TULSA, Okla. – Five years ago, Bill Blankenship left a comfortable job at an Oklahoma high school football powerhouse, taking a leap of faith that he'd land a college coaching job that fit him.
That offer didn't come until January 2007, when Todd Graham asked Blankenship to join his staff at Tulsa. Four years later, with Graham gone to Pittsburgh, Blankenship emerged from a crowded field of candidates and now has his dream job — as head coach at his alma mater.
"Who would have thought?" Blankenship said Friday, smiling wistfully as he was introduced as Tulsa's new coach. "To say this is a great day is an understatement."
Blankenship takes over a program that has won at least 10 games three times in the past four seasons, including this past season, when the Golden Hurricane finished 10-3, beat Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl and were ranked No. 24 in The Associated Press' final poll — their first top-25 finish since 1991.
Graham announced Monday he was leaving Tulsa after four seasons, although athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the process to find his replacement began a couple of weeks earlier, when it became apparent Graham was listening to other coaching offers.
Names bandied about during the search included Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who once held that job at Tulsa, former Tulsa and Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe and new Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who also left Tulsa on Monday. Morris said he interviewed for the Tulsa job while Kragthorpe said he was told he would not receive an interview.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, who grew up in Tulsa and played for Oklahoma, also interviewed for the job but withdrew from consideration Friday morning. Blankenship interviewed Wednesday and Cunningham said he was impressive.
"We thought about Bill the entire time" during the search, Cunninghamn said. "Bill has been a head coach for 20 years and an assistant for four years. He has done everything we asked him to do and done it well.
"We hired a guy we thought would lead our program in a positive direction. I just think that Bill Blankenship is outstanding."
Blankenship turned down legendary Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer in 1975 and instead opted to play for Tulsa because the Golden Hurricane "were the only team around that was throwing the ball and had a pro-style passing attack. ... That was one of the greatest decisions of my life."
Blankenship played for F.A. Dry and John Cooper at Tulsa, and among Blankenship's quarterback coaches during that time were Jerry Rhome and Larry Coker, who later won a national championship at Miami. Blankenship passed for 2,113 yards and eight touchdowns during his playing career.
He followed his father into the high school coaching ranks and received his first head-coaching job at his prep alma mater, Spiro. He spent four years there, then became the coach at Edmond Memorial, a school in an Oklahoma City suburb.
Two years later, he took the job at Union, a Tulsa high school that is one of the state's largest but had not enjoyed great success before his arrival. In 14 years with the Redskins, he won three titles in Class 6A — Oklahoma's highest class — and posted four state runner-up finishes.
In 20 seasons as a prep coach, more than 100 of Blankenship's players received college football scholarships and he posted a 205-68 record.
The only time Blankenship became emotional during his introductory news conference is after he was asked about the leap of faith he took in leaving Union after the 2005 season. He spent 2006 out of coaching before Graham hired him.
"You know, the one thing I've learned about faith is it's hard when you look this way," he said, motioning forward as his voice broke slightly. "It's easy when you look back."
At Tulsa, he's worked with special teams, wide receivers and running backs during his four years. Among his proteges is ace kick returner Damaris Johnson, who broke the NCAA's career record for all-purpose yards this past season as a junior.
Blankenship said that assistant coaches Van Malone, Jess Loepp and Archie McDaniel will remain on Tulsa's staff.
Blankenship said he hadn't yet spoken with Graham but that he wanted to do so to ask the departed coach to not try and recruit players who already have committed to Tulsa.
"We'll have that conversation, I'll promise you," Blankenship said.
Blankenship's hiring was popular with several players who attended the announcement, including running back Trey Watts.
"You feel like you know what he's about," Watts said. "You feel more comfortable having one of your guys. You don't have to create a new relationship. ... We just love this guy to death."