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Former Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves returns to Spokane with an Oregon Ducks team built to win

Gonzaga head coach, Kelly Graves, and his star player, Courtney Vandersloot, leave the court arm in arm after defeating Louisville 76-69, March 25, 2011, in the Spokane Arena. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach, Kelly Graves, and his star player, Courtney Vandersloot, leave the court arm in arm after defeating Louisville 76-69, March 25, 2011, in the Spokane Arena. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Expect to see a few “Welcome back, Kelly Graves” signs this weekend at the Spokane Arena.

Nice thought, but he never really left.

Earlier this week, as Graves pondered restaurant choices for his Oregon women’s basketball team, you’d think he was still commuting to Eugene from the South Hill.

“Maybe Tomato Street at RiverPark Square,” he said. “Do you think can we get a big group into the Onion?”

That’s a fair question, because the Duck women have quite a following these days. An Elite Eight team last year, Oregon is looking for even more this weekend in Spokane, starting with Saturday’s NCAA Sweet 16 game against Central Michigan.

Credit Graves, who has rebuilt Oregon from the ground up – the same way he did at Gonzaga during 14 seasons.

Within four years, Graves turned GU into a regional power. National notice came at the Arena, where the Zags won some of their biggest NCAA Tournament games and Graves drew the attention of bigger schools.

He resisted until signing on with Oregon in 2014. Four years later, Graves hopes GU fans understand.

“In life there are times when you’re ready for something else,” Graves said. “I had other opportunities. Oregon was the only place I would have left for, or I would have been a Zag for life.”

Then he lobbied for their support.

“I hope some Zag fans in Spokane become Duck fans this weekend,” Graves posted on Twitter this week. “I loved my time with Gonzaga and we built a great program there. I don’t know if they will boo me or cheer me, but I hope they cheer for the Ducks.”

And why not? Eight hours apart, the schools seem much closer. Gonzaga men’s coach Mark Few is an Oregon grad, and almost was lured back in 2009.

Meanwhile Graves was raising a family on the South Hill and building a winning program at Gonzaga. After taking Saint Mary’s to the NCAAs in 1999, he was hired at GU by athletic director Mike Roth.

Dining at Spencer’s Steakhouse in downtown Spokane, Roth gave his pitch: “We want our women’s team to be as good as our men’s team.”

Graves bought into the vision, then tried to look past the wreckage: GU won a combined 13 West Coast Conference games over the previous half-decade.

“When I first got there, it was a broken program,” said Graves. His first team, in 2000-1, went 5-23, leaving even the self-confident Graves with a few doubts.

“At times you question yourself as a coach, and you ask yourself, ‘Did I make the right move?’ ” Graves said.

Three years later the Zags were in the NIT; in 2007, GU was in the NCAAs for the first time.

“You take your lumps, but once we got it rolling, it was a machine,” said Graves.

Graves and his staff hit their stride in the mid-2000s by signing future all-WCC performers Stephanie Hawk, Jami Schaefer and Heather Bowman.

The machine was even better than the sum of its parts, partly because of Graves’ outsized persona.

“There was a certain aura about it,” recalls Lisa Fortier, his longtime assistant and now the head coach at GU. “That’s something that Kelly said, that we need to come in with a little swagger.”

“Some people shy away from it, but he embraces it,” Fortier said.

In turn, the GU community embraced the team. From a few hundred in the Martin Center, crowds grew into several thousand at the new McCarthey Athletic Center.

By the fall of 2008, Graves had the ultimate Zag in All-American point guard Courtney Vandersloot.

“We had great players before and after, but she was the one that made that crossover, where we were getting not just fans of women’s basketball but fans of that game,” Graves said. “And that’s when we took off.”

But Graves didn’t, despite offers from bigger schools, notably Washington. The Zags made a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010; the next year they won 31 games and a spot in the Elite Eight with Vandersloot, Kayla Standish and Katelan Redmon.

As the community embraced Graves, he repaid the favor. Every Halloween, he and his family created the best haunted house this side of Scarywood out of his three-car garage.

Graves carried that spooky tradition to Eugene, but returns to Spokane for other rituals: weekends at the lake, Hoopfest and this year the NCAAs.

Saturday’s game against Central Michigan will be Graves’ first at the Arena since he coached the Zags, and he wants their support.

Perhaps a few signs wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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