Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Graham Harrell wasn’t necessarily looking for another job. He and his wife, Brittney, were comfortable and close to their families as he served as North Texas’ offensive coordinator the past three seasons.
The Mean Green are expected to bring back the best offense in Conference USA, and it’s going to be piloted by an experienced, talented quarterback in senior Mason Fine, which is partly why Harrell reportedly turned down an offer to be North Carolina’s offensive coordinator.
But sometimes your phone rings and with those calls come opportunities that you evaluate and ultimately determine that you can’t pass up. Over the past five years, as Harrell has soared through the coaching ranks, he’s had plenty of these conversations.
In that span, he’s gone from being an off-field staffer at Washington State to becoming the offensive coordinator at USC.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Harrell said. “I think the rise of the Air Raid offense has obviously helped with that and my playing career helped with that as well. … I don’t think I would’ve said five years ago, ‘Hey, I plan on being the OC at USC in five years.’ But I’m excited to be here. … It’s been a fast rise and an exciting one.”
There seemed to be some gray area. Mike Leach wasn’t sure whether Harrell, who had been cut by the New York Jets in early September 2013, was going to go back to playing football or not.
Washington State’s head coach figured Harrell could have kept playing and believed there were leagues that would have been glad to have him. Despite the uncertainty, there were a couple of things Leach was sure of.
“I always knew he was going to be a coach,” said Leach, who coached Harrell at Texas Tech from 2004-08. “And I knew he wanted to be a coach and I knew that time wasn’t far off. I wanted him associated with our staff so basically, that first year, we had some kind of a deal where, ‘Look, you come here, work and if you have to leave, we understand and you can work out during this whole process. You have the run of our gym and the nutrition and all the rest. There are plenty of guys to throw to.’
“So it was kind of a ‘work and if you get that call, then go ahead.’ I believe he turned some things (down). He was kind of ready to start coaching.”
There was a brief stint as a quality control assistant at Oklahoma State in spring 2010 (he would eventually sign with the Green Bay Packers in May and win a Super Bowl that season) but Harrell began his coaching career in earnest when he joined Washington State’s staff in April 2014.
Harrell spent that year working with receivers and doing some drills with the quarterbacks. David Yost coached the inside receivers for the Cougars that season while Dennis Simmons coached the outside wideouts.
As the Air Raid increased in popularity, more Leach assistants were being poached from his staff.
“You never knew who was coming and who was going,” Leach said.
On Feb. 9, 2015, Simmons, who also coached with Leach at Texas Tech, was named the outside receivers coach at Oklahoma, which created an opening on Washington State’s staff.
Leach just wanted to plug in the best guy he could. If they were already on his staff, so be it. Dating back to his playing days at Texas Tech, Leach has always recognized Harrell as a great film guy, one who could see things developing and could finish your sentences as you said them.
“He’s as smart as any quarterback I ever had,” Leach said. “I knew he’d be a nice, clear communicator. He’s a positive guy, which I think is generally the best approach, but you want to have the other gear.”
When you combine all of that, it didn’t take Leach too long to make a decision. Three days after Simmons was named outside receivers coach at Oklahoma, Harrell was promoted to fill his role for the Cougars. Washington State went 9-4 that season while receiver Gabe Marks was an All-Pac-12 first-team choice after leading the conference in receptions and touchdowns.
At the same time, North Texas was struggling. It fired fifth-year coach Dan McCarney after an 0-5 start and finished 1-11, the ninth time the Mean Green posted a losing record in a 10-season span from 2006-15.
North Texas turned to then-North Carolina offensive coordinator Seth Littrell to turn things around. Littrell was Leach’s running backs coach at Texas Tech from 2005-08. His time in Lubbock overlapped with Harrell’s three seasons as the Red Raiders’ starting quarterback.
Littrell knew what he wanted to accomplish at North Texas and he knew exactly who he wanted as his offensive coordinator.
“I knew Graham had a great reputation across this state,” Littrell said. “I knew he would be great in recruiting with his name, all the records he set, he’s been a part of a Super Bowl team, his family, his father is an excellent longtime coach here in the area. So everything kind of just aligned. Plus our personalities, understanding the same system — I knew there wouldn’t be much transition with what we were trying to get accomplished here.”
