For coaches like Todd Graham, loyalty is a one-way street
Guys like Todd Graham make me want to lie down in a cool place. I don't know the former Pitt football coach personally, but I know him very well. He's every coach in quasi-amateur athletics who has ever sold a suit from the trunk of his car. Metaphorically, of course, though with guys like Graham, you never know.
Graham spent 11 months at the University of Pittsburgh, coaching football, demanding commitment and loyalty from players too callow to roll their eyes at him. In return, he offered his players his taillights. Graham announced Wednesday he's accepting the head coaching job at Arizona State. Evidently, loyalty and commitment come with expiration dates. Like rotten fruit.
"I've spent my whole life working to get this job,'' Graham said last spring, shortly after Pitt hired him. "Our goal is to win championships. We're extremely motivated.'' Two weeks ago, when three of Graham's assistant coaches resigned to take similar jobs at Arizona, Graham labeled them "nothing but mercenaries.''
Beyond winning lots of games, we don't expect much from coaches in quasi-amateur athletics now. Don't embarrass us, don't get us on probation. Keep your hands to yourself. Every coach ever hired trots out the same thank-yous, platitudes, fake sincerities and promises of excellence. Graham was no different.
No one takes a coaching job and says, "In keeping with the rich tradition of mediocrity here, I'm going to do everything in my power to get us to 6-6 each and every year.''
Yet on Wednesday, Graham veered from the routine B.S. to the utterly profound. He told his Pitt players of his intentions in a text message. Not even a text sent to them, but rather one forwarded to them by Blair Philbrick, Pitt's director of football operations. "The timing of the circumstances have prohibited me from telling you this directly,'' Graham wrote.
Graham also didn't speak directly with Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson. Pederson had told Graham he did not have permission to speak with Arizona State. A rep from Pitt's athletic department went to Graham's house Tuesday night, seeking answers. Graham answered the door and refused comment. Arizona State had a press conference Wednesday night announcing Graham's hiring.
He's not new to this dance. After a 7-6 season at Rice in 2006, the Owls extended Graham's contract through 2012. Graham said this:
"I am very grateful to Rice University for the opportunity to coach this team, and for the commitment the university has made to me and to my staff as we look forward to build on the efforts of our first season."
One day later, Graham left for Tulsa, parlaying the leverage from the Rice raise to get more money from the Golden Hurricane.
This guy would make a weasel call another weasel a weasel.
"I usually have a lot to say but I am at a loss for words," Pitt senior wide receiver Cam Saddler told the
As usual, the players take it in the neck. If you count two interim coaches and a coach who barely said hello (Mike Haywood, released from his deal after a domestic violence arrest) the Panthers have run through five head coaches in 13 months. If you play football at Pitt, don't get too attached.
There are lots of obvious questions in the wake of all this, such as, "Why would Arizona State even want this guy, and can they find him a place that rents weekly?'' A bigger wonder is, what can be done about coaches who job-hop and the youthful sensibilities they warp along the way?
I asked Butch Jones the same question a few weeks ago. At the moment, Jones coaches football at Cincinnati. A year ago, the Bearcats went 4-8 while transitioning from the shock of Brian Kelly's departure to Notre Dame. Kelly left his players in a lurch, too, a few weeks before they were to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl. At least Kelly didn't try to hide his ambitions. They were never less than stark, raving naked.
In the midst of 4-8, Butch Jones pleaded publicly for patience. "We're here for the long haul,'' said Jones, which is just a very convenient thing to say when you're 4-8. This year, Cincinnati is 9-3. Jones' name appeared in the rumor mill in connection with multiple job openings, a tide that Jones did little to stem. His agent had contact with North Carolina. The Tar Heels eventually hired former Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora.
"How can you have it both ways?'' I asked Jones. A coach demands from players and schools things he's unwilling to demand of himself. Trivial things, such as commitment, loyalty and patience.
"It's a two-way street'' was Jones' answer. In other words, schools can be as fickle as their coaches. Loyalty is as thin as a dollar bill. Contracts mean nothing on either side, other than the amount of the buyout when the divorce goes through. Jones said all he can do is his best during the time he is working at a school. The rest is circumstance.
"Last year, you (media) weren't talking about where I might go,'' he said. "You wanted to know when I'd be fired.''
So what's the solution?
If the member institutions of the NCAA were not money-hungry invertebrates, they'd make contracts mean something. They'd assure that coaches like Todd Graham could not peddle themselves like Avon products. No longer would a coach be able to ask for loyalty while lying to recruits.
Nor would a school forget its mission which, evidently, is not to produce championship football teams, but to teach important lessons involving character. How?
In a perfect world, every coach gets a five-year deal, rock solid, no questions asked. The school can't fire him, he can't leave. That's one complete recruiting cycle. That's enough time to be fair, to everyone. If, you know, being fair actually means something.
Notre Dame used to do it this way. I recall a trip I made to South Bend in the fall of 1985. It was the fifth and last year of Gerry Faust's tenure with the Irish. It was October. Everyone knew Faust was gone after that year, even the eternally optimistic Faust himself.
And yet, it wasn't a sad scene. Quite the opposite. Notre Dame honored its deal. Faust worked hard and did his best. He honored his end of things. It just didn't work. And that was OK.
There was a dignity to it all. You don't have to win, to win. You can be Gerry Faust.
Or you can be Todd Graham. You can win, and still be a loser.