Longtime friend Patterson jumps at chance for reunion with Graham
TEMPE, Ariz. — This spring, Arizona State coach Todd Graham has been more hands off in defensive coaching duties, taking on a greater role in special teams and getting more involved in other facets.
The change has not meant a break from Graham’s fiery coaching style for ASU’s defensive players, as new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has provided just as much intensity, if not more.
"It’s awesome to have him because they don’t get any reprieve from me stepping back," Graham joked.
In Patterson, Graham has reconnected with much more than a capable motivator, though.
"We started off in this business together," Graham said. "We’ve basically spent most of our career together in some form or fashion, so having him is a great comfort to me because you can see that he can take a lot of the load off of me there."
If Graham had gotten his way back in December 2011, Patterson would have been a Sun Devil within a few days of Graham’s introduction in Tempe. But Patterson stayed at Pittsburgh as interim head coach when Graham left, then spent the next two seasons at West Virginia.
Graham made the reunion happen in February, bringing Patterson on to improve ASU’s struggling defensive specials teams units and lighten Graham’s hands-on load.
There is perhaps no one else in football with whom Graham has stronger ties than Patterson. The friends of more than 30 years first connected in the early 1980s as teammates and roommates at East Central (Okla.) University, where they began laying the foundation for a career together.
"I talked all the time about what I wanted to do, what we wanted to do as coaches," Graham said. "He was a coach’s son, and I knew I wanted to be a coach."
Patterson recalls the beginnings of their friendship as a case of opposites attracting.
"It just happened so naturally because he understands my personality, I understand his personality," Patterson said. "He understands how I think, I understand how he thinks. I come from a small, farming, rural community in Oklahoma. He comes from Dallas.
"So we were very, very different from the beginning, and it was just like two pieces of a puzzle that kind of meshed together."
The bond tightened as Patterson and Graham entered the coaching world together. They first coached together for two seasons at Allen (Texas) High School, where Graham was the head coach and Patterson an assistant. They teamed up again as assistants at Tulsa from 2003-05, and Graham made Patterson his co-defensive coordinator when he took over as Tulsa’s head coach in 2007. When Graham left for Pitt in 2011, Patterson went with him.
In each of their shared coaching stops, Graham and Patterson have complemented each other. Patterson says areas he needs to improve are typically Graham’s strengths, and vice versa.
"I rely on Coach to make me better, and I hope that he relies on me to make him better," Patterson said. "So when you do that, you’re constantly improving."
Given their long history, the dynamic between Patterson and Graham is unlike any other between Graham and an assistant.
"He’s a guy that will stand up and tell me exactly what he thinks and is not afraid to do that," Graham said. "We have that kind of trust and relationship. I don’t know that, other than Gris (strength coach Shawn Griswold), there’s another person that would do that. I think that’s going to give us great balance."
Patterson, Graham says, should provide schematic balance as well. Where Graham is more aggressive, Patterson is more fundamentally sound. Graham says Patterson will initiate most play calls on defense this season — no small task for Graham to turn over — though Graham will remain very involved in the defensive process.
"Until I stop having a pulse I’ll be involved defensively," Graham joked.
Patterson has taken over most of ASU’s defensive install during spring practices, doing the heavy lifting Graham has done the past two seasons. While their approaches may differ, their similarity as intense motivators and teachers is readily apparent.
As hard as it was to leave players he’d grown attached to at West Virginia, Patterson knew better than to pass an the opportunity to team up with an old friend once again.
"I had a good situation, but I consider this to be a great situation," Patterson said. "Being back with people that I’m familiar with, understanding the philosophy and the expectations, it’s just a good fit."