DENTON, Texas – When Kliff Kingsbury’s NFL career flamed out in 2008, Dana Holgorsen called him, offering a tryout for a job. Holgorsen was then the offensive coordinator at the University of Houston, and he invited Kingsbury to do quality control work for the Cougars.
Kingsbury, going into his fourth season as Texas Tech’s coach, caught the coaching bug. When he arrived, he needed a place to crash. Holgorsen offered the couch at his house.
When Graham Harrell, Texas Tech’s career passing leader, was between jobs as a pro quarterback, Holgorsen invited Harrell to Oklahoma State, where Holgorsen was running the Cowboys’ offense. Same deal – come and see if you like coaching.
So, did Harrell sleep on the couch?
“No, I was in a dorm,” Harrell said with a laugh. “Kliff got the better end of that deal.”
Harrell’s first exposure to coaching in the spring of 2010 was, well, not successful.
“I remember we’d be having meetings and he was just sitting there, staring out the window,” Holgorsen said, imitating Harrell’s hang-dog slumped posture. “He still wanted to be playing.”
Harrell, who is about to embark on his first season as an offensive coordinator under North Texas coach Seth Littrell, earned a spot with the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and wound up with a Super Bowl ring. When he was released in 2013, Harrell realized it was time to move on.
During his Texas Tech career, Harrell set five NCAA passing records. In 2008, he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He helped the Red Raiders finish 11-1 in the regular season. Now, he’s another branch in the Mike Leach Coaching Tree.
“Mike was the first one to give me an opportunity, both as a player and as a coach,” said Harrell, who spent the last two seasons with the Cougars as receivers coach. “When I had the opportunity, it was too great to pass up. As a quarterback, I had spent five years with him. As an assistant, I got to know him more as a friend.”
Littrell, who played on Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship team, spent five seasons as an assistant coach, including a stop at Texas Tech when Harrell played there. He kept a list of candidates for his staff at his first head coaching job. His first choice for offensive coordinator was Harrell. Last December, Littrell was hired as head coach at North Texas. It didn’t take long for Harrell’s cell phone to ring.
“I had a lot of respect for Graham and he knows the system,” Littrell said. “From day one, everybody is on the same page and we speak each other’s language.”
Harrell is installing the Air Raid offense for the Mean Green. It’s a challenging U-turn for a team that went 1-11 last season with a ground-oriented attack. Senior Alec Morris, a graduate transfer from Alabama, will probably be the starting quarterback. Littrell and Harrell are cobbling together a receiver corps by having some players switch positions. The returning receivers from last year combined for 52 receptions for 414 yards and two touchdowns.
“Everyone that has come from Leach’s coaching tree, the base is the base, the Air Raid is the Air Raid,” Harrell said. “But each coach takes the system and puts his own signature on it. That’s what we’re trying to do here, figure out a way to put our guys in the best position to be successful.”
Leach and Holgorsen and other Air Raid coaches are known for having just a handful of plays but disguising those plays with myriad formations. Consider this analogy: There are numbers only from 0 to 9, but the combinations of those numbers are endless.
“What the Air Raid does is it gives you an identity,” Harrell said. “It lets people know, ‘This is what we do and we’re going to be good at it.’ I like it because it makes the other team defend the whole field.”
Harrell, 31, admits that at times he feels like a kid playing Madden 17. The opportunity to design plays and to script game plans is exciting, but he adds that it’s good to have Littrell as a “governor” who keeps him from getting too wild and crazy.
“I played for Seth at Texas Tech and I was excited at the chance to work with him and also come home,” said Harrell, who is from Ennis, which is about 75 miles from UNT’s Denton campus. “Seth and I believe in the same things. It’s a great opportunity to learn and develop.”
Harrell is now in the coaching pipeline, and this season he’ll get to show his potential. Holgorsen, also a member of the Leach coaching tree, is convinced a star is about to be born.
“Leach thought he did a great job at Washington State and I think he’s going to be a great coach,” he said.