Eastern Washington defensive coordinator John Graham hopes to realize a lifelong dream by becoming the next head football coach at Central Washington, he said Wednesday.
“When I got into college coaching, a dream of mine was to be a head coach at a place that’s near and dear to my heart,” said Graham, who is one of four finalists to lead the Division II program in Ellensburg.
“It’s a crazy month for me,” said Graham, who is busy preparing the Eagles for an FCS quarterfinal game on Saturday against Jacksonville State. Two days later he will interview at his alma mater, with CWU athletic director Dennis Francois and other officials.
The other finalists are Chris Tormey, a Spokane native and former head coach at Idaho and Nevada; Ian Shoemaker, an assistant coach at St. Cloud State (Minn.); and Mat Taylor, the head coach at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash.
All four candidates will be interviewed next week. Francois said Wednesday that he hopes to have a coach on board by the end of the month.
While Tormey is arguably the most high-profile candidate, Graham’s name is the most familiar to Wildcats fans. He was a defensive back at Central in 1990-91, graduated in 1992 and later was an assistant for the Wildcats for 13 years under Mike Dunbar, Jeff Zenisek and John Zamberlin.
During that time, Graham helped Central to an 89-51 overall record with five conference championships and the NAIA title in 1995.
“He’s very well respected among the Ellensburg and Central Washington community,” Francois said Wednesday.
Graham, who was Central’s defensive coordinator from 1996-2007, applied for the head coaching position when Zamberlin left for Idaho State in 2006. He was a finalist for the job, but the job went to then-Eastern assistant and current head coach Beau Baldwin.
Baldwin, also a CWU alum, was a Wildcats assistant from 1994-2002.
A year later, Baldwin was named head coach at Eastern, and brought Graham with him to Cheney, where he’s been the defensive coordinator and associate head coach for six seasons.
“They’ve got something very special over there, and that further broadens his qualifications,” Francois said.
Graham said he’s an ideal candidate: “I think being there and knowing the ins and outs of the university, and what kind of kid it takes to win there, I understand it.”
Referencing his success at Central and at Eastern, Graham said, “I know what it takes to take a program from good to great.”
Central made news before the season began by firing fifth-year head coach Blaine Bennett during fall camp in August. He was reportedly fired for purchasing alcohol with public funds for the traditional coaches’ party after a summer camp. Bennett’s lawyer issued a statement that said state funds were not used to purchase beer.
Assistant John Picha was named interim coach and led the Wildcats to a 7-4 record, but Picha did not seek the permanent head-coaching position.