Graham staffing dichotomy reveals stark contrast between offense and defense

Arizona State's Todd Graham has fostered a great environment for up-and-coming coaches on the offensive side of the ball, but the same can't be said about his work with defensive assistants.

In his 11 seasons as a head football coach at the FBS level, Arizona State's Todd Graham has cultivated an impressive coaching tree. 

Four of the assistants Graham hired early in their collegiate coaching careers have since developed into head coaches, including Auburn's Gus Malzahn, who was an offensive coordinator under Graham at Tulsa for two seasons before ultimately leading the Tigers to the 2013 National Championship game.

Aside from Malzahn, former assistants David Beaty (Kansas), Chad Morris (Southern Methodist) and Mike Norvell (Memphis) have all risen through the coaching ranks with relative ease to assume highly coveted positions.

What these four coaches have in common speaks volumes about Graham's eye for coaching talent, but also seemingly reveals a fundamental flaw in Graham as a coach.

Malzahn, Beaty, Morris and Norvell have all ascended to head coaching positions because they flourished as assistants on the offensive side of the ball under Graham, while the Texas native has yet to grow a distinguishable branch on his coaching tree reserved for a defensive assistant. 

To date, only three coaches have held the title of defensive coordinator in Graham's 11-year career as a head coach, as the defensive-minded leader has typically exerted fierce control over the style and scheme his teams have played with on that side of the ball.

While Graham has shown a great ability to identify younger minds on offense who have grown and flourished in high-profile coaching roles, he has never relinquished the reins of his defense to a coach under 40 years of age and never allowed a defensive coordinator to assume full control of a scheme.

Rice

When Graham accepted his first head coaching job at Rice in 2006, he made a risky, yet splashy hire on the offensive side of the ball by luring former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite to join him as a coordinator for the Owls. At the time, Applewhite was just 27 years old, and his lone year as an offensive coordinator came at Syracuse in 2005 during the worst season in school history.

Nevertheless, Graham hired Applewhite to run a no-huddle, spread scheme that would provide a stark contrast to the wishbone offense the Owls operated under previous head coach Ken Hatfield.

Under Applewhite's direction, Rice's offense helped the team to a 7-5 record and the program's first bowl bid in more than 40 years. Meanwhile, Graham's defense, which belonged at least in title to defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, finished 112th out of 119 teams nationally in yards allowed per game. 

After the season, Graham accepted the head coaching job at Tulsa, where most of his Rice staff would follow. However, Applewhite left Graham's side to become Nick Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama, leaving an important vacancy for Graham to fill.

Tulsa

With one season under his belt as a head coach, Graham made another surprising hire as he brought in Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to lead Tulsa's offense. Though Malzahn officially shared his duties with co-offensive coordinator Herb Hand, it was Malzahn who took command of the Golden Hurricanes' play-calling. Years later, Graham would say that his schematic development as a head coach matured through the relationship with Malzahn.

Prior to coaching at Tulsa, Malzahn had just one year of experience at the FBS level. The 2006 season at Arkansas was his first above the high school level as he joined the Razorbacks' program after serving as the head coach for five seasons at Springdale High in Arkansas.

On the defensive side of the ball, Randolph followed Graham from Rice to Tulsa, but he did not retain the title of defensive coordinator. Instead, Randolph became Tulsa's defensive line coach as Graham hired former Tulsa assistant and his old college roommate, Keith Patterson to serve as the team's defensive coordinator.

When Steve Kragthorpe left Tulsa to become the Louisville head coach in 2007, he initially brought Patterson, the defensive coordinator at Tulsa from 2003-2006, along with him. However, when Graham was hired to lead the Golden Hurricanes, he asked Patterson to return to Tulsa in the same capacity, and his old friend obliged. 

According to Patterson, the early days of Graham's tenure at Tulsa forced the coaches' decision to philosophically adapt their defensive scheme to feature an aggressive, run-stopping approach. 

"The greatest thing that happened to coach and I honestly was when we hired Gus Malzahn at Tulsa," Patterson told SunDevilSource in a podcast earlier this year. "He helped us. Cause that guy, and those people, the Air Raid guys, the Gus Malzahn's, the hurry-up, no-huddle, they changed football. Forever probably. I mean, I don’t ever see it going back any other way any time soon."

After two prolific seasons as a coordinator at Tulsa, Malzahn left Graham to accept the offensive coordinator position at Auburn and was replaced on staff by wide receivers coach Mike Norvell. With Malzahn out, Hand became the full-time offensive coordinator, assuming play-calling duties for the 2009 season with the Golden Hurricanes.