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and Leach is notorious for being so willing to share his. For example, he told this reporter the following about people who doubt the Air Raid a few years back:
“They basically say ‘Oh, it’s a system,’ ” Leach said, “suggesting that people who don’t do it that way, who just run it up the middle, stick all your asses together so one hand grenade can kill everybody, that’s the right way to do it. Since they do it the right way, they’re OK with the fact they lost.”
So when Littrell called Leach to express his interest in Harrell, Leach stayed true to himself.
“To be perfectly honest, I thought he was better off staying with us,” Leach said, “because I thought he’d end up getting the head job if he stayed with us. And I still suspect that’s the case but I thought his chances of getting a head job were potentially quicker staying with us.”
Littrell has been in Harrell’s shoes before. He played fullback in Leach’s offense at Oklahoma during the 1999 season, coached on his staff at Texas Tech and made the decision to leave for Arizona in 2009.
“It’s challenging because Coach Leach is obviously a guy we have a lot of respect for,” Littrell said. “He’s had success as a head coach. We played for him. … And we all love working for Coach Leach. He holds you accountable but he lets you coach your position. He’s not a micromanager and he believes in his system. It’s been a big part of everywhere I’ve been. I know it will continue to be a part of everywhere Graham goes but at the same time again, it comes down to making the best decision and whatever you feel like fits your family and your future. So it’s challenging, but the relationship stayed there with Coach Leach and I, and I know it’ll be the same with Coach Leach and Graham.”
Littrell didn’t have to combat Leach’s opinion that Harrell would become a head coach faster if he remained at Washington State, he said.
At the end of the day, individuals have to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. Littrell won’t spend time recruiting coaches to come into certain situations. He made his pitch, now the ball was in Harrell’s court.
It was an opportunity for Harrell to go back to Texas where his family lived. Denton also wasn’t terribly far from where his wife grew up in Tyler, Texas. Harrell’s father also had health issues at the time, so it was important for him to be nearby.
In terms of purely football, Littrell was willing to let Harrell call plays, which he had never done before.
“That’s one of the main reasons I went,” Harrell said. “With Coach Leach where I was, you’re never, one, going to be the quarterbacks coach, or two, call plays. That’s fine, he’s obviously great at what he does, but that’s something I wanted to do.”
Harrell accepted the offensive coordinator job at North Texas and coached with the Cougars through their Sun Bowl victory against Miami. He told the Seattle Times the hardest thing about moving on was “leaving Coach Leach.”
“As a head coach,” Littrell said, “we may not always agree with the best situation for somebody wanting to take a job, but who are we to say? We had to make those same hard decisions and obviously, it’s worked out for Graham.”
Still, there was some risk involved with Littrell’s hire.
Harrell had only been a position coach for one season before Littrell hired him as an offensive coordinator. And he didn’t have any experience as a coach calling plays.
So what made Littrell confident Harrell would make a good OC?
“Having played quarterback in this system, especially with Coach Leach, you’re not calling the plays but you’re checking into a lot of plays,” Littrell said. “So he understood the pass game extremely well having played in it. I knew he’d do a great job with our quarterbacks from a guy that’s played in the system and had done it at a high level. I knew he’d be a great mentor or coach to those guys. At the end of the day, we’ve all had to call our first play at some point in time. I was very confident in his work ethic and his competitive nature and I felt we would be a great fit together and we were.”
North Texas’ offense struggled in Harrell’s first season guiding it in 2016. The Mean Green ranked 114th nationally in yards per play and 97th in scoring offense. But as the players had more time in the system, North Texas improved to 36th in yards per play in 2017, then 30th last season. It improved to 19th in scoring offense in ‘17, and finished 26th last season. The Mean Green appeared in a bowl game each of those three seasons.
As the offense improved, Harrell also evolved as a play-caller. Littrell said Harrell’s biggest challenge at the onset of his North Texas tenure was understanding the run game — specifically how they schemed it, game-planned it and understanding what was going on up front.
But as time went on, Harrell’s understanding of the run game developed, and he started calling runs in pass-down situations and it took pressure off the offensive line and quarterbacks by taking away the rush control from opposing defenses, Littrell said.
