Updated: Jan. 12, 2007, 5:37 PM ET

Rice's Graham accepts offer, will coach at Tulsa


TULSA, Okla. -- Tulsa hired Rice's Todd Graham as its new head coach Friday, replacing Steve Kragthorpe with his former defensive coordinator.

Graham ran Kragthorpe's defense for three years at Tulsa before taking the Rice job last year. He turned around the Owls program, taking a team that had been 1-10 in 2005 and leading it to a 7-6 season and its first bowl game in 45 years.

He will take the reins of a resurgent team that went to three bowl games in four years under Kragthorpe. He will also coach players he helped recruit during his time at Tulsa.

"That was my dream, I wanted to be head coach at Tulsa," said Graham, speaking on a conference call from Kansas City, where his plane was diverted from Houston due to Friday's ice storm. "We have a heart for Tulsa."

Graham said coming back was the hardest decision he's ever made, but it was the long-term commitment from Tulsa athletic officials to deliver the resources to field a championship-caliber team that sealed it.

He also described the emotional talk he had with his Rice players Friday morning.

"At the end of the day, I have to do what's best for my wife and my kids," he said.

At a news conference in Houston Friday morning, Rice's athletic director, Chris Del Conte, said Graham brought new life to a program that had lost hope and pledged to move quickly to fill the coaching vacancy.

"The guy came in here and gave us hope and our players embraced that and they won," Del Conte said. "What Todd has done is he taught us we could win. We didn't lose anybody, he chose to go off to a new opportunity at Tulsa.

"He took an opportunity to better himself and I don't disparage that," he said.

Kragthorpe left Tulsa on Tuesday to replace Bobby Petrino at Louisville. The same day, Graham signed a contract to stay at Rice until 2012. However, Tulsa was still able to lure him away. Of the finalists for the job, he was the only candidate interviewed by the school.

"Todd understands Tulsa University; he's fit in here before," said Tommy Hudspeth, assistant director of development for athletics at Tulsa. "This school is very unique, you have to sort of understand the feel of it and Todd does."

Graham, 42, takes over a program that he helped Kragthorpe resurrect. Tulsa had won only one game in each of the two seasons before Kragthorpe took over in 2003. His staff led Division I's best turnaround, as the Golden Hurricane went to a bowl game for the first time since 1991.

Such reversals have been common in Graham's career. He spent two seasons on Rich Rodriguez's staff at West Virginia, helping begin the Mountaineers' current run of five straight winning seasons, before similar turnarounds at Tulsa and Rice. He previously coached at East Central (Okla.) University and at high schools in Oklahoma and Texas.

"We're extremely pleased to have Todd Graham return to the University of Tulsa as our football coach," athletics director Bubba Cunningham said. "There's no question that Todd fits the two main attributes we were looking for in a head coach, the ability to recruit and the right fit for our university.

"Todd's enthusiasm is infectious and his football knowledge and coaching ability is evident."

At Tulsa, Graham inherits a program that has made back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since 1964-65. His predecessor, Kragthorpe, went 29-22 in four seasons, including three bowl games. The Golden Hurricane were 8-5 this season and lost four of their final five games, including a 25-13 defeat to Utah in the Armed Forces Bowl.

In 2005, Graham's Tulsa defense forced 31 turnovers -- tied for the ninth-best total in Division I -- to help the Golden Hurricane win the Conference USA title. The Golden Hurricane ranked first in the conference in pass efficiency defense, second in total defense and third in scoring defense that season.

Last season, Tulsa led the league in total defense, while Rice ranked last.

The Golden Hurricane return quarterback Paul Smith, who threw for 2,727 yards and 15 touchdowns, and top tailback Courtney Tennial, who ran for 845 yards and 13 TDs. However, Graham must replace his top two receivers and most of a senior-laden offensive line that entered this season with more collective starts than any other Division I team.

Tulsa also loses four of its top five tacklers on defense, including linebacker Nick Bunting, the Conference USA defensive player of the year.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press



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