Returning to His Roots
North Texas OC Graham Harrell Returns to the Lone Star State
DENTON – Ennis High School is a mere 81 miles south from Apogee Stadium, the new home of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Ennis is where Harrell set countless Texas high school records and earned a Class 4A state title in 2001 as a sophomore with the Lions, under the tutelage of his father, then-Ennis head coach Sam Harrell.
Following playing career stops in Lubbock (Texas Tech), New Jersey (New York Jets), Green Bay, Wisconsin, (Packers) and Pullman, Washington (Washington State), Harrell has returned to the Lone Star State to take over the Mean Green offense under new head coach Seth Littrell.
Returning to a place close to home was one of many reasons that the 31 year-old jumped at the opportunity to join Littrell’s staff.
“As far as Denton is concerned, it’s where I’m from,” Harrell said of his arrival with the Mean Green. “Well, not exactly where I grew up, but it’s coming home for me and it’s kind of close for my wife as well. More importantly, it’s sitting in an unbelievable recruiting base. There are great players right here and it’s an area that I grew up in that I’m proud of and I believe we can win here. All of that attracted me; coach Littrell, the area and that whole group of people we have who believe we can win here. We know it’s a challenge, but we are excited about that challenge.”
The son of a coach always seemed destined to become one himself. His former head coach at Texas Tech, and now the current coach of the Washington State Cougars, Mike Leach, saw it right away. Harrell’s father, now an offensive coordinator himself at Fort Worth Christian, was the head coach at Ennis from 1994-2009. He led the way with a spread attack for the Lions, leading them to 13-straight playoff appearances and three class 4A championships. His son attributes a lot of credit to his father, and he shared the dream of being a coach from a young age.
“I think my dad influenced me more than anyone,” Harrell opined. “He’s obviously had a ton of success with high school ball. That’s what I grew up wanting to be; I wanted to be a high school football coach because that’s what my dad was. What my dad did that was better than anyone around is the way he treated his kids, handled them and handled the staff. The way he did that is something that I hope I can do.”
Leach speaks of how advanced Harrell was at evaluating film when he arrived in Lubbock as a freshman; which he credited to his father’s discipline as a coach. Analyzing film, knowing where a certain player should be to exploit a defense is something that Leach says his former quarterback and assistant excelled at right away.
That understanding of the nuances of the offense he was tasked to run with the Red Raiders paved the way for some major successes at Tech. Harrell finished his collegiate career with an NCAA-record 134 touchdown passes, the second-most career passing yards (15,793) and posted the third-highest career passing yardage average with 350.96 yards-per-game. He was also named AT&T’s All-America Player of the Year and a First-Team All-American as a senior in 2008, leading the nation with 5,111 passing yards to go along with 45 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions. That Red Raiders team finished ranked 12th in the country with an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl appearance.
“Quite frankly, I think, Graham’s NFL career, he probably cut it short a little bit because he was excited about getting in to coaching,” Leach said of Harrell’s post-Texas Tech career. “That’s because it was one of those deals where he could have kept training, gotten into camps and stuck somewhere, but he was real excited about getting into coaching; I know that. He’s just a good, sharp, reliable guy. The other thing in his case, as young as he is, one, it’s good that he has always been a guy that has constantly studied film, but the other important thing for him is that he learns and sorts things out quickly.”
After Harrell’s playing career, he re-joined forces with Leach in Pullman in 2014 as an offensive analyst. In that role, he assisted the offense through film breakdown, player evaluations and game planning. That experience led to his 2015 promotion to outside receivers coach. The Cougars had a breakout year in 2015, posting an 8-4 record, culminating with a berth in the Sun Bowl. Harrell coached first-team All-Pac-12 selection Gabe Marks, who led the conference in catches, touchdown receptions and ranked second in receiving yards per game. Washington State was the nation’s leader in passing offense, throwing for 397 yards per game.
When Littrell was announced as the Mean Green head coach in December of 2015, he was tasked with constructing a quality staff, and doing so quickly. One of his first hires was Harrell. The two crossed paths in Lubbock during those productive years from 2005-08, when Littrell was the running backs coach in his formative coaching years. A shade under two weeks after accepting the head coaching position, Littrell added Harrell and another former Red Raider and Harrell teammate, Joel Filani, to his staff. Filani was also on Leach’s staff in Pullman in 2015, as an offensive quality control coach. He now is the wide receivers coach in Denton. With familiar faces in tow, that leads Harrell to believe there is a good thing brewing in #NewDenton.
