It had been a long time since bowl season had proceeded without a Todd Graham-coached team, but last year, the Tulsa head coach watched six other Conference USA teams play for a bowl championship while he got back to the drawing board.
Tulsa finished 2009 with a 5-7 record, its first losing record since 2004. During the two years that Graham was head coach, the Golden Hurricane posted a 21-7 record, appeared in the Top 25 and had played for two Conference USA championships. In 2009, Tulsa was more or less out of title contention by the beginning of November.
“No one was more surprised than I was that we didn’t go to a bowl game because that was far from what our expectations were,” Graham said. “I think one of the hard things sometimes is when you win 21 games in two years, the expectation is you’ve got to win 12. That was our expectation.”
After starting the season 4-1, Tulsa lost six consecutive games. The Golden Hurricane fell short on an opportunity to tie Boise State in the final minutes. They allow UTEP running back Donald Buckram to score with 29 second left. Houston kicked a 51-yard field goal at time expired. Southern Miss scored three unanswered touchdowns to pull away in the second half.
It’s not that Tulsa wasn’t competitive. It was just a play here or there that swayed the momentum and Tulsa couldn’t bring it back.
“We’re not far off, it’s just that every close game in ’07 and ’08 we won, and every close game last year we lost.” Graham said. “You have to look no further than leadership and coaching. We’re going back to work and that ‘we’ve got something to prove’ mentality.”
When the season ended at the end of November, Graham went right to work on preparing his team for 2010. He posted team goals on his door:
Conference USA champions, bowl champions, 14-0 BCS champions, 100 percent graduation rate.
And then he posted them on every locker and told each player to write the goals on his mirror at home.
There was no time to feel bad about what happened in 2009, there was only time to get better for 2010. The first step in that process was rectifying the offense. Tulsa had been dominant when Gus Malzahn and Herb Hand shared offensive coordinator duties. But when Malzahn left for Auburn prior to the 2009 season, Hand wasn’t able to steer the ship alone. So, Graham hired former Lake Travis (Texas) High coach Chad Morris to help. Morris takes Malzahn’s role and will call the plays. Hand will coordinate the running game and work the offensive line, and Mike Norvell will be in charge of the passing game.
Graham said the hiring of Morris was not a knock on Hand, but a chance to get Hand back to his comfort zone.
“The key is the partnership there,” Graham said. “Your offensive line coach has to be involved in a big way and naturally, Herb is one of the best in the country. It just allows him to go back to doing what he does best.”
Graham said that while there was disappointment about the way 2009 turned out there was never any quit. The players never stopped believing in the system and the coaches never stopped believing they had the makings of a winning team.
As spring football gets underway this week, the goal is getting back to the type of team that had enough fortitude to pull out those close wins and had the leadership to get through tough stretches in the schedule. Graham said he believes that while missing a bowl game was hard, the experience of doing so might make his team better in the long run.
“I think in a way it’s very, very tough to sustain that and you can take winning for granted,” Graham said. “That’s the one thing that we’ve talked about. We need to get back to that blue-collar mentality. That chip on our shoulder, got something to prove-type mentality. That’s the team we need to be.”