by Rob Moseley
Over the weekend, word began to circulate in the women's basketball coaching community that Kelly Graves was interviewing at Oregon. Upon learning of the chatter, a writer for Sports Illustrated declared the possible hiring of Graves "a huge coup" for the Ducks.
On Monday, that potential "huge coup" became reality. Graves, who took Gonzaga to the last six NCAA Tournaments and reached the Sweet Sixteen three straight years from 2010-12, has agreed to a six-year contract to become the seventh head coach in UO women's basketball history.
The hiring figures to energize a program and fan base itching to contend for conference championships and tournament berths of their own. Graves was one of the hottest commodities on the coaching market in recent years, but also enjoyed the security of a 10-year contract with Gonzaga after spurning an overture by another Pac-12 school in 2011.
"When we started this process and began talking to people about who the right coach was, everyone would say, 'Kelly Graves' — and then they'd say, 'But you're never going to get him,'" said Lisa Peterson, a UO senior associate athletic director and the department's senior women's administrator, who chaired the search committee charged with replacing departed head coach Paul Westhead.
"He was the first person on the committee's radar, just because of all the success he's had."
Graves, 51, went 317-176 in 14 years at Gonzaga, making seven NCAA Tournaments overall and winning eight games in those appearances. The Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight in 2011, and they were a No. 6 seed this past season, the highest in school history.
"Kelly Graves is one of the best coaches in women's basketball and we are thrilled to have him lead our program,” UO director of athletics Rob Mullens said. “Beyond what his teams have accomplished on the court, Kelly is a dynamic personality who will engage and energize our fan base.
“His commitment to the student-athlete experience and building a championship culture were the perfect fit for the University of Oregon. We are honored to have Kelly, his wife, Mary, and their sons, Maxwell, Jackson and William, join the Oregon athletic family and propel our women's basketball program to new heights."
Gonzaga has attracted record crowds during Graves' tenure, finishing in the top 20 nationally for average attendance in each of the last three years.
The Bulldogs played before an average of 5,426 fans at home this past season, the sorts of crowds that flocked to UO women's games during the program's most successful years. Oregon’s average attendance was 5,852 in 1999-2000, the seventh season in an eight-year run of NCAA Tournament participation by the Ducks.
"We believe we have all the pieces — we have the infrastructure, we have an amazing facility, we have the financial support and we have a loyal group of fans eager to support a successful program," Peterson said. "We have all the things you need to win championships. Now, we have the head coach to lead us there."
Peterson cited Graves' track record of recruiting top talent – particularly around the Northwest – and developing players without sacrificing character as among the new UO coach's top attributes.
"He's passed on some talented kids because of character concerns, and I think that says a lot about the culture he wants to build, the kind of family atmosphere he wants to foster," Peterson said. "The biggest thing was someone who valued the student-athlete experience, someone who can get the right kids but then also get them to play together as a collective team."
The six-year deal, Peterson said, signifies a commitment from both Graves and the Ducks to build the foundation for a perennially successful program.
The Ducks are coming off a 16-16 season in which sophomore forward Jillian Alleyne was named honorable mention All-American and guard Chrishae Rowe set a school freshman scoring record. But the program has just one winning record in the last seven years, and last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2005.
Graves, a Utah native who graduated from New Mexico, worked at a community college in Washington and as a University of Portland assistant before moving to Saint Mary's, where he became head coach in 1997-98. He took the Gaels to one NCAA Tournament before taking on a rebuilding project at Gonzaga in 2000.
The Bulldogs went 5-23 overall and 0-14 in the WCC in their first season under Graves. But within four seasons, Gonzaga was 14-0 in conference play, the first of 10 straight WCC championships Graves won over his final decade in Spokane.
At Oregon, administrators believe the resources are in place for a similar turnaround. And that they've hired the coach to lead it.