of finals, getting ready for the bowl game (BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 7 against SMU). They really don't need one more thing."

Senior offensive tackle Lucas Nix was among those players who believe the season has been played in an atmosphere of distrust and lies.

"All year we bought into what he was feeding us," said Nix, who missed six games with a knee injury. "We had a meeting with Mr. Pederson and told him we feel we've been lied to not only by coach Graham but (also Pederson) throughout this whole process."

Pederson said he was as surprised by Graham's leaving as anyone. He was meeting with Atlantic Coast Conference officials in Greensboro, N.C., when Graham called him Tuesday night and said Arizona State officials had reached out to him about their opening, and he wanted permission to talk to them.

"Quite frankly," Pederson said, "I told him I was at a little bit of a loss as to why less than a year in we would be talking about another job.

"I told him, 'Let's get together and talk about this and see if we can resolve any issues that might be out there.' "

Pederson never had that conversation with Graham.

Pitt players said they were stunned when they heard of Graham's resignation.

"We put our trust in (Graham), and all he could do was send us a text message," Nix said.

Alecxih said a double standard exists among players and coaches.

"How is it in college football, if a player wants to leave he has to do all kinds of stuff, he has to fill out paperwork, he has to sit out a year?" he said. "But if a coach wants to leave he can up and leave without so much as a moment's notice."

Street was particularly upset after suffering through a troubled season in which he and quarterback Tino Sunseri were publicly criticized by Graham.

Street said he would not transfer.

"I'm a Pitt guy. I love Pitt. This is all I know," he said. "I'm not going to quit. I'm not going to do what he did."

He admitted the text message was difficult to accept, coming only 11 months after losing two coaches last year.

"I looked at my phone, and I thought I was dreaming," he said. "So I put my phone back down, and I realized I was awake. No joke. I said, 'Not again.' "

A time line

Dec. 7, 2010 — Dave Wannstedt is forced to resign as head coach after a 7-5 season and 42-31 record in six seasons at his alma mater.

Dec. 16, 2010 — Michael Haywood, who led Miami (Ohio) to the Mid-American Conference championship, is hired as head coach.

Dec. 31, 2010 — Haywood is arrested in South Bend, Ind., on felony charges of domestic battery.

Jan. 1, 2011 — Pitt fires Haywood.

Jan. 9 — Interim coach Phil Bennett guides Pitt to 27-10 victory against Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Jan. 10 — Todd Graham, 36-17 in four seasons at Tulsa, is hired as head coach.

June 29 — Haywood asks the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to investigate his firing and seeks the $300,000 buyout clause that Pitt didn't pay Miami (Ohio).

Sept. 3 — Graham wins his debut at Pitt, 35-16 against Buffalo.

Sept. 17 — Pitt blows a fourth-quarter lead and loses its first game, 31-27 at Iowa.

Sept. 19 — Haywood files a lawsuit in Pittsburgh federal court, saying he was wrongfully terminated. He is seeking at least $3.75 million in damages.

Sept. 24 — Pitt blows another fourth-quarter lead, losing to Notre Dame, 15-12.

Oct. 14 — Graham gets a verbal commitment from Hopewell's Rushel Shell, considered one of the country's top running backs.

Oct. 15 — Pitt loses for the fourth time in five games, 26-14 against Utah.

Nov. 25 — Pitt blows another lead, losing the Backyard Brawl to West Virginia, 21-20.

Dec. 3 — The Panthers finish the season 6-6 and are bowl eligible with a 33-20 win against Syracuse.

Dec. 4 — Pitt accepts an invitation to Compass Bowl for second consecutive year.

Dec. 14 — Graham resigns abruptly to accept the coaching job at Arizona State.

What they're saying about Todd Graham ...

Former Pitt football players and persons with close ties to the program shared their thoughts on Todd Graham's decision to resign after one season and take the same position at Arizona State:

Bill Fralic, three-time All American and College Football Hall of Famer

On his expectations upon Graham's hiring:

"I figured it was three years, maybe less. If it was working, he was going to go somewhere. If it wasn't working, he was going to go somewhere. I didn't realize it would take less than a year. Forget being a booster and an alum. It's tough being a fan."

