Rice hires Tulsa assistant Graham as coach

Updated: January 1, 2006, 5:42 PM ET
Associated Press

HOUSTON -- Rice introduced Tulsa defensive coordinator Todd Graham as its new head coach on Sunday, one day after he helped the Golden Hurricane win the Liberty Bowl.

Graham, 41, replaces Ken Hatfield, who resigned on Nov. 30 after 12 seasons.

"This situation is one I've researched quite a bit," Graham said at a news conference. "There's no doubt in my mind we're going to build a winner here."

Terms of Graham's contract were not released.

"He has a challenge, but he's met challenges before," said Rice athletic director Bobby May. "I'm just excited to watch this develop."

Tulsa, in its third season with Graham running the defense, was 37th overall -- allowing 342 yards per game. The Golden Hurricane was 42nd in scoring defense, yielding 23 points a game, and fourth in the nation in turnover margin at plus-17.

They defeated Fresno State 31-24 on Saturday in the Liberty Bowl to finish 9-4, including a 41-21 win over Rice in October.

Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe was mentioned as a candidate for the Colorado job before Boise State coach Dan Hawkins took it. Instead of waiting to see if Kragthorpe might take another high-profile job, Graham decided to accept Rice's offer.

"My deal is I'm a rebuilder. I enjoy the challenge," he said. "I always tell people I always get jobs nobody else wants. This job fits me to a 'T.'"

Three Tulsa assistants will join Graham at Rice -- defensive line coach Danny Phillips, defensive backs coach Jason Jones and former Tulsa graduate assistant Jess Loepp.

Under Hatfield, the Owls ran the option. Graham said a key to turning around the program is "modernizing" the schemes.

"It's not a program that I think is decimated, that there's no talent and no hope," Graham said. "It's just one of those things I feel like some new ideas and modernizing our approach and what we're doing will get kids excited in recruiting."

Graham was a two-time NAIA All-American defensive back at East Central University in Oklahoma in the 1980s. He later served as defensive coordinator there, helping East Central win the NAIA championship in 1993.

A native of Mesquite, Texas, Graham coached at Allen High School, north of Dallas, from 1995-2000 before becoming the linebackers coach at West Virginia in 2001. He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator there in 2002, then moved to Tulsa in 2003.

"He's just an enthusiastic, very aggressive, very dedicated, great coach," May said. "And he's a great fit for Rice."

Rice went 1-10 in 2005, the team's worst mark under Hatfield and the program's worst since the Owls lost all 11 games in 1988 under Jerry Berndt.

Rice lost 14 straight games between 2004-05 and ended what had been the nation's longest Division I-A winless streak with a 42-34 win over Tulane on Nov. 12.

Graham said he could make Rice a winner again within two to three years.

"Anything less than being Conference USA champions and bowl champions is unacceptable," Graham said. "I always see those funny looks in the faces of people everywhere I've been who really doubt that. But two to three years from now, we'll have all those things changed."

One of his first priorities is just getting fans to care.

The losing led to embarrassing attendance levels at 70,000-seat Rice Stadium. Rice averaged 10,072 fans at its five home games -- an all-time low in 56 seasons. The home finale against Central Florida on Nov. 19 drew 8,267.

Graham promised to build back the fan base "one handshake at a time," but acknowledged that the program needs to start producing immediately.

"We're not going to ask for something without giving you results," Graham said. "The biggest thing to get things turned around is to win."

Graham met with some players before Sunday's announcement. They liked what they heard.

"We don't like that we were a 1-10 team," said sophomore offensive lineman Lute Barber. "I like his passion and he seems to have a passion to turn things around. I can't wait to get things going."

The team didn't have a clear offseason training plan.

"We didn't know what to do or what to work on," said freshman quarterback John Shepherd. "We were all just waiting. It was tough, but I'm really excited now."

Graham is not related to Rice baseball coach Wayne Graham, who led the Owls to their first NCAA championship in 2003.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press