“When you come in on year one of a staff, everyone is kind of growing and getting to know everyone and coming together as a team at the same time, so that part has been awesome,” Harrell continued. “Though there are a lot of new faces, it’s almost like a reunion with some of the coaches, as far as Filani, coach Littrell and even coach (Tommy) Mainord, who was a coach at Tech that I knew here, so that’s been fun getting back with those guys and trying to form it and do it our own way.
“We have the opportunity to establish it ourselves,” Harrell added. “I really think the difference between great teams and average teams is how tight you are as a team, how close you can get as a unit, and that’s what we are trying to do; just form relationships. If you go to war with the guy next to you, and if we feel like we can create that kind of culture, then we can win a lot of football games, which is what we’re trying to do.”
Culture is a word that carries a lot of significance inside a program, especially one that is looking to rebuild itself. Turning attitudes of players and staff into a winning mentality resonated with Harrell. The comfort level with Littrell sold Harrell on the opportunities that appear fruitful in Denton. When discussing Littrell’s philosophies, Harrell spoke of Littrell’s penchant for doing things the right way. Harrell and the staff won’t tolerate anything else. He emphasized that when starting a program and coming into a new place to try and get things going, that type of commitment to turning around a culture and focusing on doing things ethically is paramount.
Having been a successful quarterback in a similar style of offense that the Mean Green plan to run is a huge benefit for Harrell when it comes to communicating with the offensive players. That’s one aspect that he sees as a major advantage when it comes to installing the new offense.
“I’ve been right there,” Harrell says. “The great thing that I can tell them is that when they say to me, ‘I saw this, or I saw that,’ I’ve actually seen it before and I can know if that window is too tight. I’ve stood there and I know what you’re seeing, trust me, I’ve seen it. From a receiver’s standpoint, I can tell them what the quarterback sees in certain situations because I’ve been in that position. I understand what they (receivers) are seeing, but if you want the ball, you’re going to need to get to this spot to provide the window (for the quarterback). That’s where I think I can help them as much as anything, because I know if a guy can make a particular throw, or if a window is too tight, etc. I know what the quarterback is seeing in a particular scenario. Firsthand perspective really helps and I think it can be a benefit to help our guys around me and translate that into success offensively.“
Though he developed in a spread offense under his father’s guidance at Ennis, Harrell also took a ton of his philosophy from Leach while at Tech, and during his first foray into coaching with Leach in Pullman. Having seen different schemes and styles as a professional, returning to Leach’s system with Washington State reaffirmed that this was a really good way to operate offensively. Harrell is excited about the potential to carry that same type of success over to North Texas.
“Coach Leach has impacted me, obviously a ton,” Harrell shared. “He is a man that gave me the opportunity to do a lot of great things as a player, so we had a ton of fun together. The whole goal of this offense is to find a way to get the most out of your guys and put them in a position to be successful. I feel like if we do that here, our whole team has a chance to be successful. We don’t get up and just try to out-scheme people or trick people with our plays, Our whole philosophy is to line up and out-execute them. From the day I walked into Tech, 10 years ago or whenever it was, to now, the offense has changed very little because we want to be great at what we do. I think the reason it’s had so much success, is because we practice what we do more than anyone else. We need to line up, know what we’re doing, believe in what we’re doing and do it, and that leads to success.”
As the summer continues and the calendar inches closer to the beginning of fall camp, as well as the season-opener at Apogee Stadium against SMU, Harrell looks forward to spending more time with the offensive personnel. He is very excited about the way that the team has welcomed the new staff and philosophy with open arms.
A new energy is abound around the facilities in Denton, in the shadows of Apogee Stadium. Harrell, a kid from just down the road, is looking forward to cultivating that energy and helping to turn it into sustainable success with the Mean Green program. Getting to do that so close to home, with familiar faces around that have tasted success before, is something that he is passionate about.
The eyes of his father, and Leach, will be upon him as the new journey continues.