Last night, Todd Graham was announced as the new head coach of the Rainbow Warriors. For many, this came as a surprise. Coming off a breakthrough season, why wasn’t a coach hired from within the program?
This is a legitimate question, but it hints at other, more important ones. There is no doubt that Graham has a sterling record of achievement as a head coach. In 2006 — his first year as a head coach — he took a Rice University team that went 1-10 the previous season and finished with a 7-5 record and the school’s first bowl game appearance in 45 years. He was named Conference USA Coach of the Year. Then he bailed on the program after one year for a conference rival: Tulsa.
In four seasons at Tulsa, his teams amassed a total record of 36-17, including a 62-35 upset victory over 24th-ranked UH in the Hawaii Bowl in 2010. He won the Conference USA West Division three times.
His next stop was Pittsburgh, where his team went 6-6. Once again, he left after a single season, this time for Arizona State University.
In his first season at ASU in 2012, he coached the Sun Devils to an 8-5 record — their first winning season in five years. The next year was even better: ASU went 10-4, won the Pac-12 South Division, and finished the season ranked #21 in the nation. On top of that, Graham won the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. 2014 was his best year there: ASU went 10-3 and finished the season ranked #12 in the nation.
But from 2015-2017, the program started to plateau. In two of those three seasons ASU finished the year with losing records, for a combined record of 18-20. Before the end of his final season in 2017, ASU stated that they would be seeking a new head coach for the next season.
What doesn’t show up in wins and losses, however, is Graham’s record as a coaching tree. Twelve head coaches in the country got their start under Graham, 8 of which are still in the league. Perhaps most notable is Gus Malzahn, the current head coach of Auburn University who won the National Coach of the Year in 2013 and helped the Tigers win a national title in 2011 as offensive coordinator.
This brings us back to the questions he will need to answer at UH. Will this be another one-and-done coaching stop? Will he be able to adapt to the football culture of Hawaii, with all its pride as well as its attendant challenges of recruitment and community engagement? Will he be able to groom coaching staff that will one day carry the torch for the program in the future?
These questions will loom overhead this offseason, and they can only begin to get answered once the 2020 season kicks off in August. Fittingly, the first game for the Rainbow Warriors will be against a familiar foe for Graham: the University of Arizona.
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