With acrobatic cheerleaders and the band playing the school’s fight song, the press conference to introduce the Hawaii football team’s new head coach began with a pep-rally vibe.
And then Todd Graham went to the podium and delivered an impassioned, 21-minute pep talk to staff members and players in attendance and to a world-wide web of listeners and viewers.
He promised a passing attack that would have similar traits to the previous run-and-shoot — four receivers, with routes deep and wide — but set to a rat-a-tat pace out of no-huddle instructions. No matter who is eventually hired as coordinator, Graham vowed, “we’re going to air it out. Every place I’ve been (as head coach) we’ve averaged almost 40 points a game. … We’ll play an explosive, exciting brand of football.”
Graham said the same frenetic mind-set will be applied to the defense.
“We’ll attack in everything we do,” Graham said, an approach that will be implored on the field and in the classroom.
Athletic director David Matlin had the same tenacity in finding a successor to Nick Rolovich, who resigned Jan. 13 to become Washington State’s head coach. School policy dictated a waiting period of five business days before Matlin could hire a coach. The job was posted that Monday night, but because it was after business hours, the clock did not trigger until the following day. With this past Monday a holiday, the earliest Matlin could recommend a head coach was after 5 p.m. Tuesday.
But soon after Rolovich’s resignation was announced, the applications and recommendations began to accumulate. “You always have a list of people you’re interested in,” Matlin said of the initial phase, but Graham “wasn’t on that list for me.”
But two of Matlin’s trusted consultants suggested responding to Graham’s interest. Graham had been head coach of four Division I programs. In those 12 seasons, he amassed a 95-61 record with 10 bowl appearances.
At one point, there were more than 50 qualified applicants. The list eventually was whittled to three finalists. Matlin met with Graham on the mainland on Saturday. They met again on Monday. While Matlin was impressed with the Division I credentials — Rice, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Arizona State — it was Graham’s earlier work that proved to be influential.
“What attracted me a lot was the six years he spent at Allen High (Texas) teaching history and coaching football,” Matlin said of Graham fulfilling his initial calling.
Matlin then made the offer to the self-described educator: Five years, with $760,000 for the 2020 season, and $800,000 a year thereafter.
Matlin had set a criteria of a coach having character, a solid offensive scheme, and being a “fit” for Hawaii. “There are different fits,” Matlin said. “There are different ways. It’s about relationships. What I think will make him a fit is he knows he needs to learn. And he’s an educator by trade.”
Graham had several coaching opportunities after parting from ASU after the 2017 season. During his 24-month hiatus, Graham spent time visiting football programs — 10 of his former assistants went on to become Division I head coaches — and doing consulting work. He described the past two years as “the great learning experience of my life.” He added: “I believe the good Lord put me on this earth to impact young people and be a teacher.”
He actively sought UH when the job opened, noting he has an appreciation for Hawaii’s family-centered culture. He and his wife plan to buy a house in Honolulu. “Our forever house,” he said.
Graham spent his first morning meeting with the players. The Warriors began their offseason training on Tuesday. He planned to connect with the recruits and recent signees following the news conference. There are two recruiting weekends remaining before the Feb. 5 start of the signing period. UH already has signed commitments from 15 players for the 2020 recruiting class.
“We’ve got some top targets,” Graham said. “With the spots we have, we’re going to be very smart. We don’t have to fill them all (on Feb. 5). We’re going to make sure we take quality.”
He plans to meet with the four coaches who are serving the remainder of their one-year contracts. Each will be given consideration for spots on his staff. “I want to give them clarity as soon as possible,” Graham said.
He has not hired any new coaches yet. “I’m not hiring all my buddies,” he said. “I’m going to hire guys who fit here. … I’m a process guy. I’m not going to make emotional decisions. And I’m going to take my time to make sure we get it right.”
He said he also plans to build on the past season’s success.
“We just won 10 games,” he said. “Why would you come and completely change what you’re doing? … We’re going to build on the things we’ve done right.”