Slipper Sits Down With Kelly Graves (Part I)

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It's a sweltering day in August, and Gonzaga's campus teems with anxious parents piloting u-hauls and excited students moving into their dorms for the first time. The coaches' office in the McCarthy Athletic Center, though, couldn't be more quiet. Everyone is presumably attending the daytime portion of that weekend's Coaches vs. Cancer benefit gala. Only the rustling of construction paper breaks the silence, and betrays the complex's sole occupant: GU women's coach Kelly Graves. He unwraps some new pictures that will adorn the office walls. The redecorating might be in the name of attracting an unnamed big time recruit the following day. "I can't tell you who it is," Graves says. I express my desire to talk with him about whatever he can talk about. We sit down and, only naturally, he cordially offers me a rare Hawaiian Macaroon. Two hours later I left not only with several Macaroons, but with a much better knowledge of both the women's program and Coach Graves' character. It is a testament to the latter that he granted me extended access on little notice, answered every question I asked, and was both courteous and professional. That type of treatment is rare. On behalf of Slipperstillfits, I would like to express my gratitude to Coach Graves for being so ingratiating.

Click below to read Part I of our conversation with Coach Graves.

Slipper Still Fits: In your first year at Gonzaga you went 5-23 overall, and 0-14 in conference. Now, you've won 36 straight conference games and are ranked in the Top Ten in the country in a sport known for the unassailability of its upper echelon. Has there ever been a more audacious success story in the history of women's basketball?

Kelly Graves: Probably not. It's as good a story as any, there's no question about that. I think the fact that our rise has been a little bit more gradual means you're still seeing the dividends of it. Our program will see the rewards just like (the Gonzaga Men's basketball program) did in 1999 when they jumped onto the scene. We're over 4,000 season tickets sold, now, and we're soon to actually have more season tickets sold than our men. The last few years have been amazing. It would have been special to make an elite eight tournament run anywhere, but the fact that it happened here made it even more special.

SSF: Take me back to your earliest coaching days, starting out at Big Bend (Moses Lake, WA) Community College.  What attracted you to coaching in the first place, and who got you involved in the profession?

KG: I played at the University of New Mexico, and since I wasn't a very athletic player I had to use my smarts a little bit. I think you come to understand the game a little bit differently when you have to do that. I stayed on after I was done at New Mexico as a graduate assistant, and at the end of that year (former New Mexico men's coach Gary) Colson was let go. (Colson's successor at UNM) Dave Bliss asked me if I wanted to stay on at New Mexico, but I said no. My high school coach, who was the men's basketball coach at Big Bend at the time, called me and said, ‘Kelly, why don't you come up and work for me?' I came up and I helped him coach, and about a week before school started the Big Bend women's coach quit. They hadn't been very good and they asked me if I'd like to coach their women's team. I said yes, and I actually became both the men's assistant and the women's head coach that year. (Being the women's coach) meant 2,500 extra bucks - that's how I looked at it. I hadn't even seen a women's game before. But even though we were 4-22 that season I realized I enjoyed coaching women. I stuck with it and the rest is history.

SSF: What were some tangible steps you took when you first started at Gonzaga that helped redirect the program's trajectory so sharply?

KG: Recruiting was the bottom line. We had just graduated eight players; we literally had about six or seven players on the roster when I got here. I could quite frankly tell recruits, ‘you're going to come in and play.' We would try and recruit the type of kids who that message would appeal to. Also, the ‘Gonzaga' name was pretty hot right then in basketball. I'm not going to minimize the effect that (the men's program) had on our recruiting ability. I also built a really good thing at Saint Mary's and had a track record there. We were fortunate to have a couple of really good players take a chance on us - Shannon Matthews, Ashley Burke, Rae Jewell and Juliann Laney. As seniors, that group went 14-0 in conference. We were able to change the culture around here with a brand new group of players.

SSF: On March 30th of last season you visited the University of Washington and were courted by their athletic department for the women's coaching job. Within 36 hours you had signed a 10-year contract extension with Gonzaga. What was your conversation like with (Gonzaga Athletic Director) Mike Roth after you returned from that trip?

KG: Gonzaga had already put something in the works before I left. I've had my contract renegotiated here a few times. I think because of Mark (Few) they know a little bit better how to negotiate a contract and be proactive. The school was great, and I knew they were going to make it a nice package before I had gone over to visit Washington. Professionally, I think you always have to look, but I really have no thoughts of leaving. I like it here.