A play call late against UAB in 2017 stands out in Littrell’s mind.
“We’ve been up. We struggled early throwing the ball,” Littrell said. “It came down to we really started running the ball. (UAB had) scored at the end of the game, it was back and forth. We got the ball on that possession right at the end of the game at their 44-yard-line. We came off the sideline and we kind of froze the defense to see what we were getting and he saw they were 2-man, he ran an outside zone to the boundary and it creased them to the 5-yard line. Our running back was smart enough to get down, we call a timeout and kick a field goal right there to win the game.
“That was a huge call. That’s sometimes not very easy on an offensive coordinator in a situation like that when there’s not much time left on the clock. Call the best thing. Call the best play — whether it’s a pass or run. That’s probably one of those times I was like, ‘OK, he really understands what we’re trying to get accomplished: Hey, look. Put our guys in the best position to be successful.’ And he made a great call right there.”
Littrell estimates he received five or six phone calls from other coaches with interest in Harrell throughout the years.
Each time, the process was generally the same. Littrell and Harrell would talk about every opportunity the latter had. Littrell would give Harrell his honest opinion — right, wrong or indifferent — and Harrell would speak with other people and go from there.
“He’s always going to take it all in,” Littrell said. “He’s going to look at the situation, he’s going to talk to people. I know he’s going to talk to his dad, his family. Nothing at first with Graham is going to come up and he’s going to be pumped up right immediately. He’s got to talk himself through every situation and I think he does in a smart way. He’s rational. He’s going to make sure everything lines up and is the right fit for him.”
Clay Helton placed his call into Harrell in late January, some two weeks after Kliff Kingsbury ended his month-long stint as USC’s offensive coordinator by taking the Arizona Cardinals’ head coaching job.
“USC is a top 5-to-10 program ever,” Harrell said. “So those jobs don’t come around very often because they’re not open very often. When a job like that comes around, it’s a lot more interesting than the other job that came around.”
Helton placed his call into Littrell, too.
“Those conversations, it’s making sure everything lines up,” Littrell said. “Making sure Graham was going to fit his program and what he was looking for in an offensive coordinator. Every conversation is a little different but we had a great conversation and obviously, he felt Graham was going to be a great fit for his culture and everything they accomplished.”
Harrell and Helton had more conversations throughout the week and USC flew Harrell to Los Angeles on Jan. 27.
“We had talked and I knew he was seriously considering it,” Sam Harrell said. “He flew back telling (Helton) the next day or whatever. So I knew it was likely to happen just because of his visit out there. He enjoyed Coach Helton, No. 1, he felt like he’d be a good man to work with and work for so it didn’t surprise me necessarily but when you finally say yes, going to USC, that was a big step coming from Texas, of course.”
Harrell accepted the job and became the Trojans’ third offensive coordinator within the span of about two months. When Littrell hired Harrell, he was taking a risk by hiring an inexperienced coach as his offensive coordinator.
A little more than three years later, it appears Harrell is the one taking the risk as uncertainty seems to cloud Helton’s job status following a 5-7 campaign in 2018. It’s not likely he’ll spend too much time worrying about that, though.
“Once he made his decision, there’s one thing with Graham,” Littrell said, “it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. At the end of the day, he’s going to make the best decision for him and his family. He was pumped about the situation, that’s why I think he made a great pick. He did it rationally.”
Leach mentioned Harrell’s path to becoming a head coach. The USC offensive coordinator position seems like a good stepping stone for that. Of USC’s offensive coordinators this century, Hue Jackson, Norm Chow, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Helton all eventually became head coaches in college or the NFL.
So if things go well, it would only seem to propel Harrell’s rise. Of course, he’ll have to deal with the pressure that comes with this job first.
“That’s one of the things that most intrigued me about this job,” Harrell said. “A lot of jobs across the country, you can be average and everyone’s happy with you. You don’t get in the profession to be average, you get into the profession to win championships. Realistically, there aren’t many schools in the country you can win a national championship at. That’s just being honest … and SC is one of those.”
If Harrell does it well, more phone calls and those opportunities that come with them will await.