Tulsa's success makes Kragthorpe a hot commodity

Updated: August 21, 2006, 12:52 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Tulsa University sports fans know a good coach when they see one. They're also achingly familiar with the sight of a good coach's back as he walks away.

Nolan Richardson coached there before leading Arkansas to a national basketball title. Tubby Smith coached there before winning a ring at Kentucky. Bill Self coached there before moving on to Illinois and then Kansas.

Steve Kragthorpe
Nelson Chenault-US PresswireSteve Kragthorpe guided the Golden Hurricane to the C-USA title in 2005.
So a school known as a basketball steppingstone is doing what it can to become a football destination for Steve Kragthorpe, who happens to be the hottest grid coach outside the BCS. Tulsa is putting the "T" in Trying.

It gave Kragthorpe more money and more years on his recently announced new contract, extending the deal through 2011 and tying in a completion bonus at the end. It included a clause in the contract stating that his family can travel with the team on every road trip. It's building him a 30,000-square-foot football complex that's scheduled to be completed next summer. It got his program out of the Western Athletic Conference and into Conference USA, a better geographic fit for the Golden Hurricane.

He appreciates the effort.

"I am very happy at Tulsa," Kragthorpe said. "It's a great place to work and a great place to raise a family.

"The decisions I have made that put my family first have worked out great. The decisions I've made that looked great for Steve, some of those didn't work out so well. … This is the best job I've ever had. It's probably the toughest job I've ever had, too. But unfortunately our society likes to equate good with easy.

"People thought I was crazy coming to Tulsa, but it's worked out."

It has worked out splendidly. But don't count on Kragthorpe living on Tulsa time forever.

If Bobby Petrino had gotten the LSU job that he and Les Miles interviewed for in 2004, Kragthorpe might easily be coaching at Louisville right now. Other schools inquired about him in 2005, and Bill Parcells reportedly dangled an assistant's job out there with the Cowboys.

But the 41-year-old Kragthorpe remained at Tulsa and now heads into his fourth season on the job. If a Hurricane team that returns plenty of key parts comes close to duplicating last year's run -- a 9-4 record, C-USA championship and upset of Fresno State in the Liberty Bowl -- then every search firm and search committee will have Kragthorpe on speed dial. (And it could be a very busy year in the college job market.)

Sure, his 21-17 record in three years doesn't exactly leap off the paper. But consider where Tulsa was when he got there in 2003: coming off 11 straight losing seasons. The Hurricane didn't win 21 games in its previous seven seasons pre-Kragthorpe.

In the previous two, Tulsa went 2-21. This was a program that lost by 44 points to Louisiana Tech in 2002, and surrendered 180 points in one three-game stretch of touch football in 2001.

So now you know why all those people thought he was crazy to leave his job as quarterbacks coach with the Buffalo Bills for this quagmire. But an average coach's graveyard can turn into an excellent coach's springboard. If you can win at a place like Tulsa, people will notice.

Along the way, Kragthorpe has proved to be a more well-rounded coach than most people give him credit for.

Paul Smith
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamTulsa's Paul Smith threw for 2,847 yards and 20 TDs in 2005.
He's supposed to be all about scoring points, but Tulsa ranked 40th in total defense last year nationally and 39th in total offense -- and defense should be the strength of this year's team.

He knows the impact of turnover margin on the bottom line. After watching his team dip to 4-8 in 2004 with a minus-10 turnovers, he saw last year's team rebound with a remarkable plus-18 in that category.

He grew up watching his dad, Dave, coach for LaVell Edwards at BYU and implement a wide-open passing game as a college head coach. But his Tulsa teams run the ball very effectively (166 yards rushing per game last year and 236 passing).

"From the time I could remember sitting in football stadiums and watching my dad's teams, the ball was always in the air," Kragthorpe said. "But I believe in balance, and balance is taking what the defense gives you. If they're going to give you the run, take the run."

Vivid example: As the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Kragthorpe dialed up just eight passes against Nebraska, at one point calling 22 straight runs. Later that same year, in the Big 12 championship game against Kansas State, Kragthorpe called 15 straight passes at one point.

But even though he's established himself as an all-around coach, Kragthorpe's specialty remains working with quarterbacks. And that's very much in vogue right now in a head coach, if you look at the roughly $60 million worth of multiyear contracts that QB gurus Charlie Weis and Petrino signed within the last year.

When Kragthorpe arrived at Tulsa, he groomed first-year starter James Kilian into a guy who threw for 2,217 yards as the Hurricane shockingly won eight games. Kilian piled up more than 4,400 yards in two years as a starter, then last year Kragthorpe plugged in sophomore Paul Smith, who chucked it for 2,847 yards and 20 touchdowns.

In a league that celebrates quarterbacks Jordan Palmer at UTEP and Kevin Kolb at Houston, it was the less-lauded Smith who led C-USA in passing efficiency in '05 at 142.9.

Of course, Kragthorpe has seen good quarterbacks all his life. He remembers being taped to a locker as a kid at BYU by a guy named Jim McMahon, after all.

Kragthorpe loved being around his dad at the football offices then, and still enjoys it today. Dave Kragthorpe serves as an administrative assistant at Tulsa, drawing a salary of $1 a year.

"He's probably overpaid," his son drolly noted.

They'll probably reunite in Provo Sept. 9 with another family member who spends his Saturdays at the football stadium: Salt Lake Tribune sports columnist Kurt Kragthorpe, who could have the opportunity to rip his brother's coaching when Tulsa plays BYU that day.

But football trickles down the family tree, too. The head coach's three sons are often around the Tulsa complex, throwing the football with the sons of other coaches.

"Some of the best games at our practice field are not our team playing them," Kragthorpe said. "They're the 7-on-7 games our kids are playing on the corner of the field. We have to be careful to coach our players and not spend our time coaching them."

Tulsa fans have good reason to wonder whose players Steve Kragthorpe will be coaching in 2007. Despite the school's best efforts, he's probably one good season away from a new job up the football food chain.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.