Graham, Rodriguez downplaying relationship
If ever a friendship truly did exist between Arizona State coach Todd Graham and University of Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, it is hard to tell now. The two coaches meet for the first time in their respective positions Friday in the annual Territorial Cup game, and whether they acknowledge it or not, they share a history that has added intrigue to the rivalry.
Both coaches have been reserved this week in discussing their relationship with the other, which dates first to the 1993 NAIA national championship and later to Graham's time working under Rodriguez at West Virginia from 2001-02. Graham has said the pair developed a mutual respect that became a friendship, but you wouldn't know it from their remarks this week.
"We knew each other from competing against each other in 1993 when we played for the national championship, when he coached at Glenville State and I was at East Central," Graham said. "I also worked there (at West Virginia) for a brief time, but that's it."
Rodriguez didn’t have much to say of his history with Graham either, and it didn’t have to be said to know the two coaches won't be getting together to reminisce any time soon.
"I hired him at West Virginia because I knew him from the recruiting trail," Rodriguez said. "We were also starting something new at West Virginia, and he did a good job. After two years, he moved on and started to become a head coach shortly after that."
Downplay it as they might, the history is there. As defensive coordinator at East Central, Graham first experienced no-huddle offense against Rodriguez in the game East Central won. Graham said in a July interview with FOX Sports Arizona that the offense made him uncomfortable enough that he had to call defensive plays from the field instead of a box above the field.
The offense also left such an impression that, ever since that meeting, Graham has run a fast-paced, no-huddle offense modeled after Rodriguez's but dubbed "High Octane." That included at Allen High School in Texas, where Graham and Rodriguez got to know each other better with Rodriguez then an assistant at Clemson on the recruiting trail.
"We would talk over the phone and stuff, just acquaintances really," Graham recalled.
That acquaintance grew when Graham pointed Rodriguez to John Leake, a linebacker at Plano East High School who ended up playing at Clemson and later in the NFL. When Rodriguez got his first head coaching job at West Virginia, he offered Graham a job coaching linebackers.
Graham stayed with Rodriguez for two seasons, one as co-defensive coordinator, before moving on to his next opportunity as defensive coordinator at Tulsa.
"He gave me an opportunity there at West Virginia," Graham said in July. "We're different philosophically, but I've got nothing but respect for him."
Neither says much about their relationship anymore, but the writing on the wall suggests the mutual respect between the men has diminished. Their work together may have ended when Graham left West Virginia, but that was hardly the end of their history.
Rodriguez left West Virginia before the 2008 Fiesta Bowl to take the vacant job at Michigan, where he lasted three dismal seasons. When Rodriguez was fired after the 2010 season, Graham was on the move to Pittsburgh and snapped up newly unemployed assistant coaches Tony Dews, Tony Gibson and Calvin Magee, all of whom worked for Rodriguez at Michigan.
When Rodriguez was hired at Arizona last Nov. 21, he moved quickly to reassemble his old assistants, plucking Dews, Gibson and Magee away from Graham at Pitt. The departures prompted Graham to call the men "nothing but mercenaries," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
There's also some history with Rodriguez on Graham's staff. Co-defensive coordinators Paul Randolph and Ron West have both worked with or for Rodriguez. Randolph spent 2002 with Graham under Rodriguez, coaching the defensive line at West Virginia. He then spent three seasons at Alabama before joining Graham at Rice in 2006.
West and Rodriguez worked together at Tulane from 1997-98 and moved together to Clemson, where Rodriguez was offensive coordinator from 1999-2000 and West the offensive line coach.
"We were good friends," West said this week. "We spent a lot of time together, naturally, as you do as coaches."
West said the two kept in touch over the years but don't anymore. He said the offense Rodriguez employs now is similar to what he did back at Tulane and Clemson. But like Graham, West downplays any history making Friday's game personal.
"This rivalry is about Arizona State versus Arizona," West said. "It doesn't have anything to do with coaching staffs. It's all about the players and the rivalry."
Rodriguez admitted UA might benefit a bit from familiarity with ASU coaches but said any relationships with them that might still exist mean are nonexistent this week.
"I’m not calling them up or trading them bedtime stories," Rodriguez joked.
Rodriguez said, if anything, Friday's matchup is personal simply because of the rivalry, but he joked that the personal element between himself and Graham doesn't matter because they are not on the field.
"I’ve been training in case they allow me to play," Rodriguez said, smiling. "If they change the rules and allow me and Todd to go one on one, I’ll try to be ready for that, but that’s not going to happen."
Graham, too, insisted that the game is not personal and has been consistent in that stance.
"I'll be real honest with you: I think sometimes you can make a mistake doing that, when you make it personal," Graham said in July. "It's about the game. It’s about winning the game."
Graham repeated the sentiment early this week: "You don’t want to beat yourself by being too emotionally evolved."
To a degree, the coaches are right. The Territorial Cup through the years has not been about the men on the sidelines. It’s been about the guys on the field, from the heroes to the goats.
But this year, there's no getting around the coaches' history. This one means something as both coaches look to strike first and gain an early advantage in the rivalry. Perhaps next year no one will care about who coached with whom or which offense copied the other. Not yet.
Just for a year, though, the coaches are doing all they can to keep their history out of the Territorial Cup.
"This game isn’t about Todd Graham or any other coach," Graham said. "It’s far bigger than that. It’s about Arizona State versus Arizona, and that’s all it needs to be."