Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It took 16 days to find Todd Graham?

I came across a quote recently that now seems quite appropriate:
"If I had to put my finger on anything, it's the notion that ... once the job is open, they're going to be banging my door down, and I'm going to pick and choose among all the great candidates. The only question is, which of these great coaches will I invite? ...

"There hadn't been any preparation for this that I could see. Nothing that said, 'We need to get ready for this.' And then it started to unravel."
That comment came from longtime Michigan faculty spokesman Percy Bates after the total debacle that was the 2007 coaching search. I've referenced that search-type thing several times on this site but never fully explained exactly how much of a debacle it really was.

In relatively condensed form (courtesy of Three and Out): Bill Martin had Kirk Ferentz at the top of his list but was immediately shot down by president Mary Sue Coleman, so he moved on to Tony Dungy only to realize that he was actually running a college program and not an NFL team. He told the six-person search committee he had no interest in Brian Kelly and "didn't want" Les Miles. He then went on vacation with a new cell phone that he didn't know how to use (guh) just as the Les Miles story broke on ESPN, and nobody -- including Miles' agent, who had actually been trying to make Miles' interest in the job known -- could reach him for an entire weekend. Martin then flew to New York, met with Greg Schiano and offered him the job despite never informing the search committee that he was considering Schiano. Schiano accepted the job, then changed his mind the next morning, at which point Michigan decided Miles was looking pretty good. So Martin and Coleman called Miles, who told them that he "would never say no to Michigan" but couldn't do anything until after the national title game (this was after his "great team yadda yadda" presser). Since Lloyd Carr hates Les Miles with the fire of a million suns, Carr personally called Rich Rodriguez (!), encouraged him to consider the Michigan job and then pushed his name to Martin as a candidate. A meeting was scheduled, an offer was made on the spot since it was the middle of December and RichRod accepted a day later after a less-than-encouraging talk with West Virginia president Michael Garrison.

Since you probably skimmed most of that, I'll summarize: There was an AD nominally running the search, a president overruling him and overseeing him (sometimes out of necessity because of incompetence), a search committee that had no real authority or influence, a person pulling strings and sabotaging the search from the inside and no real plan or direction despite having a full year of advance warning that a search was gonna be necessary. This is how you end up offering the job to somebody at an impromptu meeting on December 14 with no real negotiations. Again: debacle.

There is a point to all this, BTW. Arizona State just hired Todd Graham after a 16-day search that featured all the same insanity, incompetence and total lack of direction. I'm fairly confident that Kevin Sumlin was at the top of a very short list; once he bailed due to googly eyes for Texas A&M, everything fell apart. The next two weeks produced an ever-growing pile of evidence that Lisa Love and Steve Patterson and Michael Crow and whoever else may or may not have been involved* had absolutely no idea what they were doing. The June Jones "haha just kidding" ridiculousness sits atop that pile. I don't know what happened that day; all I know is that there was either no advance discussion with the prominent boosters or no advance approval from Crow. Both of those things are inexplicable given that a contract was already on the table.

Exactly one week of total silence later, Todd Graham was announcing his exit from Pitt via text message with the explanation that he didn't have time to meet with his players because of the "timing of the circumstances." I doubt there was a long negotiation process, which means the past six days were either perfectly organized and kept totally under wraps or were spent figuring out WTF to do next.
So ... Todd Graham. He's 47 and will be coaching his fourth school in six years, which represents sort of a pattern. Inevitable reaction: OMG HE'S LANE KIFFIN WON'T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!? Pitt wideout Devin Street went ape on Twitter, which if nothing else is good to document hilarious reactions to things.

The idea that coaches have some unwritten-but-required loyalty to their programs and players is almost as laughable as the idea of a coach's contract meaning anything in terms of job security. Yet this story gets written every year about (insert coach here) leaving (insert program here) for (insert slightly better program here) after (insert number of years here). People say dumb things, a new coach gets hired, everybody moves on, rinse, repeat.

I remember when a bunch of Cincinnati players' heads exploded because Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame after issuing a bunch of standard non-denial denials, which ... umm ... really? And Kyle Turley is still OUTRAGED that Brady Hoke left San Diego State for Michigan. Mmmkay. Whether or not leaving a job on little/zero notice is ideal is irrelevant; it's the way it works now. Any 20-year-old who's still naive enough to think these guys are 100 percent committed to the place they're at and wouldn't bail for Dream Job X or a significantly bigger paycheck is extremely naive. Student-athlete, meet real world.

