Pitt hoping for breakthrough under Todd Graham
New Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham hasn't coached a down with the Panthers yet, but he's already put his stamp on the program.
Graham is overseeing renovations at the team's football complex on the city's South Side, and there isn't a detail that escapes him.
From the flatscreen televisions on the walls, to the secretary's desk outside his office, Graham is embracing the job with such zeal, it would make the host of a home renovation show on HGTV blush.
The former Tulsa coach sees the facility as an extension of the energy he's trying to bring to the Panthers. And he sets the tone the moment a player walks through the front door.
Two steps inside the facility a rope hangs from the wall, a reminder to his players that they're in this thing together.
''He wants us to hold that rope, to know that if someone is hanging off the cliff we need to hold on and help them,'' said senior defensive lineman Myles Caragein. ''He's about teamwork and holding each other accountable and sticking with them.''
It's a message that resonates well at Pitt, which is emerging from a bumpy breakup with former coach Dave Wannstedt, who was forced out last December after six uneven seasons, leading to a chaotic month that saw the Panthers have three head coaches.
Pitt initially hired Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, but he was fired after being on the job two weeks following his arrest on a domestic violence charge. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett coached the Panthers to a win over Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl before Graham was hired on Jan. 10.
During his first team meeting, Graham promised the seniors he would focus on winning now. With the talent on the roster, he didn't see a reason to wait.
''The key for us winning the championship are the guys that are returning starters, the core,'' Graham said.
He ended up giving each of his players a T-shirt with the phrase ''pay the price'' on the front and ''keep the change'' on the back during spring drills, a reminder to them that he's here for a reason: To help a program, that always found a way to fall just short of expectations, take the final step toward Big East prominence.
''We don't want to revert back to old habits,'' Graham said. ''We want a different result ... and that's a championship.''
To get there, Graham is bringing along the up-tempo offensive system that helped make the Golden Hurricane a perennial contender in Conference USA. And this is a roster dotted with skill players that were just out of his reach while he was at Tulsa. So, Graham can hardly contain his glee about the possibilities.
Running back Ray Graham proved to be a capable complement to star Dion Lewis, rushing for 922 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Lewis was then drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.
So, Ray Graham knows it's his turn to lead the legacy that stretches from Lewis back to LeSean McCoy, Curtis Martin, the late Craig ''Ironhead'' Heyward and Heisman Trophy winner, Tony Dorsett.
It's a challenge he has embraced, though he'll do it while working within a very different system than the smash-mouth one traditionally favored by Pitt. The Panthers will work without a huddle and typically have three or four receivers on the field at one time.
Yet Ray Graham doesn't think the shotgun-heavy formations means the Panthers won't be able to run it when they want to.
''People think it's going to be like a spread and we're going to pass all the time. We're not,'' he said. ''With the line we have, we think we can go and just do our thing.''
It'll be quarterback Tino Sunseri's job to make sure the ball gets where it needs to go, whether it's in his star running back's hands or elsewhere. His coach expects Sunseri to do things ''two or three times'' faster than he normally would.
That's going to lead to some mistakes. Graham is fine with that so long as the miscues don't include turnovers. Sunseri showed he could be efficient last year while throwing for 2,686 yards and 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions. To be effective, though, he'll also have to be a credible threat with his legs, though he laughed when asked if that means he has to run like former West Virginia star Pat White.
''Not quite,'' Sunseri said. ''But I know that if they have to prepare for me running, that's only going to help everybody else.''
Graham understands it's almost impossible for Sunseri to grasp the finer points of co-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's attack in eight months. He doesn't need Sunseri to be the hero ... as long as he's not the goat.
''Being the quarterback in this system is very difficult,'' Graham said. ''But the offense can operate at full potential as long as we don't turn the football over.''
Graham thinks if the Panthers snap the ball 80 times a game, at least five of those plays should finish in the end zone. Do the math and that's at least 35 points a game, a number that would go a long way in the jumbled Big East.
He's not the only one that thinks Pitt can compete for the conference title right away. The Panthers were picked to finish second in the league and have a user-friendly schedule that features eight home games, including nonconference showdowns with Notre Dame and Utah.
While he downplayed the prognostications, Graham understands he's expected to win now. It's one of the reasons why he took the job.
''When we looked at the opportunity to come to Pittsburgh, city of champions, it's pretty obvious they want us to win championships,'' he said. ''Anything less than winning championships is unacceptable.''