On Pitt's recent coaching history:

"The last two coaches (Walt Harris and Dave Wannstedt) who have won a share of the Big East title have gotten canned. It's not quite rising to the unbelievable stuff as to what's going on at Penn State. The carousel keeps on turning."

Beano Cook, longtime media relations director and ESPN analyst

On Pitt having had four head coaches (Wannstedt, Mike Haywood, Phil Bennett and Graham) in the past year and now looking for a fifth:

"It's unreal. It's like Elizabeth Taylor and husbands. That has to be unprecedented."

On Graham leaving:

"It's a surprise. This is a lot better job than it was a year ago because of the ACC. That's the big thing this year. It's bigger than going to a BCS bowl."

On who Pitt should hire:

"If they don't hire Tom Bradley, they're making a mistake. That's who they should hire, and they should do it right away. No search committee. They had a search committee, and look who they got. (Athletic director Steve) Pederson is going to get criticized. He's a big boy, and he's got to take it. But you have to remember: He saved Pitt athletics. We would not be going to the ACC if not for Petersen Events Center and moving to Heinz Field. You had to have both of them. He's made some bad mistakes, and it's obvious — Bradley's the perfect choice.

"Bradley's really acted with class under the circumstances and conducted himself well. Pederson better act real quickly because of the recruiting. There's some pretty good kids coming in. Bradley could hold them."

Tony Dorsett, 1976 Heisman Trophy winner and former NCAA record holder with 6,082 rushing yards

On Graham's decision:

"I'm totally shocked, totally taken aback by it. I got a text that said, 'Graham to ASU.' I thought maybe the running back (Ray Graham) was transferring. It never crossed my mind that it was the coach."

On the fallout:

"I understand it's him and his staff. What a surprise. I've talked to some people. I hope recruits don't make emotional decisions right now. ... From that standpoint, it's a bad decision on coach Graham's part. You want to be happy in life, but you're affecting the lives of a lot of young men. That disturbs me right there. That's going to be hard to digest, to recruit all these kids and then all of a sudden run out on them. That's just bad, all around bad. Where he's going, he may do it to them, too. He's showing them his M.O."

On what's next:

"What are we going to do• I left word to Steve (Pederson) and those guys that if they need me — I'm not talking about coaching, but if I can be of any type of help — that I'm just a phone call away. I'm hurt. This couldn't be any worse than it is. I hope we can recover from this in a short time. You don't want to hire just anybody.

"It's like sticking a (knife) in somebody's back. I'm really hurt about this. I was like, 'What• No, he didn't. Tell me he didn't.' I know it's part of the business side of college football, but when you get blindsided like this, it just blows you off your feet."

On future of Pitt football:

"That doesn't make us look very good. I'm just hoping somehow, some way they can get over this. To see the way this went down, I don't even have words for it. I see where he said he wants to be close to family, but I ain't buying that."

On his own responsibilities given the circumstances:

"I've got a call in to my nephew (Marlon Dorsett) to tell Rushel (Shell), 'Do not make any emotional decisions right now. Let this thing calm down before you make a rash decision. See what happens, see what kind of moves happen. Just wait.'"

Mike Ditka, former All-American and College Football Hall of Famer

On Graham's decision:

"If you think that Arizona State is a better job than Pitt, I have to disagree."

On what Pitt should look for in its next coach:

"They need to bring in a guy who really wants the opportunity to coach Pitt. I don't know who they have on their short list or long list. They need to get somebody who's going to take the job and run with it, not use it as a steppingstone."

By Kevin Gorman

GRaham's golden words

• At his introductory press conference in January, Graham prophetically sums up his tenure at Pitt: "I'm not one of those guys who have a five-year plan," he says. "I have a one-year plan." Of course, Graham is talking about wins and not his future. "I want to win the championship next year," he says. Pitt goes 6-6.

A few days into the job, Graham's high-octane style moves to Petersen Events Center where he glad-hands fans during a Pitt basketball game. "Just doing little things like going into the Oakland Zoo and jumping up and down, I want them to understand that we're going to work hard to earn their trust," he says. "I want their support, and I'm going to work hard to earn it."

