In the first year of their respective reigns, Dana Holgorsen and Todd Graham have faced many challenges. One challenge neither will have on Friday is the understanding the importance of what the ‘Backyard Brawl' means to both West Virignia and Pitt. Both coaches have talked about it at length, even in the bye week leading up.
What's interesting about this years edition of the Brawl, is not about how its series has many significant wins in the history for both schools and the fact that both schools are roughly 70 miles apart. It's not even about Big East title implications that are at stake once again between the two schools. It's about how these two first-year coaches already have a rivalry, one that runs on a parallel in intensity to the Backyard Brawl as a game. Based on that fact alone, both schools made the right hire. Graham was first asked on Monday if Holgorsen ever made him mad.
"We have always been at rival schools," Graham said of his relationship with Holgorsen. "He was at Houston and I was at Tulsa. He is a really good football coach. His background is with Coach Mike Leach. I have tremendous respect for Coach Leach. We have always been fierce competitors. I have tremendous respect for him as a football coach. He is one of the best offensive guys I have gone up against. His staff, with Coach Casteel, I have nothing but respect for them."
That may sound like a surprising response, considering Holgorsen said the following about Graham, stemming from a couple previous incidents. As offensive coordinator at Houston in 2008, the Cougars defeated Graham's Tulsa squad—Graham's second year at Tulsa—70-30. The next year, Tulsa kept it much closer in a 46-45 loss to the Cougars. After the game, Holgorsen accused Graham in an interview with a Houston radio station, of having his players fake injuries.
"Yeah, they were cheating," Holgorsen said in the interview with KGOW-AM. "We've got some inside information on how they did it. They've got a signal for it. We know they've got a signal for it. We see it on film that they're actually doing the signal, and then all of a sudden, one of their guys just comes down with a bunch of cramps. He falls down and then the other 10 players kind of jog over to the sideline, and they use it as a timeout."
Holgorsen took a much different approach, in describing his relationship with Graham, on Monday.
"He has had a tremendous amount of success wherever he has been and he has won," Holgorsen said. "He has worn different hats during his career. He has been a defensive coordinator and an offensive coordinator. It is not the same system. He will say the same thing about my system and me. It is different than when I was at Houston or Oklahoma State. You can't just keep things the same from place to place based off personnel and who your players are. You have to fit your players. It is not exactly the same scheme. Throughout the course of the week, we can watch 10 games of film to get tendencies, but they may change throughout the course of the game."
As for whether or not there's a hatred or feud between him and Graham?
"It is completely irrelevant with this game," Holgorsen said. "It is blown out of proportion. There are rivalries every week. With me being in a new conference, there isn't as many every week. I was going up against guys I have known for a decade. I have known Todd for three years. It is way overblown. It is about the kids, not the coaches. There are a lot of good coaches out there. It is about the place you are at. It is about playing with a bunch of effort and giving it all you have got."
There was, however, a little jarring at the beginning of the season. Holgorsen, in one of his press conferences in August, commented on the Pitt media guide having a big picture of Todd Graham on the cover. This year's West Virginia cover features a silhouette of a Mountaineer football player.
"You'll never see me on the cover of that thing," Holgorsen said. "It's not about me. It's about West Virginia football."
Both have a Texas background, working their way up as coordinators before getting the call as a head coach. The only difference is Holgorsen's stint with West Virginia is his first as a head coach. Pitt is Graham's third stop. Interestingly, both coaches names were linked to the Pitt opening. It was never confirmed whether Holgorsen was a candidate for the Pitt job. Graham, on the other hand, got his first college coaching job as an assistant to Rich Rodriguez in 2001. Technically, it wouldn't be Graham's first Backyard Brawl, but it is his first on the other side of the fence.
"All I can remember about the West Virginia rivalry was my anxiety and concern over Larry Fitzgerald," Graham said. "That's all I remember about it. What I remember about is having Antonio Bryan (in 2001), then Larry Fitzgerald the next year."
Asked to take a step back, and remember if there was more hatred on one side over the other, Graham said it's about equal.
"It's definitely a dislike," Graham said of West Virginia's view of Pitt. "We've talked to our guys about respecting that, and at the same time, it's about the game. It's a significant event, and it's important for both schools."
One more thing to note about the similarities in these two coaches, is that both were lauded as saviors of the Big East, but are now heading opposite directions in terms of the future respective conferences. Pitt announced on September 19 that it would be accepting an invitation to join the ACC. West Virginia announced last month that it would be leaving the Big East to join the Big 12 next season. While neither coach will be in charge of saving the Big East, both will be in charge of leading their respective teams in a new conference in the future. In fact, this 2011 matchup could be the last Backyard Brawl for awhile.
In addition to the head coaches having a history, and now carrying that over to their first Backyard Brawl as head coaches, some current Pitt assistants were one-time West Virginia assistants. Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, tight ends coach Tony Dews and defensive backfield coach Tony Gibson all held the same respective role at West Virginia, and last coached there in 2007.
Magee downplayed the fact that he's now coaching on the other side, after formerly being at West Virginia. He did not hesitate, however, when it came to ranking the rivalry in where it stands among all college football rivalries.
"For seven years, I was at the other place," Magee said. "It's our next opponent. We're just excited about the next game. We always thought of this Backyard Brawl as one of the best (rivalries in college football). The rivalry still stands, and that's just what it is."
While both coaches are implementing the spread at their respective new schools, both offenses are entirely different. The principle is the same—run a no-huddle offense and speed up the tempo of the game. The intricacies, the way certain positions are used are extremely different. Graham pointed out West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin as an example. Austin—who leads the Mountaineers with 72 catches for 907 yards and four touchdowns.
"Austin plays the inside slot receiver position, which in our system is Mike Shanahan," Graham said. "So, that is a difference. Austin plays more of a slot position. You have to know where he is at. He will run reverses on you. He will catch screens, seams and under-routes. He catches those under-routes and he can just fly. He gets yards after the catch. When he gets the ball in his hands he is electrifying. They use the same principles with the no-huddle, spreading the field and creating mismatches, but it is just a different presentation. We are more run-oriented."
West Virginia's three-top receivers have at least 43 receptions, and even each one of them is entirely different. Austin is the big-play machine, Stadman Bailey the tall downfield threat with Ivan McCartney somewhere in between. McCartney, however, is the kind of player a defense can't forget about, but a player that can hurt a secondary if they put all the focus in shutting down Bailey and Austin. That happened to Maryland, in a 37-31 loss to West Virginia. McCartney had eight catches for 101 yards. In a 43-16 win over UConn, McCartney had six catches for 131 yards. In other words, it's a similar mentality, but the focus and the deep down philosophy of what each offense does is entirely different.
"Yes, there is familiarity on both sides of the ball," Graham said. "(Holgorsen) is very adaptive, just like we are. If you look at what we are doing, it isn't exactly what we did at Tulsa. If you look at what he is doing, it is not exactly what he did at Oklahoma State or at Houston. What he did at Oklahoma State was different than what he did Houston. But, the core principles of the scheme stay the same. At the end of the day, it is about being able to execute and stop them from executing. That is where the challenge is. There is a lot of familiarity on both sides. It is about this set of players. College football is about matchups. They are trying to get the ball to their best players…and we are trying to do the same thing. They do a very good job. They have a really good scheme. I think we have a good scheme, too. Being able to go against each other has contributed to where we are at. I think going against people that are really good makes you better."