After finishing the 2007 season with the 101st ranked defense in the country, Tulsa never improved above the middle of the pack nationally, as the Golden Hurricanes ranked 76th in 2008, 74th in 2009 and 85th in Graham's final season with the program in 2010.

Defensively, the Golden Hurricanes were far from stout, but with a high-powered offense and a hybrid-attacking style scheme that produced takeaways (Tulsa finished third nationally with 36 takeaways in 2010), Graham led the program to three 10-win seasons in four years.

In Graham's first two years with Tulsa, Malzahn's offenses ranked sixth nationally in points per game in 2007, and second nationally in points per game in 2008, when the Golden Hurricanes led the country with 7.3 yards per play.

While Tulsa did experience a post-Malzahn drop-off when Hand took over the offense in 2009 (Tulsa ranked 44th in points per game), the program rebounded following the hire of Lake Travis (Texas) High coach Chad Morris as offensive coordinator ahead of the 2010 season.

A career high school coach, Morris provides another example of a young, inexperienced hire who engineered one of the most productive offenses in the country under Graham, as the Golden Hurricanes ranked sixth in scoring offense nationally in Morris' lone season with the program.

By the end of Graham's tenure at Tulsa, Patterson had been forced to share defensive coordinator duties with Ron West, who was hired as a co-defensive coordinator in 2009.

West arrived at Tulsa as a 29th year coach who had spent half of his career on offense and the other half on defense, but his experience didn't appear to make a significant impact on the Golden Hurricanes' defensive output. Though Tulsa was able to produce one of the country's top turnover margins in 2010, the combination of Patterson and West's 2009 defense mixed with an average offense led to the Tulsa missing a bowl game for the only time in Graham's tenure.

Pittsburgh

At the conclusion of the 2010 season, Graham accepted the head coaching job at Pittsburgh, where only a handful of Graham's Tulsa assistants would follow.

Norvell, Randolph and Patterson were the three holdovers from Graham's 2010 Tulsa staff to join him as assistants at Pittsburgh, and all three coaches received coordinator titles. Norvell, at the age of 29 years old, became one of the youngest coordinators in the country as he shared offensive coordinator duties with current Arizona assistant Calvin Magee. 

In the lone season Graham spent at Pittsburgh, it was his defense, not his offense, that led the program to bowl-eligibility. While Norvell and Magee struggled to help the Panthers put points on the board, Pittsburgh's defense finished 38th nationally in points allowed per game, which was the best mark of any Graham-led team to that point in his head coaching career.

Graham's Pittsburgh staff that year included current West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson as the Panthers' secondary coach and current Texas State defensive coordinator Randall McCray as the team's outside linebacker coach. With Gibson, McCray and Patterson all in the fold, the 2011 Pittsburgh team had three current FBS defensive coordinators on staff, arguably the most impressive collection of defensive minds Graham has had together at once. 

Arizona State

In December of 2011, Graham accepted the head coaching job at ASU, his fourth stop in seven seasons at the FBS level. 

When Graham was introduced as the leader of the Sun Devils' football program, he preached the importance of becoming a defensive-minded, opportunistic football team, operating an exciting, high-octane offense, and maintaining elite levels of character and discipline. 

To lead the program's offense, Graham retained Norvell, who struggled in his first season as a coordinator with Pittsburgh but quickly grew more favorable at ASU as his offenses produced impressive numbers through his first three years with the Sun Devils.

To lead the ASU defense, Graham once again tabbed familiar names, Randolph and West, who would assist Graham, the master architect of the Sun Devils' defense. 

While Randolph and West were co-coordinators in name, it was no secret the Graham had full command of ASU's defensive scheme and in-game play calls, much as he had for a large portion of his head coaching career.

Though Randolph and West held important titles, Graham rarely granted high-profile defensive assistants the same kind of developmental freedom as his offensive coaches, who enjoyed an opportunity to lay the structure and foundation for their schemes so long as they stayed within the up-tempo, run-play-action-pass, spread philosophy.

Throughout Graham's career, his defensive coaches, especially Randolph, have seemingly been along for the ride, confined to coaching position groups and offering input that may or may not be applied in Graham's final decisions. 

Coaching defense under a task-master like Graham is undoubtedly difficult, but in Randolph and Patterson, ASU's current defensive coordinator, Graham inspired a nuanced level of loyalty.