On signing day in early February, Graham phones Beaver Falls linebacker Devin Cook, who has just faxed in his signed letter-of-intent: "We are going to do a lot of great things in the next four to five years," Graham says. "Welcome to the family."

At Pitt's first scrimmage in spring drills, the offense struggles to move the ball against the defense, but Graham keeps preaching his high-octane system. "Put it in the left lane," he says, "and put the hammer down."

At Pitt's spring game, mindful that player missteps cost Dave Wannstedt his job, Graham speaks of accountability. "Every day I see them, I am going to shake their hands, look them in the eye and tell them I'm committed, and I expect them to do the same thing," he says. "We have given each other our word, so I have a great confidence that these guys are going to do the right things."

In Graham's debut, Pitt needs two fourth-quarter touchdowns to put away Buffalo, 35-16. In what becomes an early-season theme, quarterback Tino Sunseri pooch-punts twice. In the start of another trend, Graham is critical of Sunseri's passing and decision making. "We have to execute better at that position," he says. "Does (Sunseri) need to improve• Obviously, he needs to improve. So do a lot of people."

Pitt improves to 2-0 but allows Division I-FCS Maine to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull within 35-29. Graham stirs up fans by inserting backup QB Trey Anderson in the fourth quarter, but the coach maintains there is no QB controversy. "Tino is our quarterback and will be next week, and we will move forward from there."

Graham questions his play-calling after not punting in the fourth quarter with Pitt ahead by 10 points and facing a fourth-and-three from the Iowa 36. Sunseri's pass falls incomplete, and the Hawkeyes rally for two TDs and a 31-27 victory. "We needed points," Graham says. "We felt like we had a play that was definitely there. It was, and we overthrew it. In hindsight, it was not a very good decision, but I thought we needed to be aggressive."

After four games, Sunseri has more pooch punts (six) than touchdown passes (four), including one in the first half of a 15-12 come-from-ahead loss against Notre Dame that features a second fourth-quarter meltdown in a row. "I believe our guys can do it," Graham says.

Rutgers, picked to finish last in the Big East before the season, blows out Pitt, 34-10. "The No. 1 factor in that game is we didn't have our guys ready to play," Graham says. "I don't think our guys played hard like they should, especially, I thought on the offensive side of the ball. We looked confused at times."

Pitt loses to Utah, 26-14, for the fourth setback in the past five games. Graham is dumbfounded that the high-octane system isn't producing yards or points. "To go from (523) yards (against South Florida two weeks earlier) to 120 yards of offense, I didn't know that was possible. And that's my fault." Graham also vows to no longer yank Sunseri for the freshman Anderson in certain situations. "Tino, far and away, has the biggest grasp of what we are doing offensive from his experience in the spring and fall, and we have to get it out of him."

Sunseri responds to Graham's vote of confidence by throwing for a career-high 419 yards in a 35-20 win over Connecticut. Graham isn't impressed, calling the performance average. "I thought we would throw for 500," he says. "I really did. That is what I am used to."

Pitt is 4-5 after a 26-23 loss to Cincinnati. "The future is bright for us," Graham says, "and I'm not talking about next year. I'm talking about the next three games."

Pitt loses another fourth-quarter lead and drops the Backyard Brawl to West Virginia, 21-20, falling to 5-6. Much of the focus is on Sunseri, who is sacked 10 times, including nine times in the second half and four on the final drive. "It's puzzling, head-scratching," Graham says. "I don't understand it. It's disappointing, obviously not what we are trying to execute."

Two days after the West Virginia loss, Graham takes blame for the way the season has unfolded. "What makes it so tough for me is that I feel like I let down the players, and I let down our fans," he says. Graham then speaks words that will ring hollow a few weeks later. "This university means a lot to me," he says, "and this program means a lot to me."

— Compiled by Joe Rutter

Additional Information:

Another perspective

Check out the Arizona Republic's coverage on Todd Graham's hiring at Arizona State.

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