Kliff Kingsbury gets all the love for being the first Texas Tech quarterback of the Mike Leach era, but Graham Harrell was arguably the greatest.
Harrell was a three-year starter from 2006-08, breaking numerous school and Big 12 records. He led the Red Raiders his senior year to an 11-2 finish in one of the most memorable seasons in school history and left Lubbock as the NCAA’s all-time career leader in passing touchdowns.
Since his days on the South Plains, Harrell played in the Canadian Football League for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and was a backup quarterback for the Green Bay Packers during their Super Bowl run in 2010.
After a brief stint with the New York Jets last year, Harrell reunited with coach Leach at Washington State this summer as an offensive analyst.
I caught up with the Texas Tech legend as he prepares for his first season on the Cougars’ coaching staff.
How did you reconnect with coach Mike Leach and land at Washington State?
After I left Texas Tech, I stayed in contact with coach Leach and talked to him fairly often. We became close during the five years at Tech together.
This offseason, he contacted me about hanging out for a few days and watch practice. I came out here and had a blast, and before I left he mentioned if they created some sort of position for me, would I be interested? Obviously, I said ‘heck yeah I’d be interested.’
Not long after that, he called me back and said ‘we got a deal for you, if you want to come out here.’ That’s how it kind of all came about.
— WSU Cougars (@WSUCougars) April 29, 2014
My job is pretty much to help out the offense and improve it any way I can. I sit in the meeting rooms with the receivers and watch film with them. I help them if they have a question about what the quarterback might be looking at and his perspective of the play. I watch the quarterbacks during practice all the time and I just try to look for small details I can give coach Leach and run it by him. If he likes the idea, he passes the message along to the quarterback. If he doesn’t, he says it’s a dumb idea.
Do you still hope to play in the NFL or are you focused on pursuing a career in coaching?
Coaching is what I’ve always wanted to do after I finished playing. When Leach called me this offseason, I was still planning to play and training every day. If a team needs a guy to come in and calls, coach Leach has always said ‘you can leave and go do that.’ But I love what I’m doing out here with coach right now, and my dad and grandfather were coaches. It’s a fun time to be here and [Leach] has a good thing going.
Has Leach changed his coaching or personality since he’s been at Washington State?
People have always known him as having weird interests, and that hasn’t changed a bit. I do think he’s mellowed out a little bit, but he’s really still the same guy. It’s still the same offense we used to run, and he keeps the mood light. He makes it fun for the players and coaches. With his off-the-wall mind, there’s never a dull moment. He’s the same guy and fun to be around. You never know what he’s going to say or what he’s going to do.
Same guy, same offense and I think he’s building something similar to what he did at Texas Tech. I think he’s got this program going in the right direction and I’m hoping I can just help him continue that.
He still loves pirates and still makes references to them. He teaches the kids how to properly swing their sword in the first meeting every day. I don’t know if the fan base has really caught on to the pirate thing like the Tech fan base did. He knows everything about pirates and is still telling stories and making references to the team. He’s still all over the place and I think that’s what makes it fun.
Are you still close to the Texas Tech football program and how do you feel about the job Kliff Kingsbury is doing?
I’ve always known Kliff and met him through us being quarterbacks. He would come back to Tech a lot and we would do drills together. He’s a good friend of mine and a lot of the guys I played with are back there with him. Now that all the guys are back, I’m pretty close with the program again. I still talk to a lot of those guys, follow them and pull for them. I think hiring Kliff was a great decision. He’s got a good thing going and hopefully he’ll be able to build on that.
You were always a passionate player at Texas Tech and were caught several times on camera taunting Texas and Texas A&M players. What was it about those teams that motivated you and your teammates?
I think that’s part of the game and I loved it. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I’m always competing and passionate about it. That was just the mentality that whole team had and I think that’s what made us good. We were never as talented as some of the teams we played and they were getting those big-star recruits.
We always had an edge about us, and I think Eric Morris, Danny [Amendola] and all those guys were passionate and loved to compete. We may not have been as talented, but we believed we were going to show up and beat whoever we went up against.
When we were jawing or whatever it was, that was just the edge we had and the chip on our shoulder and it allowed us to be successful.
Everyone knows and still talks about the pass to Michael Crabtree for a last-second touchdown against No. 1 Texas in 2008, but it almost didn’t happen. What happened on the previous play that was a near-interception?
With that [Blake] Gideon play, I had a perfect angle. I scrambled and I think Eddie [Britton] was coming down to block someone. I just thought he was wide-open and thought I’d tossed him the ball and let him figure it out. He’s a better athlete than I was, but I guess I caught him off-guard and it looked like a volleyball. It went straight up and to me it was moving in slow motion and I thought ‘oh please, this can’t be happening and how it ends.’
I was directly in front of him and as soon as it happened, I knew it wasn’t an interception. I had a perfect angle and saw it hit the ground. I wasn’t concerned about it, but the stadium went silent and everyone thought the game was over. But I knew we had another play left.
We were kind of in field goal range and it would have been a long one. But as an offense, I can remember thinking before the drive started, I thought ‘let’s go down and score and not leave it to the kicker.’ At that point in the game, I was thinking the same thing. We needed to make a play on offense. I didn’t want to leave it on a 50-yarder. So we went with our best play. We ran four verticals and hit Crabtree down the sideline.
Looking back on the blowout loss to Oklahoma that season, what would you have done differently if given the chance to do it over again?
We were ready to play and just walked into a buzzsaw that night. I thought we went in ready to play and I felt good going in.
After the Texas game, we probably played the best game ever against Oklahoma State. Then we had a bye week and Oklahoma had one, too. We would have preferred to play them shortly after beating Oklahoma State because we were playing about as well as we could. I think the bye week hurt us as far as momentum.
I don’t think we were overconfident or unprepared. I just think on that night they outplayed us. The score was probably worse than it really was because once we got down, we put ourselves in bad situations having to go for it on fourth down. If there’s anything I wish we could have done differently, it would be not having that bye week because it just kind of crushed the momentum. We didn’t need any time off. I think the bye week helped them and it hurt us.
Do you think the 2008 team deserved to be in the Big 12 Championship Game or be in a BCS bowl?
We deserved to be in the Big 12 championship as much as Texas or Oklahoma and a BCS game. But the system they had in place was what it was and we didn’t get an opportunity.
I think probably almost any other year in the Big 12 we would have been playing for a national championship. It was just that certain year and the way it was set up with the Big 12 being as good as it was that things didn’t work out for us.
It’s unfortunate and we would have liked it to have been different, but it is what it is. There was nothing we could do about it. It would have been fun if there was a playoff system back then. I think we were as good as any team in the country that year.
Some of your most memorable games were against Texas A&M, so how did you end up marrying an Aggie?
She’s one of the few A&M people I’ve ever met who doesn’t know much about their traditions and it’s probably the reason I like her. I met her through Matt Flynn, who’s from Tyler [Texas], and hanging out with them.
[Texas A&M] was kind of an arch-rival at the time and they were the team I liked to talk trash to the most and liked beating the most. They’re fun to watch now, but at the time I always thought they were a little stiff. They were kind of the complete opposite of what we were and it was always fun to play them because of that. It’s kind of neat to see them now have that complete transformation.
But she’s not a football fan and didn’t know much about the football team or when I played them. That made it kind of easier on our relationship and it’s worked out well for us.