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Middle school coach gave Arizona State's Graham the foundation for his coaching philosophy

The foundation for Todd Graham's coaching career was set by a man he never met and another who came into his life at just the right time.

One was Tom Landry. An entire generation of kids growing up in Dallas idolized the late Cowboys coach and Graham's admiration came not only for the Super Bowls he won, but the integrity and poise with which he lived his life.

Landry's impact came at a distance; Graham never got to meet the Hall of Famer in the fedora.

Buddy Copeland left a much more personal imprint on Graham.

By taking interest in an overachieving seventh grader whose father had just left, Graham's middle school football coach gave him a male authority figure when he needed one most and a tough-love approach that stuck with him throughout a winding career that's taken him to Arizona State.

"From the time I was in seventh grade, because of Buddy, I knew I wanted to coach," said Graham, in his second season as the Sun Devils' coach. "I've played for and got to be around some great coaches, some Hall of Fame coaches, and they were great, but Buddy Copeland is really the one I pattern my coaching style after."

Graham's style has, at times, led to criticism from those who don't know him.

Because he's bounced around, Graham has been portrayed as someone who can't finish the job, who's always looking toward the next opportunity. He's coached at four schools in eight years as a college head coach, including one-season stops at Rice and Pittsburgh.

Graham always left for what he believed to be a better opportunity and says he wants to be at ASU for a long time, but his words did little to quell the criticism.

His methods also have sometimes been characterized as quirky, like bringing the plug-in air fresheners from ASU's home locker room on road trips and taking down photos in the visitors' locker room so his players would feel more at home.

Whatever others may say about him, there's no denying what Graham is at the core: A heck of a football coach.

From his days as a high school coach in Texas and Oklahoma to his current job in Tempe, he has been a winner wherever he's gone.

In 2006, Graham led Rice, a team that had gone 1-10 the previous season, to its first bowl game in 46 years in his first season as a college head coach.

At Tulsa, where he had been an assistant from 2003-05, Graham led the Golden Hurricane to three bowl victories in four years.

And, after a 6-6 season at Pitt, he led Arizona State to a bowl victory and eight wins, including three straight to end a season for the first time since 1978.

"It is a little disappointing (the characterizations)," said Tim Cassidy, Arizona State's senior associate AD for football. "You're looking at a coach who in 2000 was the head football coach at a high school in Texas. He hasn't gotten this way because he's got p.r. agents. He's gotten this way because he's a very hard worker, has a definite plan and is a very good coach. I see each of his moves as a step up the ladder."

A big part of Graham's success has been his appetite for knowledge, taking what he's learned from those he's played for or coached with, then implementing it in his own philosophy.

As a high school coach in Texas, he turned the tables on the coaching-clinic system, paying coaches like R.C. Slocum, Norm Chow and Mike Hinkle to visit his school so his assistants could get individualized instruction instead of sending them to clinics where they would be lumped into larger groups.

Wherever Graham went, he listened to and observed his bosses and colleagues: as a player under North Mesquite High School's Gary Childress and East Central's Pat O'Neal; as a middle school coach with Bill Taylor; working alongside Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Tulsa's Bill Blankenship, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Texas A&M receivers coach David Beaty.

He's also exchanged ideas with Slocum at Texas A&M, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter, along with a constant give-and-take with his current assistant coaches.

Graham's quest for football knowledge started in his middle school days, when a scrappy little defensive back who could barely keep his helmet on caught the attention of his coach.

"After the first week or so, I noticed that with every step, he was always right behind me and when I talked to the group, he was eyeball to eyeball," Copeland said. "He was a tough dude and turned out great, which was no surprise. He had success written all over him. From the first time I met him, I knew he was going to be something."

Graham credits Copeland for much of his success.

Graham lived on the western side of Mesquite, but ended up at McDonald Middle School on the north side of town because of a boundary change within the school district. The area where Graham came from wasn't as well off as where the school was located, so he and his friends had a bit of an adjustment period while trying to fit in.

Graham also was dealing with his father leaving the family, which forced his mother, Carol, to work three jobs at a time and left him devastated and confused.

That's where Copeland came in.

Sometimes gruff and always demanding, Copeland was the kind of coach players hated when they first met him, an old-school disciplinarian whose approach might not fly today.

He was especially hard on Graham, rarely saying anything positive to him in public, even telling him to stop feeling sorry for himself because he didn't have a daddy.

But behind that rough exterior, Graham saw a man who cared, someone who was only trying to make him a better player and person.

And for every time Copeland chewed Graham out in front of the team, there was a whisper in the ear about what a stud he was, a pat on the back to let him know he was proud.

"He was tough, could chew you out and hug your neck all in one sentence, but you knew he loved you," Graham said. "Buddy got a hold of me and grabbed my heart when I was a young kid."

Graham's style, just like Copeland's, is no-nonsense.

When he arrived at Arizona State, he changed the program's entire culture, turning it into a yes-sir, no-sir operation where cursing — by anyone — is not allowed, acting out is not tolerated and a dress code is strictly enforced.

At first, Graham's players didn't like it, particularly after playing under the much more laid back Dennis Erickson the seasons before. But as they were around Graham more, they realized he was being hard on them because he cared, because he wanted to make them better.

It was tough love with a purpose and the players, to a man, have bought into their coach's philosophy and adopted it as their own as they head into a second season together in the desert.

"He's going to be demanding of them," Cassidy said. "The only way someone's going to get better in school or on the football field is if someone is pushing them to be their absolute best, and that's what he does."

Just like Copeland did.