Randolph was with Graham from his earliest days as a head coach at Rice, and even after taking a step down from his role as a coordinator to join Graham at Tulsa, Randolph remained committed to the vision of Graham's defense. It paid off for Randolph with coordinator roles at Pittsburgh and ASU, but after the 2014 season, Randolph was reassigned to become the Sun Devils' director of championship life.

One season later, Randolph bolted for Memphis, where he was offered a job under Norvell, the Tigers' first-year head coach, as a defensive line assistant. 

Patterson, meanwhile, has maintained an on-again, off-again relationship as a Graham assistant, dating back to the duo's days as roommates and teammates at East Central College in Oklahoma. Patterson coached with Graham at Allen High School, again at Tulsa and Pittsburgh, and after a two-season stint away from Graham at West Virginia, again at ASU.

Graham hired Patterson as ASU's defensive coordinator prior to the 2014 season to assume more control of a defense that was consuming Graham as a coach, but the transition of power was hardly smooth.

“When I came back, they had just won the South, just played in the Pac-12 Championship game so I just tried to come in and say hey, what’s my role here?," Patterson said. "What do you want me to do? You know, so I just kind of slid in there, coached the linebackers, tried to help out with some special teams and just tried to help us become a better unit without upsetting any kind of the balance that they might have already had."

Prior to Patterson's arrival, ASU had achieved impressive balance defensively, as the Sun Devils ranked 27th nationally in total defense in 2012 and finished with a conference-best plus-15 turnover margin in 2013. While ASU wasn't quite as exotic with its pressures during Graham's first season as it was during its Pac-12 South title run in 2013, for the first time in Graham's career as a head coach, his defenses were living up to the lofty expectations he set out for them.

Even though Graham's maniacal level of dedication to developing a defensive identity existed earlier in his career, until he arrived at ASU, his success as a head coach relied largely on cutting-edge offensive approaches formulated by an array of talented young coordinators.

So when Patterson was hired ahead of the 2014 season, a coach who had no track record of relinquishing the keys to his defensive scheme wasn't about to let someone else --even a trusted friend -- get in the driver's seat, especially after Graham had traded in his Prius for a Porsche.

In 2014, Randolph and Patterson were free to keep their titles, but their primary focus under Graham's leadership was coaching their position groups, even if ASU's defense suffered as a result.

While the Sun Devils enjoyed their second straight 10-win season under Graham in 2014, the first cracks in ASU's defensive foundation began to reveal themselves. Sure, ASU finished with the second-best turnover margin in the conference at plus-14, but a defense that ranked 41st in average yards allowed in 2013 slipped all the way to 83rd as the Sun Devils surrendered an average of 417.1 yards per game. 

Under Graham, ASU's turnover margin paved the way for unparalleled success for a Sun Devils' coach within the first three years of his tenure, but as the team's total defense began to slip, was the program's outstanding turnover margin truly sustainable? 

In 2015, the Sun Devils discovered an ugly truth. Without a quarterback hyper-focused on ball security and without the necessary athletes suited for Graham's attacking approach that only became more aggressive as ASU generated more turnovers in 2013 and 2014, the Sun Devils floundered in a 6-7 season.

Even in Patterson's second year on the staff, the Sun Devils' defensive coordinator admitted prior to the start of the 2016 season that he wasn't quite sure what his role was throughout last year. Graham's approach to his defense became so laser-focused that with Randolph reassigned to an administrative position prior to 2015 and Patterson the lone defensive coordinator on staff, Patterson's input was still limited to highly specific situations.

"Last year, I think the UCLA game, coach asked me to come down on the field, I didn’t do any of the signaling or anything like that but we would talk about third downs and stuff and I would help him a little bit on third down, even that, that’s hard when you’re operating like that and the style of defense that we were playing so this year is much different," Patterson said.

Entering the 2016 season, Graham and Patterson envisioned a plan where Patterson would have more control over the Sun Devils' defensive operation, which included an expanded role as the team's primary defensive play-caller. That plan included Patterson moving back up to the press box, where he would call plays to Graham who would signal in the calls to his defense on the field.

“It’ll go well, we’ve done it when we were at Tulsa and Pitt, we always did it that way,” Graham said in August. “I’ll still be very involved, there’s just some things with a lot of new parts and stuff like that, we have to make sure we get things evaluated and make sure that everybody is on the same page so that’s kind of why I’m moving the way I am. That’ll slow when we get closer to game time.”

While the plan appeared sound in theory, it hardly lasted. As ASU's defense began to struggle in 2016, Graham wrestled back control of the defense, often calling audibles from the field and changing Patterson's initial calls. 