SSF: Isn't there a correlation, though, between a threat of you leaving and the school offering something that quickly?

KG: Obviously there's a correlation there. It was as much about me asking (Gonzaga) what we can do to get a deal done, and (Gonzaga) asking me what they could do to get a deal done, and we did it. The 10-year thing is... in the coaching world not many people have ten year contracts.

SSF: Was Gonzaga's offer substantially larger than what Washington was able to put on the table?

KG: Yes, it was.

SSF: Recently, Pat Summit announced that she has early onset dementia. You've played Summit's teams three different times over your career. What has your personal interaction with her been like?

KG: Phenomenal. She is an absolutely great woman, as Salt of the Earth as anyone I've ever been around. In the fall of 2005 we went to the Virgin Islands and we played Tennessee. Everyone was staying at one hotel and the restaurant closed pretty early. There was nothing else around; we were on a resort. I'm pretty hungry, so I go down and she gets on the elevator as I get off with a big box of pizza. I asked her where she got it. She goes, ‘There's nothing else, everything is closed. You know what, though? Let's share it.' So we went back up and she and I sat outside on this patio area and ate a pizza, just the two of us, in the Virgin Islands. That's the kind of person she is. I really feel for Pat, obviously. If anybody can fight this, it's her. She's tough as nails.

SSF: Describe the atmosphere at that time of (former Spokane area high school player and #2-ranked national recruit) Angie Bjorklund traveling with her Tennessee team back home to face her sister, Jamie, who played for Gonzaga.  

KG: That's the reason why we played. Angie had committed to Tennessee just before we played them in the Virgin Islands. We talked to Tennessee during that tournament and said let's do a home-and-home so the two sisters can play each other. That's where we inked the deal. Coach Summit was great about it. I initiated the conversation, but it very quickly became a mutual one because Tennessee was really the first team to go to their players' hometowns and play on the women's side. Jamie was with me when we talked to Pat, and Angie said, ‘I gotta make sure that we play in Spokane because I really want to play my sister.' When Tennessee came and played here in 2008 they actually had their women's team fly directly here following their Christmas break and practice two or three days in our building. Pat Summit ran practices here for several days. I never had gone in to say hello, because it was Christmas break and everyone was sort of in and out. The first time I ever even had a chance to see her was when we shook hands a few minutes before the game. She goes, ‘Kelly, where the hell have you been? I didn't even know you were going to show up tonight.'

SSF: Younger men don't traditionally idolize older women in sports. As a male coach, what does it mean to you that the most iconic coach in your sport - one who merges genuine toughness with genuine class - is female?

KG: Pat Summit transcends the game. My guess is that (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski and some pretty good coaches have talked to her about basketball. I'm of the opinion that basketball's basketball. (Women) don't play above the rim and there are some differences, but that doesn't mean that Pat Summit wouldn't win a bunch of national championships if she wasn't coaching (Connecticut men's coach) Jim Calhoun's group. She can coach regardless of level or gender. I think a lot of people feel that same way. I'm sure Bobby Knight and Pat Summit are on each other's speed dials and they talk hoop. If there's anybody that wouldn't respect her, it's Bobby Knight, but I guarantee you he does. She showed that you don't have to be all soft and cuddly coaching women's basketball. You can be who you are and be tough, and that's still cool, and kids will still respond. I don't have that glare. Every once and awhile I might tell Courtney to pull her head out of her ass as she's walking off the court, but I'm not as demonstrative in front of everybody. I'm competitive and tough, but I believe that you treat people with respect. There's not always a lot of that. I think I respect the game, I respect my players, and I respect my coaches and everybody all the way up who's involved with who are.

SSF: In 1999 the men's program ascended to prominence with three straight blue-collar trips to the NCAA tournament that featured an Elite Eight trip as a double-digit seed. In 2009 the women's program ascended to prominence with three straight blue-collar trips to the NCAA tournament that featured an Elite Eight trip as a double-digit seed. On the surface, the success of each program seems uncannily similar. How has your success differentiated itself from that of the men's program?

KG: Men's basketball at Gonzaga has been pretty good for quite awhile. I don't know their whole tradition, or our whole tradition. But even though the men's elite eight appearance (came out of nowhere), they've always had a pretty good program here. The women's basketball program here has been an ‘Also Ran.' To see where we have risen from where we started is something I'm very proud of because that just doesn't happen on the women's side anymore. Even though there are the traditional Kansas, North Carolinas and Dukes on the men's side, the core group of blue bloods is smaller and a lot more established on the women's side. Nobody blinks an eye anymore that Gonzaga is viewed as a top ten team. I'm personally really proud of making that jump of where very few have gone before. We can talk another time about the reasons why we've accomplished what we have. I have theories on that.

