Holgorsen, Graham deny there is, was any feud
When Aretha Franklin famously sang about it, she probably didn't have Dana Holgorsen and Todd Graham in mind.
"All I'm askin','' she sang, "Is for a little respect.''
"R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.''
There have been times in the coaching relationship between Holgorsen and Graham when, it seemed, there was very little respect among the two.
Now that Holgorsen is the head coach at West Virginia and Graham at Pitt, however, it's hard to ask one about the other without hearing the phrase.
Over and over again.
"Obviously we've been competitors against each other. And we have been intense competitors,'' Graham said of Holgorsen. "There's nothing wrong with that. But as far as anything other than that, I have nothing but respect for the job that he does. He's a tough one to go against, I can tell you that.''
"Anytime you coach against guys I think it strengthens your relationship,'' Holgorsen said. "Every time we line up and against each other it's a tremendous challenge and this is no different. There are coaching challenges everywhere across the country. People compete against each other. That's just part of it. But me being at three different places over the last four years and facing coach Graham all four years is pretty ironic.''
Indeed, it seems rather unusual that when West Virginia (7-3, 3-2 Big East) and Pitt (5-5, 3-2) meet for the 104th time Friday night, it will be with first-year head caches with rather limited knowledge of the rivalry, but all sorts of familiarity with each other.
In fact, it will be the fourth straight season that the teams they coach will square off. Graham was the head coach at Tulsa the last four years. The last three his team faced an opponent whose offensive coordinator was Holgorsen — 2008 and 2009 Houston and 2010 Oklahoma State.
"Yeah, but I really don't spend a lot of time thinking about those things,'' Graham said. "It's so hard to win college football games and get your guys ready.''
Those things to which Graham refers, however, have been well chronicled and rather contentious. Holgorsen and Graham have had their battles and a few of them have been very public.
The plain truth is that Holgorsen has never had trouble moving the football against Graham's teams. In those three contests the last three years, Houston and Oklahoma State averaged 60.3 points against Tulsa.
In 2008, Houston gained 641 yards and threw six touchdown passes in a 70-30 rout of a Tulsa team which was then ranked No. 24. A year later, the Cougars scored twice in the final 21 seconds and won 46-45, gaining 697 yards. Then last year, Holgorsen's only season at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys set a school record with 717 yards, threw eight touchdown passes and won 65-28.
That's not the whole story, though. While at Houston, especially in that 46-45 game, Holgorsen publicly accused Graham of having his players fake injuries to slow Houston's offensive tempo. He also intimated that he thought Graham's coaches were trying to steal signals.
Now, though, neither will go there. They just speak about the game at hand and the respect they have for one another.
"I think people want to make more of that stuff than is really there,'' Graham said. "We come to meetings, we sit right beside each other and talk and we probably helped each other get here. I have tremendous respect for what kind of football coach he is. And we've been competitors. Intense competitors. That's what the game of football is all about. That's what makes this game neat are those relationships and those experiences. But I've got tremendous respect for what he's done. He's one of the best in the country at what he does.''
Still, there's no animosity?
"Not from my standpoint,'' Graham said. "Every year, Houston was our archrival. And so naturally there's a competitive intensity about what you're doing. And we were always intense competitors. But I think there's a healthy respect there.''
Holgorsen actually tries to take it even a step further in smoothing over any rifts between the two by insisting there never were any. Of course, anyone who saw the two screaming across the field at each other during that 2009 game might disagree.
"Bad blood may exist with guys that work with each other, but I can't say that I've had any negative situations with coach Graham to the point where I wouldn't consider him a friend,'' Holgorsen said. "We went to the Big East meetings and sat together and had a bunch of conversations and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for what he's accomplished.''
And as for any tactics Graham might have employed? Well, if Tulsa's players did fake injuries to slow Houston's momentum it's not something Holgorsen hasn't seen many times since. In fact, there were games earlier this season when it seemed obvious that opponents like Bowling Green and Maryland — and perhaps even No. 1 LSU — were doing the same thing.
Holgorsen refused to publicly call out anyone then and he won't do it now, either, even in retrospect.
"It's called competitive spirit. It's called doing everything you can to put your kids in successful situations to win,'' Holgorsen said. "The media's making a big deal of the fact that we had competitive games. But I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he's been able to accomplish and I assume the respect is mutual on his part based on the success that we've had.''