Graham's reluctance to allow assistants to have input, much less take full control, regarding scheme and play calls on defense directly contradicted his approach to the offensive side of the ball, where multiple coaches used the platform and freedom provided by Graham to jump to higher-profile jobs.

For some offensive assistants like Applewhite, Beaty and Morris, all it took was one year on the offensive side of Graham's staff to find their comfort level and make a name for themselves. For others like Malzahn and Norvell, who both engineered top-10 scoring offenses as coordinators, it took slightly longer, but not much. Malzahn spent two seasons with Graham at Tulsa, while Norvell served as an offensive coordinator under Graham for five years before becoming the youngest head coach in the FBS last offseason.

But such a precedent for Graham's assistants doesn't exist on the defensive side of the ball.

Whether it be Graham's reluctance to take chances on younger, innovative minds as coordinators like he has on offense, or it be his unwillingness to surrender elements of control to defensive assistants, Graham has rarely if ever clearly groomed a defensive-oriented coach for a higher-profile job.

Of all of the assistants who have worked under Graham since his first season at Rice, five coaches aside from Patterson are now coordinators at the FBS level.

Aside from Gibson (West Virginia) and McCray (Texas State) who both worked under Graham for his lone season at Pittsburgh, former Graham defensive assistants who are now FBS coordinators include Chris Ball (Memphis), Jason Jones (Ole Miss) and Van Malone (Southern Methodist).

Of those five coaches, only Ball and Jones spent more than a single season on Graham's staff, as Jones worked with the Sun Devils' head coach at Rice in 2006 and again at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008 while Ball spent 2012-2015 with ASU. 

Not surprisingly, Jones is the coach whose scheme best embodies Graham's attacking-style, as he was along for the ride during the formative Malzahn years at Tulsa. During his tenure with the Rebels, Jones' teams have consistently ranked near the top of the SEC in takeaways, peaking in 2014 when the Rebels secured 32 takeaways including 22 interceptions.

However, much like ASU, which has lived by the takeaway and died by it as well in the last four seasons, Jones' 2016 Ole Miss team finished 5-7 as the Rebels ranked 88th in the country with just 16 takeaways in 12 games, one fewer than the 5-7 Sun Devils.

After Graham watched his defense collapse in 2015, in part due to its failure to win turnover battles, the fifth-year head coach said this offseason Patterson would assert more control over the Sun Devils' defensive calls.

Through spring camp and fall practices, Graham appeared committed to his word, as Patterson said toward the end of August that the coaches would revert back to the strategy they used together at Tulsa and Pittsburgh, where Patterson, not Graham would make the play calls.

"It’s actually like coach said, like it was at Tulsa, it’s like it was when we were at Pittsburgh and I know what coach wants from a defense, I know he wants to play aggressive, but calculated in pressuring and impacting the quarterback," Patterson said. "You can’t just set up and play zone coverage and rush four all the time. I mean, you can, but you’re going to die a slow death in this conference."

Four months after the duo appeared to be in sync, the Sun Devils finished out the regular season with a 5-7 record and a historically bad defense. After ranking dead last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game last year, ASU's 2016 average was 20 yards per game worse than its 2015 mark, which gives the Sun Devils the distinction of holding the second worse passing defense in FBS history.

Only Texas Tech, an opponent ASU defeated 68-55 this season, will finish with a worse overall defense in the country this year, and only Graham's first program, Rice, will finish with more yards per play allowed than either team.

After notching five 10-win seasons during the first nine years of his career, Graham has now finished with a sub .500 record in back-to-back seasons for the first time since becoming a college head coach.

The discord and tension within ASU's program is mounting, as Graham and Patterson failed to find common ground this year. In 2015, ASU pressured and failed. In 2016, ASU played more conservatively, but suffered the same kind of devastating defensive results it did a season ago.

Following consecutive seasons of dismal defensive performances, Patterson's future with the program is uncertain. Though Graham may hope to retain Patterson and other assistant coaches on staff, Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson could elect to force Graham's hand and ask him to pursue alternative coaching options.

If Patterson is forced out or leaves the program on his own, does Graham have an answer for the Sun Devils' lingering issues? Is there a coach he can call to fix one of the most porous defenses in college football history?

Perhaps there is, but based on his record, that's not what Graham will do nor is it within his comfort zone. For a coach who has had no challenges identifying coaching talent on the offensive side of the ball, his resume on the defensive side doesn't inspire much hope.

It's not that ASU fans should have faith that Graham can't identify the right person for the job, it's that if the past 11 years serve as an indicator, Graham believes he's the only person up to the challenge.


Sun Devil Source Top Stories