SSF: Can we talk about any of those theories now?

KG: Well, there are 15 scholarships on the women's side. You have fewer high-level women's basketball players in this country and they're vying for more scholarships. How many BCS schools are there in basketball? (Ed's note: there are 74). Let's just call it 75. That's 150 extra scholarships in women's basketball that could be spread out among the mid-majors. Imagine if men's basketball was offered 15 scholarships. You can see how the rich would get richer - and they even have a bigger pool of players to begin with. That's the reason why you see 40 point spreads in a ton of games on the women's side. Another important factor is TV. It's like the Big East Conference 25 years ago. If you wanted to play and be seen as a men's basketball player then you went to the Big East because they had that big basketball contract with ESPN. We're still at that infant stage, but there just aren't a lot of women's teams on TV. If you want to play on TV, then (you might consider coming to Gonzaga).

SSF: The fact you were able to play those four consecutive NCAA Tournament games in Spokane last year still blows my mind. No team lower than a two seed has ever had that opportunity in the Big Dance. You guys were an 11 seed. Do you have any idea why the committee allowed that to happen?

KG: Heather Gores, our Associate Athletic Director, is actually on the women's tournament selection committee. She didn't tell me exactly what went on, but she said there wasn't even that much discussion by the committee in terms of ‘should we or should we not (put the Spokane sub-regional within the Spokane Regional)?' She certainly never said anything about the committee expressing concern over doing it. It was pretty consensus and pretty matter of fact, but I don't know why it happened. Maybe they didn't think we were going to make it that far. They definitely knew our team could end up playing four in town.

SSF: Last year's tournament run was certainly your highest profile moment as a coach, but it can't have been the moment that you realized you had something career-defining on your hands. When was that moment?

KG: It was the year we signed (Janelle) Bekkering, (Heather) Bowman, Vivian Frieson and Tiffany Shives. I thought we had built something good and had gotten to a really nice level, but then we brought in the best recruiting class that I think I've ever had up until this year's. That was when I got really excited about where we were heading. I knew Bowman was a legitimate star, Bekkering - legit star, Vivian - legit star. We got three in one class. Then Tiffany, a McDonalds All-American, decided to transfer, and then the following year we got Courtney Vandersloot. I didn't know Courtney was going to be as good, but we knew we had a good player there. From then on I knew we were going to develop this into something pretty special.

SSF: We all know what kind of legacy she left on the court. What sort of legacy did Courtney Vandersloot leave in the locker room and behind closed doors?

KG: We'll find out this year. We're at that point now where our kids come in expecting to win, and Courtney enhanced that legacy. She has had the best career at Gonzaga that any player has ever had. She is probably the greatest teammate that I've ever coached. She was beloved in the locker room. I think she's maybe struggling a little bit in the pros because she is so into the team aspect of things. Our philosophy is that wherever the team is, you should be. She was the hardest worker:  the first one in and the last one out. That sounds cliché, but it's the truth. And she's humble. Jazmine (Redmon) and (incoming Oregon State transfer) Haiden Palmer, I think, will take that sense of humility and continue it. (That sense of humility) had better have been passed down, because that's how we change the culture. But Courtney is the standard by which every student athlete at Gonzaga will forever be judged, in any sport.

SSF: Last season there was considerable discussion of Kayla Standish's delicate confidence level. How have you handled building her confidence as a player?

KG: We knew Kayla was going to be a star from the time she came here. You can ask anybody I talked to at the time. I said, ‘You guys wait, Kayla is the real thing.' She was a big fish in a small pond: Ellensburg, Washington. She didn't really have to push herself to be dominant in every sport. She got here as a freshman and she started playing behind Vivian and Heather, the all time leading scorer in the conference, male or female. I said to Kayla, ‘If you do nothing else this year (the 08-09 season), learn from Heather how to work every single day.' And she was a great understudy. She always had it in her, she just had never been asked to carry a load the size of what she carried this past year. Now, many project her to be a late first round WNBA pick. I'm really proud of her. From time to time she still questions herself, but we'll see the dividends (of her performance in last year's NCAA Tournament) this year. If she were a guy she would've left. They say, ‘If I'm not playing then I'm done.' That's just how the men's side does it.

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