ESPN blogger Ted Miller said it best:
Look, folks: Being a college football coach is a job. It is not a charitable calling. Loyalty? There are going to be more than 25 coaching changes next fall. There are 120 FBS teams. The nature of the business is to get fired or to climb. It's best to do the latter.

Todd Graham wants to coach at Arizona State more than Pittsburgh. Most folks would. So instead of doing something he doesn't want to do, he's doing what he wants to. His only loyalty should be to his family and friends, not his bosses.

Some will throw around insults like "liar." They will say things like Graham told his players he was staying. Well, he was staying. Until he got a better offer. The lesson the players should learn from this is to be ambitious and to learn how the big-boy world works. In other words, Graham just helped them grow up.
BOOM ESPN'D. Climb or (eventually) be fired. I don't have any issue with a guy jumping around from job to job; the only downside is that hiring said guy means there's a good chance you're looking for a different guy in the near future. The chances of significant long-term success are an order of magnitude lower with a guy who probably won't be the long-term coach one way or another.

As for the coaching stuff, it's funny how everybody jumps on the whole "high-octane" thing and goes ZOMG OFFENSE TULSA WWHHEEEE (I've clearly spent too much time on the internet today). Graham was Tulsa's defensive coordinator and West Virginia's co-defensive coordinator before that. His background: defense. It's the thing that's not the offense. He definitely has an offensive philosophy, so to speak, but he's not the guy responsible for all the stuff at Tulsa. I've seen this paragraph (or a variation of it) reproduced in about eight different places today:
His Tulsa teams led the nation in total offense in 2007 (543.9 yards per game) and 2008 (569.9). The 2007 team posted a 63-7 victory over Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl, and the '08 team followed with a 45-13 victory over Ball State in the GMAC Bowl.
Know who the offensive coordinator was in 2007 and '08? Gus Malzahn, who was fresh off a year of insanity at Arkansas. Malzahn left for Auburn after that, at which point the offense regressed to mediocrity en route to a 5-7 finish in '09. Result: Graham went out and hired Chad Morris, who took the offense right back to awesomeness and is now getting paid a ridonkulous $1.3 million as O-coordinator at Clemson.

Here's Graham's record at Tulsa:

2007: 10-4 (first nationally in total offense under Malzahn, 108th in total defense)
2008: 11-3 (first nationally in total offense under Malzahn, 74th in total defense)
2009: 5-7 (35th in total offense under Herb Hand, 85th in total defense)
2010: 10-3 (fifth in total offense under Chad Morris, 111th in total defense)

Takeaways: His overall success coincided directly with having an elite O-coordinator and his defenses were consistently bad. That seems potentially problematic for a guy whose primary emphasis is defense. BTW, his one year at Rice was almost identical: a pretty good offense led by Major Applewhite (who's now co-coordinator at Texas) and a terrible defense, with those two variants combining to produce a 7-6 record at a place coming off a 1-11 season.

The promising thing there (other than the record, obviously) is that he twice went out and found under-the-radar guys who turned out to be amazing coordinators. ASU might (emphasis on might) actually have the money to keep a Chad Morris-caliber coordinator if that guy were to matriculate out of a haboob in 2013. I say 2013 because it apparently won't happen this year: Graham is reportedly bringing co-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell from Pitt, which is good in a familiarity sense but not so great from a results-to-date sense. Norvell has been a co-coordinator for all of one year, basically working under Calvin Magee at Pitt before Magee left last week to work with RichRod at Arizona (mmmm, irony). He's never called plays, and anything that can be gleaned from last year's results (84th in yardage, 70th in scoring) isn't very useful since Tino Sunseri is not good and Ray Graham was on pace for about 1,800 yards before blowing out his knee. I'm willing to reserve judgment on Norvell; still, I can't get too excited about a guy who's been almost solely a receivers coach so far and doesn't have a resume even remotely comparable to Morris or Malzahn, both of whom were being nationally recognized as high school coaches for destroying everybody. Having a high-octane offense is dependent on having a coordinator capable of coaching it well.

