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Holgorsen downplays bad blood with Pitt coach

MORGANTOWN - Dana Holgorsen made it through his weekly press conference last Tuesday without having to answer a question about his relationship with the coach he will face here Friday night, Pitt Coach Todd Graham.

That absence brought to his attention, the West Virginia football coach rolled his eyes and laughed.

"They're biding their time," he said. "You know they're coming."

Seven days later, they came in abundance, and all wondered about the - how did the provocateurs phrase it? - bad blood between the two men.

"Completely irrelevant and highly blown out of proportion," Holgorsen said.

Graham followed with controversy akin to jaywalking. "I have nothing but respect for him as coach," he said. "He's one of the best offensive coaches in the country. I think people are probably making more of that than there is."

Nowhere do the two men at the center of the 104th Backyard Brawl say they like each other. Neither coach says there isn't something in their past.

They don't. There is.

They've met three times and Holgorsen's Houston and Oklahoma State teams won all three against Graham's Tulsa teams. None of that will really figure into what happens next in a very crucial Big East game at Mountaineer Field and on ESPN, but it doesn't change the fact one wants to beat the other.

In 2008, Holgorsen's first season as the offensive coordinator at Houston, Tulsa was ranked No. 25 in the country with an 8-1 record when it went to Houston. The Cougars won. Actually, Houston won 70-30.

A year later, the Cougars traveled to Tulsa and this time it was the Cougars who were 7-1 and ranked No. 13 and the Golden Hurricanes who had the chance to spoil the opponent's season. Houston won, 46-45. Actually, Houston won and afterward Holgorsen accused Tulsa's defensive players of faking injuries to slow Holgorsen's offense.

Only, Holgorsen called it "cheating" on KGOW Radio in Houston and said he knew Tulsa's sign for it based on "inside information." Graham would not engage and traveled a high road by stating Tulsa does things the right way.

Then last season, with Holgorsen at Oklahoma State and he and Coach Mike Gundy trying to get that thing going, with Graham trying to get a big win in the state, the Cowboys won, 65-28.

Actually, the Cowboys won with the team's backup quarterback throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass with a little more than three minutes left to play.

You're sensing a pattern by now, but understand it's not a pattern of one coach trying to get over against the other.

It's not about running up the score or accusing adversaries of underhanded play or any of the other trimmings that make matchups so appetizing.

This has simply been about two ambitious coaches in a bloodthirsty business going against each other for high stakes.

"To me, the bigger deal is the fact we've had competitive games," Holgorsen said. "I've got a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he's accomplished and I suspect the respect is mutual based on the success we've had."

Maybe they're not confidants. Maybe they don't have a secret handshake for when they see each other. One does seem to admire the work of the other, which is not a prerequisite for one liking the other.

It's really no different across college coaching, where there is sometimes dislike on the same staff, never mind between staffs. One guy may not like another, but if one guy is good at his job, he's generally respected for that. That's what the game and the prizes do to even the best.

What happens Friday will merely continue the brief history between Holgorsen and Graham. It changes nothing. The Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2 Big East) and the Panthers (5-5, 3-2) already hate each other. That's not going to change, not because of coaches who won't get together the day before to snap the wishbone on the Thanksgiving turkey.

WVU and Pitt can both win the Big East championship while costing their most sincere rival the same opportunity. That's the motivation, not giving your coach the satisfaction of beating their coach.

"This game is obviously not about stuff like that," said Graham, a WVU assistant in 2001 and '02. "The game is about West Virginia and Pitt and the 2011 Backyard Brawl. I have nothing but respect. One thing I believe in is sportsmanship. Coaches made a difference in my life. That's why I got in this business."

This series may go away for a few years after so many games produced so many memories, but both schools are working to make sure they get together again soon and do so regularly. Why? This is just getting good.

There's the dynamic, real or imagined, between the coaches - and we haven't even mentioned the multitude of former WVU assistants on the Pitt staff - but also their ability to get a program humming. There's the wrinkle a non-conference series will deliver. There's the possibility both these teams could be playing for prime positioning in the eyes of recruits in western Pennsylvania, because no one knows how the notoriety, or the NCAA, will affect Penn State and Ohio State.

"I think it would be really good for a number of reasons," Holgorsen said. "You're going to want to play your non-conference games fairly close based on the Big 12 being a broader conference. You're going to have to travel four times a year and that's always going to be quite a ways away.

"When you pick non-conference games, obviously you want to play most of them here, but if you have to play one or two on the road, you want to play them close to home."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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