Oh My! Oregon WBB: It Couldn’t Get Any Worse?

Don Marsh Editorials

Well, now we have NO Chance…or Grace, or Kennedy or Priscilla. (My granddaughter gets credit for that opening NO Chance line.) Just when I was getting ready to write a piece that I was going to headline, “In Defense of Coach Graves,” another mass exodus of players hits. For those of you who have read any of my three-part series on the state of women’s basketball, it might surprise you that I would be writing a piece in defense of Coach Kelly Graves.

I will explain that in a moment, as even Mr. FishDuck, when pulled away from his fun at https://sportbet.one was startled by my reasonable rationale below…

It is getting increasingly difficult to suggest there isn’t something going on inside the Oregon Women’s Basketball program. There is no denying that Coach Graves has recruited talented players to the program over the years. Obviously, one of, if not the storyline here is, the inability of the program to retain those same players. It will be interesting to hear what Coach Graves has to say about all of this, if indeed he speaks to the issue publicly.

I have the good fortune to be able to send my pieces off for editorial review to a childhood friend who still resides back in the Hawkeye state. Before his recent retirement, this individual’s career was in journalism as a sports editor for a newspaper in a mid-size town in Iowa, and wrote a column five-days a week. This individual has true writer’s chops, as the phrase goes, as opposed to a wannabe writer like me.

My friend’s feedback on my last piece was that it was a bit of a hit-job not untypical of your standard knee-jerk fan-in-stand rant. He phrased it a bit kindlier than that. Here is the exact quote…

Don: So, a lot of good players came and then transferred. A lot of smoke, but what’s the fire? Is there a common denominator? Did they go somewhere to play more, for a different style of play? Was the coaching too hard (and counter to Graves’ good-guy, Papa Bear image?) Has this forced Oregon to rethink how it recruits, and whom it recruits? (Because obviously Graves recognized talent, just couldn’t hold it, and maybe the superstar’s chemistry became toxic?) What was the Mark Campbell factor?

Grace VanSlooten and Chance Gray are no longer Ducks. (Screenshot from GoDucks.com Video)

As a fan in the stands, you’re not really in position to answer those, but those are the questions raised. Not sure Graves would have a response, but he probably deserves the chance

Not hard to spot the difference between a real writer’s take and mine. So, though it has gotten a bit tougher given the recent events, let me try to take a more dispassionate perspective.

Clearly Coach Graves can coach. He was an assistant coach for the St Mary’s Gaels when it appears there was a bit of a players’ revolt against then head coach Terri Rubenstein following the 1996 season. Graves became head coach in 1997 and turned a mediocre program into an immediate winner and did that for three seasons before moving on to Gonzaga where he not only turned that program around, but he also made the Zags a player on the national stage.

Graves coached the Zags for fourteen years and ended up with a winning percentage of nearly .700. (Interesting side note here. Graves assistant at the time was Lisa Fortier and she became the next head coach, and her current winning percentage is .810. She also was the recruiting coordinator under Graves and is given credit for mentoring Courtney Vandersloot.)

Graves took over at Oregon in 2014 and resuscitated the program when it was on life-support following the Paul Westhead debacle. Graves not only brought the program back to life, the Lady Ducks, led by Sabrina, Ruthie, Satu et al were on their way to a possible/probable national title until the pandemic struck in 2019-2020.

It is worth nothing that at least three assistants under Graves have gone on to become successful head coaches. There is already mentioned Lisa Fortier who succeeded Graves at Gonzaga. There is J.R. Payne who has turned around the Colorado program. And of course, there is Mark Campbell who immediately turned Sacramento State into a winner and looks to be doing the same at TCU.

Graves had a ton of success at Gonzaga. (Screenshot from Gonzaga Bulldogs Athletic Dept. Video)

As stated above, it’s clear Coach Graves can identify and recruit talent. Yes, I know. Some give credit to Mark Campbell for some of the recruiting success, but Graves, as the head coach, must get the credit in the end. The obvious elephant on the hardwood floor here is that, while Graves clearly was able to bring in talented players, he has been unable to keep them in the fold.

My journalistic friend back in Iowa raises legitimate reasons on why folks may have decided to leave. Maybe too many talented players and not enough playing time to go around. Maybe some players just wanted to play closer to home. Maybe Graves had the bad luck to not have a true leader emerge. Maybe the style of play didn’t work for some folks. A lot more maybes we could list here.

It had to have been a gut-punch to miss out on the opportunity to play for a national championship in the 2019-2020 season. Closer to the end of his coaching career than the beginning, Graves must have pondered if he would get another chance at grabbing that golden ring.

In Graves’ defense, it’s fair to acknowledge that the world Coach Graves lived in and succeeded in for many years has changed dramatically. Graves has expressed his concerns about how much things have changed with the arrival of the transfer portal and the freedom/choices that provides for student-athletes. My hunch is that is much easier for a younger person like Coach Dan Lanning to adapt and adjust to this new world than perhaps someone the age of Coach Kelly who, as of this writing, is 61.

Graves has been in coaching since 1988 and has been a head coach since 1996. That’s a long time to be doing anything. Considering his track record over the longer term–does he deserve more time to turn it around?

Don Marsh
Eugene, Oregon
Top Screenshot from GoDucks.com Video

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