Tuesday, January 11, 2011



Hard-hitting Pittsburgh sports commentary                     by Angelo Spagnolo

Steve Pederson and Mark Nordenberg managed to out-do even themselves.

By ignoring the overwhelming sentiment of Southwestern Pennsylvania football fans, in lieu of hiring Penn State's Tom Bradley, they opted instead for Texas native, Todd Graham, an upwardly-mobile coach who most-recently coached at Tulsa University. This could first be called a "mystery", but to be kind, I prefer to describe it as Pitt hiring a "carpetbagger" to now lead their football program.

LEFT: "Mr. Arrogance", Pitt A.D. Steve Pederson.

RIGHT: Pitt "Head honcho" Mark A. Nordenberg. Don't dare try to tell him who to hire!

By deciding against hiring a man of extreme loyalty and integrity, Pederson and Nordenberg demonstrated that their knowledge of history is very flimsy, as is also once again, their own flawed vetting process.

ABOVE: Pitt gave Bradley two interviews, feigning interest in order to shut up their fans. Bringing in Todd Graham didn't satisfy the many who wanted Bradley for Pitt. Was it a slap at Joe Paterno and Penn State? It sure looks like it (not that JoePa doesn't deserve it by the way).

Before I go on, let me first say that in researching this story that I first found that Graham has compiled a very impressive mark during his five years as a head coach. His overall record, including three of four minor bowl wins, is 46-24 (.657%). During his four years at Tulsa and one year at Rice, he had three first place finishes, one second and one third place in Conference USA. Certainly not bad and much more impressive overall than Mike Haywood's record at Miami of Ohio.

ABOVE: Graham commanded $2 million for himself and $2 million total for his nine assistants, an average of $222,000 per man. This means that Pitt will have over $5.3 million per year tied up in coaching payroll for the next three years (counting Dave Wannstedt's salary through 2014).

So what caused Todd Graham to gain the distinction of being called "The most hated man in Houston" you ask?

Graham had been an assistant at Tulsa and took the head coaching position at Rice. After going to Rice (located, by the way, in Houston) Graham had the most successful season for that school since 1960. He turned a 1-10 program into a 7-5 second place finish and a New Orleans Bowl appearance in his first year. Pretty impressive stuff! In fact, the school was so impressed that it then committed to spending $5 million to upgrade Rice Stadium and offered Graham a very significant salary increase after just one season. However, with a better salary dangled in front of him by his former school, Tulsa, Graham took the money and ran, infuriating Rice University and their fans.

Graham was so reviled for his disloyalty that the next year the Rice Band put on a home halftime show titled "Todd Graham's Inferno" that depicted the stages of hell where Graham best belonged, complete with scoreboard photos and an announcer explaining the various hell levels. The show was so "inflammatory" that Tulsa actually filed a complaint with Conference USA...over a band show! This is the type of person that Pitt is getting. So be prepared to be heartbroken again, Panther fans.

ABOVE: This is the actual "Gates of Hell" image that was used as a visual during the Rice Band's halftime show celebrating Graham's return in 2007. My sentiments for Pitt exactly. BELOW: Another image that the Rice Band used to describe their intense affection for Graham.

West Virginia's newly-hired "Coach-In-Waiting", Dana Holgorsen, (another joke waiting for a future column) had a major run-in with Graham who apparently was guilty of "stretching the rules" (also known in some circles as cheating).

During a game against Houston (where Holgorsen was then coaching), there were instances where multiple players were accused of feigning serious injuries only to reappear later in the same game. Holgorsen was so incensed that after the game he accused Graham of cheating and creating timeouts. While this past animosity is admittedly a great foundation for added hatred between Pitt and West Virginia, to me this isn't the sort of thing that you like your new coach to have on his (non)resume. Neither is having no loyalty towards whoever happens to be his current employer either.

On November 11, 2009, the "Houston Chronicle's" Steve Campbell wrote:

..."Either Graham has no regard for his players' safety (for putting them back in after supposed serious injuries) or he was coaching them to fake injuries. Which one was it Tulsa fans?"

