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Todd Graham: Pitt was a mistake
"This is a destination job."
Those are the words of new Arizona State head coach Todd Graham.
The same Todd Graham who reportedly informed his players he was leaving Pittsburgh for Arizona State by a text message forwarded by another staff member.
His abrupt and controversial departure from Pitt — albeit he's not the only coach to have done so — left many observers cynical, but Graham understands the skepticism and surprisingly, accepts it.
"I got my head kicked in to come here," the 47-year-old Mesquite, Texas-native admitted.
There were no excuses offered up over why he bailed on Pitt — he was completely transparent and honest discussing what he called his "biggest mistake."
"In every job that [I've previously had] … I've changed jobs, and you know, you get a lot of grief, and rightly so. I take responsibility for being at a place for one year and leaving," he said. "I made a mistake. The mistake was I probably should have never gone to Pittsburgh in the first place."
Graham said that after then-head coach Dave Wannstedt was dismissed from Pitt in late 2010, the hiring and subsequent firing of Mike Haywood two weeks later sped up the Pitt coaching search. Graham was given just 24 hours to mull over leaving Tulsa for Pitt.
"I'm from the South, he explained. "[Pittsburgh] was a different cultural change for me. I did not feel comfortable."
There was pain in his voice. Graham felt badly for the staff and players he left behind and although he's taken heavy criticism since taking the Arizona State job, Graham admitted he can't say he didn't deserve it.
If he could get a chance at a do-over?
"I'd have stayed in Tulsa and I'd be right where I am right now," he said firmly.
"Here" is the place where Graham briefly played professional football (Arizona Cardinals) and where both he and his wife have family. Graham just bought a house in the upscale Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale and he is excited over the prospect of paying it off within four years.
He has put down roots.
Arizona State's associate athletic director of communications Mark Brand said Graham has been "nothing but fantastic for me" and called him "a refreshing coach." While his reputation may've preceded his arrival in the desert, Graham is slowly erasing any preconceived notions with his Southern charm, energy and candor.
Graham told me about one of his children — a daughter who is transferring to Arizona State (via Oklahoma) in the fall — who was at the Sun Devils' spring game on April 21. The two shared a not-very-typical-father-daughter-moment after the game.
"She walked up to me and said, 'The center is tipping off run or pass,'" recalled Graham, laughing. She told him, "I can tell when it's a run play and when it's a pass play because the center is sitting back in his stance."
That exchange encapsulates Todd Graham's world — relationships, family and football all intertwined with a healthy dose of teachable moments.
"I'm an old-school discipline guy," he admitted. "I believe in treating players with respect. You can come out and watch our practices — you won’t hear filthy language, but we are a disciplined team."
Sun Devils fans should rejoice over those words — their teams have had notorious discipline problems, most recently with linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Burfict racked up 16 personal fouls playing at Arizona State and reportedly tested positive for marijuana just prior to the 2012 NFL Draft— he wasn't drafted but did end up signing with the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent.
A recent expose documenting the growing problem of marijuana use in college football, specifically with Oregon, was published just prior to the NFL Draft. According to an ESPN report, 22.6 percent of college athletes have used marijuana. Football is the sport with the highest incidence of use, at 26.7 percent. Citing interviews with ESPN the Magazine, the story stated that "19 current or former Oregon players and officials revealed widespread marijuana use by football players for at least the past 15 years. Former Ducks, including current pros, estimate between 40 percent and 60 percent of their teammates puffed; current Ducks say that range remains accurate."
"It's an ongoing problem, probably more prevalent than people think," Graham acknowledged. "I'll give kids a second chance, but I'm not giving them a third."
"We drug test every player in our program every two months," he said.
The state of Oregon, unlike Arizona, does not permit random drug testing.
"I probably drug test more than anybody else. We choose to do that — I choose to do that," Graham said.
While some may call his drug-testing policy too extreme, Graham noted that his team is hungry for discipline. More importantly, they're "hungry for the win."
"There's going to be a lot of close football games," Graham said. "We have tremendous potential, but we've got a lot of work to do. We just can't lose any more people."
Since Graham arrived in Tempe, four players have been dismissed from the team.
Known for his defensive prowess, Graham is impressed by the defensive line, but says the Sun Devils are thin at linebacker. On offense, Graham has some concerns, but there are bright spots.
"Although [the offensive line] is thin, it's been the most impressive thing so far" he said with a lilt in his voice.
Graham won't say who will be the starting quarterback and won't dismiss the possibility of using two in certain situations.
"We've used a Wildcat in our offense … we won’t call it that, though," Graham said.
Makes sense since there's a team about an hour-and-a-half away — the Arizona Wildcats — that is now being coached by Rich Rodriguez. In 2001, Rodriguez had hired Graham as his linebackers coach at West Virginia and the following year, Graham was promoted to co-defensive coordinator. The Arizona-Arizona State Territorial Cup rivalry game just got a little more personal.
Graham isn't one to make predictions but he did offer this: "The team that plays the best defense is going to win."
As he sat in his office with a gorgeous view of Sun Devil Stadium framed in a window, Graham acknowledged the high expectations.
"I didn't come here to win on a Saturday, I came to win here every day," he said.
And he knows the clock is ticking.
While Graham has a five-year contract at a base salary of around $2 million per year, he admitted coaches no longer have the luxury of a contract being fully executed.
"You don't get a five-year plan, you get a two-year plan," he said.
Appreciative and content in his picturesque surroundings, Graham sounded like a coach who has finally settled down.
"I've never recruited to a place like this," he said. "It's a resort campus."
"This is a job that I've coveted. Hopefully, I'll be here a long, long time and develop a legacy."
And how does he answer those who question his loyalty to any school?
"I'm going to prove it to them."