Todd Graham is Pitt's man with a plan

PITTSBURGH -- Keith Patterson was a senior at East Central University in Oklahoma when his teammate and roommate, Todd Graham, pulled him out of his dorm room one day. Graham told him they were going to see the team's defensive coordinator.

When they got there, Graham started listing all the things the defense needed to change and all the position switches the coach should make.

"And sure enough the next spring, everything he said was what we were doing," Patterson said. "He's always been a visionary. He has always laid out the plan and sold everybody on it. That's what he does best."

Graham's latest sales job is at Pittsburgh, where he took over as head coach in January after the controversial forced resignation of Dave Wannstedt and the botched hiring of Miami's Mike Haywood left the program teetering. Players were leery of accepting their third head coach in a month, but Graham managed to win them over quickly.

"With the previous situations, we didn't know what to do or who to trust," receiver Mike Shanahan said. "He gave us that sense of stability. He told us if we trusted him and he trusted us, there would be big things for us."

Spend any time with Graham, and you wonder if he's for real. He speaks rapidly with a Texas twang and tosses around words like "relationships," "passion" and "values" as much as any football terms. He has barred his players from wearing earrings or bandanas and won't allow cursing in the football complex. He hung signs around the locker room extolling "The Pitt Way," which is written like the U.S. Declaration of Independence and contains almost as many words. He says his team "will be the most disciplined and most prepared" in the country and insists his team will "speak and walk like champions every day."

"I don't spend a lot of time trying to micromanage what we call on offense and defense," Graham said. "I micromanage the vision."

He can sound corny, cliche-ridden even. But if it's all an act, if his enthusiasm in greeting secretaries in the football complex or his embarrassment at seeing leftover food wrappers in a stairway is all a show, he sure is committed to it.

Patterson, Pitt's new defensive coordinator, coached with Graham in Texas high school ball and for the past four seasons at Tulsa. He says Graham has the same passion he had as a defensive back at East Central. Players who might have been skeptical of his message at first seem to be believers.

"How he was the first day is how he's been throughout," safety Jarred Holley said. "Usually when a coach comes in, he'll say a lot of things on the first day, and you don't know if he's just saying it or if he really means it. Coach Graham has been very sincere about what he said, and he's sticking to his plan."

It also helps that Graham's plan has found success at his previous stops, and that his style is one players excitedly embrace.

In his first head-coaching stop, at Rice, he led the Owls to their first bowl game in 45 years in 2006. One year later, he took over at Tulsa, where the Golden Hurricane enjoyed three 10-win seasons and three bowl victories.

Tulsa ranked No. 1 in the nation in total offense in 2007 and 2008 and was fifth in 2010. The roots of his no-huddle, "high-octane" offensive philosophy come from when he won the 1993 NAIA national championship while coaching his alma mater, East Central. The team held off high-scoring Glenville State, then coached by Rich Rodriguez, in a title-game shootout. Graham was so intrigued by Rodriguez's schemes that he went to study under him and later worked as an assistant for him at West Virginia.

Graham then put his own touches on it, learning from assistants like former Tulsa playcaller Gus Malzahn, the architect of Auburn's national-championship offense last season.

"No one in the country runs what we run on offense other than Auburn," Graham said. "It's probably rare because not that many defensive-minded guys believe in it. But I want to make it fun. When you get out in your front yard to play football with your son, you don't hand it off to him. You throw it to him."

The Panthers have had to adjust to his style this spring, as Graham wants the ball snapped in the first 10 seconds of the play clock every down. It's a huge change for a team that played a conservative, pro-style offense under Dave Wannstedt, who had a run-first, avoid-mistakes attitude.

"It's a lot of fun when you're throwing the ball 35 times a game," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "You see all these spread offenses on TV, and now you can relate to and understand what they're trying to do."

Graham must prove that his system can work in a BCS automatic-qualifying league, and that his defense -- which ranked near the bottom of the nation during his time at Tulsa -- can stop other teams, including rival West Virginia's own new spread attack. But he is not asking for any transition period.

"I really believe this team can compete for a championship this fall," he said.

It wouldn't be the first time Todd Graham's bold vision came to fruition.