I wonder if Pitt's crack vetting process unearthed these facts? Ah, that would fall under the heading of "doubtful". 

Amazingly, Pederson and Nordenberg were so enamored with Graham that they agreed to pay him more than they're now paying Jamie Dixon! Dixon,who just signed a new contract last year, is reportedly making between $1.6 and $1.8 million. Graham will earn $2 million in his first year before winning a single game for Pitt. How is this right or even fair to one of the best basketball coaches in the country? While Dixon need not apply for food stamps, these types of clumsy decisions tend to create unnecessary discord nevertheless. Graham reportedly turned down $1.6 million the last go-around before Pederson hired Mike Haywood on the cheap.

Would it have cost $2 million to get Tom Bradley? Doubtful. Would Bradley leave with the first offer that came his way? Just ask Joe Paterno, he'll tell you. Would Bradley ever be called "The most hated coach in Pittsburgh"? Never. Do you think that Phil Stewart, Dana Holgorsen or any other Big East coach would ever be so incensed that they'd call Bradley a cheater? Impossible. The man has a reputation a mile long and is one of the most highly-respected coaches in the country.

So why isn't Bradley the new Pitt coach? Simple, there are two reasons: First, Nordenberg doesn't want to create the impression for one instant that regional sentiment or even worse, boosters, will make Pitt's decisions for him. Second, Pederson wants to play his contrarian role to the hilt and prefers taking more chances with yet another man with skeletons in his closet instead. Yes, his ego really is that big. That's why his alma mater, Nebraska, ran him out of the state.

Todd Graham (just like Mike Haywood very possibly could have) may win a lot of games at Pitt. But this isn't all about just wins and losses. In the same way that Haywood blew up in Pitt's face because of past and present domestic violence issues, Graham will no doubt leave at the first sniff of more money elsewhere, say to the prestigious SEC. Three years, in retrospect, may be a long time for him to stay at Pitt, especially if he has any early success whatsoever. By hiring Graham, Pitt has created an image as a "stepping stone" job, not a destination.  In Tom Bradley they had a man of the highest integrity who, like Dave Wannstedt, would have stayed there until they carted him off the field on a stretcher or unless he proved that he couldn't win. He also would have never embarassed the university with his personal conduct either.

While Dave Wannstedt was a great guy and a wonderful representative of Pitt, he showed that he couldn't take the team to the next level. He was given plenty of time to get it right but had exhausted his chances. Never for a moment did I ever feel though that he would leave Pitt for another job or embarass the university...but you still have to win.

I've always been big on continuity and integrity, much like the Steelers are. What I'm not big on are woman beaters and opportunistic-carpetbaggers. The Steelers, well known as being probably the best-ever at hiring coaches in the modern football era, highly-recommended Tom Bradley to Pitt. "So what do they know" the good folks at Pitt say to one another? As for me? I just shake my head. How could they screw up such a slam dunk? Ego, pure and simple.

Today at his press conference, in response to a reporter's question about how loyal he would be to his new job, since most of his coaching has taken place in the southwest. Graham stated that, "As you move forward... my goal was to have a BCS job, coach in major bowl games and compete for a national title at one of the finest schools in the country. Just watch, you'll see."

Write that last sentence down, because like all good snake oil salesmen, Graham talks a great game. If LSU, Alabama or any SEC school called him tomorrow though, he'd be packed up to move by sunset. You can take that to the bank.

Historians like to tell history students that, "We study the past for our use in the future". Apparently neither Nordenberg nor Pederson ever gets over to the Pitt History Department or they never would have passed on Bradley, ever, or ignored Graham's past.

Graham may very possibly do well at Pitt and that's the irony. The better he does, the shorter his coaching tenure there will be. So Pitt fans shouldn't expect him to be hanging around very long.

That counts for a lot where I come from. Apparently it was down the list of priorities for the people who made this decision. Brace yourself for another coaching search inside of three years.