The defense is another matter. Graham's involvement on that side of the ball is pretty fuzzy; he talks more about the speed of the offense and the "vision" and random other buzzwords of choice. The guy to know: Keith Patterson, who's been Graham's D-coordinator ever since Graham got promoted to head coach at Tulsa and will reportedly join him at ASU after the BJDSFKDF Compass Bowl.

Patterson's history (I already listed the craptacular Tulsa numbers but will put retype them here for ease of reading):

2007: 108th in total defense, 100th in scoring defense
2008: 74th in total defense, 75th in scoring defense
2009: 85th in total defense, 74th in scoring defense
2010: 111th in total defense, 85th in scoring defense
2011: 41st in total defense, 33rd in scoring defense

The 2011 jump might have had more to do with the defensive talent in place at Pitt than any coaching revelation; the microscopic sample size there makes it kinda hard to make any grand conclusions. Zooming out, there's really nothing to show Patterson is an above-average D-coordinator. FYI, Graham's numbers at Tulsa were quite a bit better: 21st and 40th in yardage in his two years. Unfortunately for him and probably for ASU, his defensive influence apparently ceased existing once he became head coach.

In the big picture, if you're looking for clues from his year at Pitt ... umm ... good luck. The offense wasn't very good and the defense was a little above average, but those both come with pretty significant caveats because of injuries and sample size and the Big East and whatnot. The Tulsa/Rice record (43-23) looks impressive on the surface but cracks a little with analysis of exactly how/when those teams succeeded. Consistently hiring good coordinators is a skill that I praise all the time and believe is massively underrated, and Graham has a history of doing that on offense. That's the good news. The bad news: A coach relying on good coordinators only wins as long as he has, like, good coordinators, and neither guy coming to ASU has the resume of a good coordinator (not yet, anyway).

Just to be clear, Graham's not a bad hire. ASU could have done worse (Mike Martz gack). I just look at a guy with a debatable role in his successful years and one 6-6 year at a comparable program and think, "meh." The upside seems relatively low barring him stumbling into the next Chip Kelly/Gus Malzahn at some point in the not-too-distant future. Frankly, I'd have preferred June Jones given the guaranteed passing-game dominance and the almost-guaranteed (even if moderate) improvement in wins. Todd Graham offers neither of those, zero promise of long-term stability and zero local recruiting connections.

This was from my Dennis Erickson post-mortem thing:
Somebody in my office threw out an interesting stat the other day: Erickson averaged 6.2 wins a year. Dirk Koetter averaged 6.7. Bruce Snyder averaged 6.4. Since Frank Kush retired in 1979, the 32-year average is 6.7 wins. The mediocrity: It's stifling.

Going back to what I said earlier, ASU isn't USC. An average-ish coach will produce average-ish results since there aren't any obvious program advantages. This program can be better -- just look at what Mike Bellotti did at Oregon (although he had Phil Knight pulling some strings) and what Rich Rodriguez did at West Virginia and what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech and what Joe Tiller did at Purdue and what Art Briles is doing at Baylor (Baylor!). None of those last four schools has any more geographical/financial/historical advantages than ASU; they succeeded/are succeeding because they found a coach who did/does some systematic thing really well and used it to win a bunch of games and get things figuratively snowballing.
Outside of the excessive use of forward slashes, the takeaway there: It's hard to consistently win more than about six games a year at ASU. It can be done by the right guy (GUS MALZAHN Y U NO LIKE THE OTHER ASU?), but I'm having a hard time finding anything that'll make me believe Graham is that guy. I don't even think Lisa Love believes it:
"Criteria for our head coach was established, and the word that was at the forefront of discussions was 'energy' ... energy towards promoting our program in the community and with former players.
Errr yes. Energy. That's the ticket. There's one fundamental thing Lisa Love doesn't understand (Greg Byrne does and thus will pwn her until she gets fired at some point in the near future): In college sports, your program is only as good as your coach. Period.

Todd Graham seems to be a slightly above-average** coach. That's fine given some of the alternatives and the disaster of a coaching search, but ... I mean ... 6.7 wins, man.
. . . . .

*A co-worker with a prominent ASU connection described the Love/Patterson/Crow mess as "a two-headed dog that's blind in both heads." Seems about right.

**This really ranges from "average" to "good" depending on the quality of his offensive coordinator at any given time. With Norvell calling plays, I'm filing him a little closer to "average."


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