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Arizona-ASU rivalry reset: Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham go way back

Todd Graham

Todd Graham went 6-6 in his one season at Pitt. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

When new Arizona State coach Todd Graham was the head coach at Allen (Texas) High School in the late 1990s, he ran a no-huddle, shotgun offense that emphasized the option attack.

Who was his inspiration, at least in part, for that brand of offensive attack?

His friend, Rich Rodriguez.

That’s what Graham told the Dallas Morning News in a 2000 story, and there was enough friendship/mutual respect between the two that Rodriguez hired Graham when he put together his first coaching staff at West Virginia in 2001.

A 2001 Dallas Morning News referred to Rodriguez and Graham as “close friends.”

Now, they’re rivals.

The Arizona-Arizona State rivalry has been reset with new coaches, and not that the battle for the Territorial Cup needs more intensity — the past three games have been decided on the final play — but there are a few new, juicy subplots.

In addition to the Rodriguez-Graham angle, there’s the fact that three new UA assistants worked for Graham at Pitt last season. Of course, those three — Calvin Magee, Tony Gibson and Tony Dews — have far longer connections with Rodriguez.

According to a tweet from Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Todd Graham called Calvin Magee, Tony Gibson and Tony Dews “mercenaries” when they left for Arizona.”

And then Graham left after one season at Pitt.

(Rodriguez, responding to a text message, said he would have “no comment at this time” about his relationship and background with Graham.)

Graham, 47, and Rodriguez, 48, go back nearly two decades.

Rodriguez was the head coach at Glenville State in 1993, when he faced East Central (Okla.) in the NAIA championship game. East Central won 49-35, but its defensive coordinator — Graham — became enamored of Rodriguez’s no-huddle, spread offense.

“We just developed a respect for each other that turned into a friendship,” Graham told the Dallas Morning News in 2001.

When Rodriguez was hired at West Virginia, he brought in Graham to coach linebackers. Graham then served in 2002 as the Mountaineers’ co-defensive coordinator (with Jeff Casteel), defensive scheme coordinator and safeties coach.

Graham left after the 2002 season to become the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Tulsa. Graham went on to become the head coach at Rice in 2006, at Tulsa from 2007-10, and at Pitt this season.

(It’s funny how Graham’s official bios from Rice, Tulsa and Pitt mention that he worked under Rodriguez at West Virginia. In a speck of rivalry gamesmanship, ASU scrubbed any reference to Rodriguez in Graham’s new bio.)

Although he has a defensive background, Graham is dedicated to Rodriguez’s offensive approach. Following the fast-paced blueprint, Tulsa led the nation in total offense in 2007 and 2008.

“The thing I learned from Coach Rodriguez was mental toughness,” Graham told the Houston Chronicle in 2006. “He was a guy with a hard edge, but he was going to train those kids. He was all about mental and physical training.”

So, it should be an interesting dynamic: Friends? Rivals? Both?

It’s not unprecedented in the rivalry. Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller is part of the coaching tree of ASU’s Herb Sendek.

Arizona fans like what the pupil is doing in that matchup. For football, they hope that the teacher is still head of the class.

Follow azcentral.com for the latest news on the hiring of Todd Graham.

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