Less than a day after word broke that Kelly Graves accepted the women’s basketball coaching job at Oregon, his photo and biography went missing from the Gonzaga athletics web page.
The abrupt end to the Graves era now thrusts what had been a model of consistent success into an arena full of uncertainty. But the outgoing coach and a longtime rival both said they think the Bulldogs’ brass should first look at their own bench for his replacement.
Graves said he spoke at length with athletic director Mike Roth and gave him recommendations for his replacement. But Graves would not say who he suggested.
“They are going to get somebody great,” Graves said. Roth is “not going to listen to me and do what I say. But I gave (Roth) some input. Quite frankly, I hope he keeps it in the family. I hope someone who has been a part of the program gets that chance.”
Twenty years ago, Jim Sollars gave Graves his first Division I coaching job at Portland. Sollars recently retired from coaching after 28 years of battling Gonzaga, and 14 years of mostly losing to his younger protégé after Graves took over at Gonzaga in 2000.
Sollars commended Roth for twice hiring from within the program for past men’s coaching openings and said he should do it again.
“When I first starting competing against Gonzaga, Mark Few was a new graduate assistant” for the men’s team, Sollars said. “One thing that the country should look at is how Gonzaga has moved people up within the institution. I think they’ve done it the right way.”
Graves mentioned by name his top two assistants, Jodie Kaczor Berry and Lisa Mispley Fortier. Berry has been with Gonzaga for 11 years and coordinated the Bulldogs’ offense.
Fortier has coached at GU for the past seven years and focused on defense, which Graves said mostly carried this year’s team to a 29-5 record. It won the West Coast Conference for the 10th straight year and earned a bid to its sixth consecutive NCAA tourney.
Asked if he plans on bringing any of the current assistant coaches with him to Oregon, Graves said he’d spoken to them but wouldn’t say anything further.
“No decisions have been made,” he said. “They will have to talk to the team. I don’t want to say anything. I have a good mind of who my staff will be already. I want to have my staff in place by next week.”
With three recruits signed for next year, at least one of them hasn’t changed her mind.
Georgia Stirton, a 5-8 guard from Australia, said she will honor her commitment to transfer in from North Idaho College.
“When it all happened, it was a bit of a shock,” Stirton said. “I didn’t expect that he would be leaving anytime soon. But either way, I’m going to be playing for a great school.”
Building programs has been Graves’ trademark, Sollars said.
Sollars discovered Graves when he was coaching at Big Bend Community College and Sollars hired him based on how he had turned that program around in just a couple of years.
Graves worked as an assistant at Portland from 1994-1997 before becoming the head coach at Saint Mary’s, where he twice led the Gaels to the postseason. He then came to GU in 2000 and his first team went 5-23.
But four years later, Gonzaga went 28-4 and won the first WCC championship in what would become a decade of domination. During those 14 years, both men spoke every few days.
“Gonzaga has been a great place for him. Everywhere he has gone he has done a great job of building the program into something better than what it was,” Sollars said. “I’m sure he’ll do that at Oregon.”
Graves admitted that he questioned whether he could do any more at Gonzaga, which twice advanced to the Sweet 16 and once to the Elite Eight.
“I was at a crossroads. Professionally, there are certain things you want to do,” he said. “We’ve had so much success. But is this the ceiling? Is this as high as we can get? I was questioning myself. Quite frankly, the Oregon job was the only place in this conference that I wanted to coach.”
Oregon did not renew the contract of Paul Westhead and the 51-year-old Graves jumped after discussing it with his wife, Mary, and three sons.
Graves confirmed that working conditions had nothing to do with the move.
“I hope people understand,” Graves said. “I was just ready for a new challenge. I hope they appreciate what we built from scratch. Now it’s a Top 25 power. Hopefully, that’s what they will remember.”