Kelly Graves enters his fourth season as Oregon’s head coach and 29th overall in coaching this year. Under his leadership, the Ducks went to the semfinals of the WNIT in his second season and advanced to the Elite 8 last year – a program first. For the last two Novembers, Oregon has signed one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
Graves’ first head coaching job was at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Wash. He then served as assistant coach at the University of Portland for four years before taking the helm at St. Mary’s in 1997. In his second season, he guided the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament.
After being hired as Gonzaga’s head coach in 2000, Graves set about building a powerhouse program. The Bulldogs won their first of 10 straight West Coast Conference titles in 2004-2005. They advanced to the NCAA Tournament seven times, including three consecutive Sweet 16 and one Elite 8 appearance.
Graves and his wife, Mary, have three sons: Max, Jackson and Will. Max graduated from the University of Oregon last June.
Even for someone who’s known as a coaching wizard, last season’s Elite 8 appearance surprised everyone. Did it surprise you, your staff and your team? What did you learn from the experience?
Were we surprised, I think so. Going into every season you feel confident about your team and believe they can do special things. We have a talented group, but we were really young, so no one had any experience in the NCAA Tournament. A few of our returners had success in the WNIT the previous year. We won some games, and that little experience helped the returners, but we were so young in terms of the freshmen.
We’re not a goal-making team, but as a staff, our goal was to just get to the field and see what happens. In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think we would win three games. But it also goes to show you that if you have some kids who believe in you and in each other, and they see a little success, get some confidence and play with a no-lose attitude, that great things can happen. I knew we would be a tough out to March only because we had such a high growth potential. If we have that many young kids, they’re going to grow more than veterans.
Last season we didn’t take ourselves too seriously; we played loose. We need to remember how it was last year, right now.
You’re known for turning programs around relatively rapidly. What are the steps involved in doing that?
First and foremost, it’s about recruiting the right people. When I say that, I’m talking about not just players, but staff. Then you recruit support into your program. Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program. My last year at St. Mary’s we won 26 games, and my first year at Gonzaga we won five I didn’t get dumber – I’ve just never gone for a quick fix. We’ve built with youth. My first year at Gonzaga we recruited six amazing freshmen, and we went 14-0 in conference when they were seniors.
When we got here, it was similar. We let some kids go whose goals didn’t match our goals. Life is too short; you have to get the kids to buy in. You have to build a culture.
How do you motivate players? What are the keys to putting skill development, learning plays and motivating personnel together?
I’m a big believer in peer pressure. Each day we do a peer pressure drill, like having to make so many baskets in a row, and we have to do everything just right, that’s important. It gets buy-in when you get kids tired and the entire team has to suffer for it. We’re getting good kids if someone gets out of line and it’s not always the coaches that have to come down on them. Even right now I can say, ‘Sabrina (Ionescu), so-and-so is hurting us.’ Sabrina is a competitor, so she wants to take care of that for sure. She and the other team leaders will take care of them. Fundamentally, I love my team, and I know that sounds cliché, but I give our kids attention cause they know I love them. We express that every day, and we show them with our actions. I tell them I’ll be direct. I try to invest in their lives and in them – my whole staff does. I have very ‘up’ people on my staff: life lovers, optimists, people who care about relationships.
What are the best ways to get the most out of an athlete and help her live up to her full potential?
I think the biggest part is knowing what their goals are by talking with them and getting to know them so well that you know what they’re after. I hold them accountable each day for that. If a young lady wants to be in the WNBA, you have to be honest with her and drive her and push her every day. I’ll say, ‘This is your goal. Are you working hard enough, are you working enough to get you there?’ One of the areas that has made us really good is that everyone has put team success ahead of individual success. Not once in all my years have I congratulated a kid in front of the group for making player of the week.
I don’t let them rest; I don’t have many down days. I’m pretty business-like every day, and I push them. We have fun as a program, but in terms of letting them slack off, I’m pretty consistent with the work ethic I expect.
Sometimes you’re sitting on the bench with your leg crossed. You’re not a lion-like sideline pacer?
Because I’m so tall and my voice is booming, I don’t want to intimidate my players and the refs. I’ve taken to sitting down, and my voice carries pretty well. I’m not a pacer. It’s not about me – it’s about those kids on the floor. The less I can make my presence known, the better.
Ruthy Hebard from Fairbanks, Satou Sabally from Germany. Obviously you have the recruiting touch. How do you find good players?
You keep your eyes and ears open at all times. I’ve been in the business a long time, and I know people from every corner of the world, and I listen. When people say, there’s a young lady from Fairbanks that you need to take a look at, I don’t poo-poo it, I take a look. My staff does a great job. (Associate head coach) Mark Campbell is one of the best recruiters in the business. My assistant is from Spain, and has his finger on the pulse of the world.
Not too many athletes transfer from your program. What are the keys to player retention?
I don’t know. Part of the reason we haven’t had a ton of transfers over the years is that we try to get our players to buy in: team, team, team. Twenty years after you graduate, you aren’t going to remember playing time or how much you scored, but you will remember your team’s success. I don’t promise anything in the recruiting process – no 25 minutes a game. I say, you’ll get a chance to compete.
Programs that struggle don’t get the right kids. If you’re honest during recruiting, you build that trust and back it up. I always play a deep bench.
Why do you prefer coaching women over men?
I love that it’s not just about the wins and losses all the time – it’s about building relationships, and it’s about the process. I like that, and generally women have a better perspective in terms of what basketball is there for, and what they can learn from it. I’m not a ranter and raver or a screamer, and that fits better with women, but not always. I have enjoyed it. I’m sure if I coached men, I’d enjoy that too, but I happen to have had success here. I think women overall have a better perspective, are generally better students, and generally accept coaching better.
In what ways are you different now than you were when you first began coaching?
I realize now better that it’s not about the coach, it’s about the players and their happiness and success. Early on as a coach, you get driven by your own win-loss record. About 15-20 years ago I realized that’s not what this is about, and I became a better coach, mentor, dad, and husband. It helped me in my own life.
How do you approach goal-setting with the team?
We talk in terms of wanting to be better today than yesterday; we want to win the day. When we think long-term, I say we’re good enough to win the the Pac-12, we’re good enough to win the Final Four, to beat everyone on our schedule.
What is the best thing about coaching?
Just working with kids. I love working with players and coaches and building lifelong relationships. Every summer my wife and I go to every wedding of former players. I had two this past August, and half of the wedding party were former teammates who never knew each other before they got to Gonzaga. It’s a great way to connect. I love the competition, but in the end it’s really about those relationships.
What are the most important things in life?
Life is too short for petty stuff. I take time to love people., love my family – my kids, my wife – my basketball team. Giving of oneself is critical. For teams that is so underrated, to be part of something that’s bigger than you.
What is your favorite movie?
My favorite sports movie is “Slap Shot.” I’m a “Star Wars’ freak. I got my tickets pre-ordered and reserved for the opening of the latest one on Dec. 15. I also love comedies.