When Hawaii takes the field against Nevada under the bright Aloha Stadium lights on Saturday, Todd Graham will look across to the opposing sideline and feel a sense of pride.
Graham, who is in the middle of his first year at the helm at UH, has been a head coach at five different FBS programs, building a vast coaching tree in the process. Twelve former assistants under Graham have gone on to become NCAA Division I coaches, with eight currently in charge of FBS programs.
Despite the size of Graham’s coaching tree, he has yet to go up against a former assistant-turned-head coach. That will change when Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell puts his 5-0 team to the test against the Rainbow Warriors (2-3). Norvell was on Graham’s 2016 staff at Arizona State as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach before taking the Nevada job prior to the 2017 season.
Graham has stayed in contact with his former assistants over the years, but relationships aside, Saturday will be all business.
“During the year, mostly just text messages. I’ve got quite a few guys and I’m proud of all of them. I communicate with all the guys that I’ve worked with in the past,” Graham said. “Very fortunate I’ve been able to hire some great people and Jay and his wife Kim, amazing lady, we actually went on a cruise together I guess back in 2017, 2016, somewhere in there. Just a great man, great family, great coach, great person so we’re really proud of what he’s doing. He’s done a great job there. They’re 5-0 and probably playing the best football in the league. Their offense is really clicking, they’re very explosive.”
Nevada is off to its best start since Colin Kaepernick led the Wolf Pack in a 6-0 start in 2010. That year, the ‘Bows thwarted Nevada’s perfect season with a thrilling 27-21 victory on Oct. 13. The Wolf Pack went on to go 13-1 with a final ranking of No. 11 in the Associated Press poll, their only blemish coming against UH.
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This year’s Wolf Pack team is led by a determined defense and dynamic offense, led by quarterback Carson Strong and receiver Romeo Doubs. Strong has tossed 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions while completing over 70 percent of his passes, while Doubs already has 778 receiving yards and nine touchdowns to his name.
“(Norvell’s) doing a great job. I think they’re playing with a great discipline,” Graham said. “You can tell that Jay’s in his fourth year. They’re very, very disciplined about what they’re doing. They’re not turning the football over, they’re not giving up big plays on defense. They’re a very, very well-coached team and quite a few guys on the staff I know and I’m proud of what they’re doing. Obviously, it’s a big challenge for us this week.”
Nevada is certainty cognizant of the last time they met with Hawaii, a 54-3 drubbing by the Rainbow Warriors in Reno on Sept. 28, 2019. For the Wolf Pack, a win over the ‘Bows would avenge last year’s game and put them a step closer to their first-ever Mountain West Conference championship game. The ‘Bows (2-3), who made their first appearance in the Mountain West championship game last season, are highly unlikely to return due to the nature of the conference’s non-divisional format in 2020, with the top two teams regardless of division meeting on Dec. 19. However, a win would give UH an opportunity to play spoiler to Nevada just like it did 10 years ago.
“We gotta do a better job preparing our guys as coaches and we gotta be more disciplined as a football team and that’s what we’re focused on this week,” Graham said. “I’ve seen things in the football team, this is my fifth head coaching job in Division I, I’ve seen I haven’t seen from a heart standpoint. These guys do not have any give-up in them.
“It’s easy to have people buy in when you have success in everything you’re doing. Sitting here at 2-3, it’s sometimes harder to get the buy-in that you want but I think these guys have really impressed me.”
Assistant coaches under Todd Graham who went on to become Division I head coaches:
- Major Applewhite: Quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under Graham at Rice in 2006. Houston head coach from 2016 to 2018. Current Alabama analyst.
- Chris Ball: Arizona State co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach under Graham from 2012 to 2015. Current head coach at Northern Arizona (FCS).
- David Beaty: Wide receivers coach at Rice under Graham in 2006. Kansas head coach from 2015 to 2018. Current consultant at Texas.
- Bill Blankenship: Wide receivers, running backs and special teams coach at Tulsa under Graham from 2007 to 2010. Head coach for Tulsa from 2011 to 2014. Currently the head coach at Owasso High School in Oklahoma.
- Chip Lindsey: Arizona State quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under Graham in 2016. Head coach at Troy since 2019.
- Gus Malzahn: Tulsa quarterbacks coach, co-offensive coordinator and associate head coach from 2007 to 2008 under Graham. Head coach at Arkansas State in 2012. Head coach at Auburn since 2013.
- Chad Morris: Tulsa offensive coordinator and associate head coach under Graham in 2010. Head coach at SMU from 2015 to 2017. Head coach at Arkansas from 2018 to 2019. Currently the offensive coordinator at Auburn.
- Billy Napier: Arizona State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2017 under Graham. Head coach at Louisiana since 2018.
- Jay Norvell: Arizona State passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach under Graham in 2016. Head coach at Nevada since 2017.
- Mike Norvell: Tulsa graduate assistant under Graham from 2007 to 2008. Wide receivers coach, passing game coordinator, director of recruiting at Tulsa from 2009 to 2010. Pittsburgh co-offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach and director of recruiting under Graham in 2011. Arizona State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Graham from 2012 to 2015. Head coach at Memphis from 2016 to 2019. Currently head coach at Florida State. No relation to Jay Norvell.
- Ryan Silverfield: Offensive analyst under Graham at Arizona State in 2015. Named head coach at Memphis following Norvell’s departure in 2019.
- Jake Spavital: Offensive quality assistant at Tulsa in 2008 under Graham. Head coach at Texas State since 2019.