By Rob Moseley
It was, Kelly Graves told an assembly of Oregon athletes, officials, fans and media, the right opportunity at the right time.
On Tuesday, Graves was introduced as the Ducks’ new women’s basketball coach, one day after formally accepting the job. Following 14 years in which he built Gonzaga from a winless WCC doormat into the conference’s perennial power, Graves was taking a step up to the Pac-12.
Graves, 51, was moving back to the state where two sons were born during his stint as a University of Portland assistant, to the state where his wife was raised. The timing seemed almost too good to be true.
“Where I was professionally, and personally in my feelings, and the opening of this job – I think it was fate,” Graves said from a podium at Matthew Knight Arena on Tuesday.
For a program seeking a return to its glory days, and a coach looking for the next challenge in a place that felt like home, it seemed that the stars had aligned. Getting there, however, involved a frantic few weeks, as UO administrators moved on from the Paul Westhead era, scoured the country for the best possible replacement, then went about securing a deal after honing in on Graves.
Here’s how it all came together.
Already coming off three losing seasons, the UO women spent the final few weeks of the 2013-14 season fighting just to finish .500. Westhead was in the final year of his contract. UO athletic director Rob Mullens and senior women’s administrator Lisa Peterson would need to make a decision about his future.
Despite the best efforts of honorable mention all-American Jillian Alleyne and company, a late five-game losing streak seemed to doom the Ducks to another losing campaign. Privately, Mullens and Peterson had decided that not renewing Westhead’s deal, and taking Oregon women’s basketball in a new direction, was the best course of action.
Then, the UO women upset No. 20 Arizona State to open the final weekend of the regular season, and completed the sweep by beating Arizona two days later. Regardless of what happened the following week at the Pac-12 Tournament – after which administrators planned to make public the coaching change – Oregon was alive for a WNIT bid.
That meant that, though a decision to move on had been made, a coaching search couldn’t begin for at least two more weeks.
“Our number one priority was to make every effort to secure a postseason opportunity for the student-athletes, because they earned that right,” Mullens said. “So that put us behind the eight ball with people we were going to be competing against in the marketplace.”
In the days immediately after the Arizona game, a twist: Westhead wanted to know his fate. And when informed of the decision not to renew his contract, he preferred to make the news public immediately.
Typically in that case, Peterson would have met with the team, to offer emotional support at such a trying time, and inform them of how the ensuing job search would unfold. But given that the Ducks had a matchup with Washington State in the conference tournament coming up, and likely a WNIT appearance, administration opted to delay that meeting.
“We just didn’t feel comfortable talking about what came next, because they were still playing,” Mullens said. “We wanted their focus to be on the court.”
On March 6, the Ducks lost to the Cougars in Seattle. They’d have to wait another 10 days to learn of their WNIT fate, an agonizing period for everyone involved. Arkansas dismissed its coach on March 7, and Kansas State did so a day later; with their seasons complete, each could dive headlong into their searches.
Out of respect for Westhead and his players, Mullens and Peterson weren’t yet reaching out to potential replacements. But they were feverishly working the phone lines and texting with contacts around the country. Those included officials with various conferences and athletic departments, and also former UO volleyball player Lauren Westendorf, Nike’s manager of women’s college basketball.
The UO officials wanted to identify any head coaches who might be looking to make a change, and up-and-coming assistants perhaps ready to take over a program. In almost every conversation, the same name was mentioned.
“Everyone would say, ‘Well, the first choice would obviously be Kelly Graves,’” Peterson recalled. “’But he’s never moving, you’ll never get him. So then you should look at …’”
On March 17, the WNIT field was announced. Oregon would play a home game against Pacific three days later. Graves’ Bulldogs, meanwhile, had been selected for the NCAA Tournament, their sixth straight appearance. They were awarded a No. 6 seed, the highest in school history.
The Ducks beat the Tigers, putting off the formal start to Oregon’s coaching search yet again. Along with doing their own due diligence, UO administrators were also fielding interest in the job, often unsolicited.
“It’s coming from all angles, all the time,” Mullens said.
But on March 23, the Zags were upset in their NCAA opener by James Madison. A day later, Oregon’s season came to an end against Washington. Things were about to get very serious.
The loss to Washington was on a Monday. Come Tuesday – three weeks to the day after it was announced Westhead wouldn't return – Mullens contacted four different schools for permission to speak with coaches about the Oregon job; Peterson would later do so regarding two other candidates.
Graves, meanwhile, was digesting the loss in the NCAA Tournament, and contemplating his own future.
“We’ve won 10 championships in a row,” he would relate at his introductory press conference. “Over the last 10 years in conference play, we’re 105-12. I need a new challenge.”
Also that Tuesday, Peterson finally met with the women’s basketball team’s leaders. In her notebook, she wrote down the characteristics they said they wanted in their new head coach. Someone who preached discipline and structure. Someone who played uptempo but under control, with an emphasis on defense. Someone with energy and enthusiasm, who would recruit talented players and foster a family atmosphere.
Over the course of the next few days, Mullens, Peterson and the rest of the UO search committee identified three finalists to be interviewed a week later at the Final Four in Nashville. Official university procedures were undertaken, including background checks and degree verification.
The trio of candidates was diverse along ethnic and gender lines. It included Graves.
On April 1, a Tuesday, Peterson flew to Nashville to prepare for the three interviews. Mullens arrived a day later, and the interview process began that night.
“We had three outstanding interviews, outstanding interviews,” Mullens said. “We would have been comfortable with any of the three leading our program.”
On Thursday, April 3, Graves arrived in Nashville after a 17-hour return trip from Europe, where he had been recruiting. He took about 20 minutes to freshen up, apologized to Mullens and Peterson for his golf shirt and jeans, then spent the next three hours interviewing for the Oregon job.
After those 180 minutes, Mullens and Peterson knew in which direction they wanted to take their search.
“He is candidate A,” Mullens recalled. “His experience as a head coach came through loud and clear. It was easy to see how he had built a championship culture.”
Given how well the conversation had gone, Mullens told Graves, it was probably time to speak with his wife, Mary, about how serious they were about moving on from Gonzaga. Mary was born in Spokane, but she had been raised in Portland. The couple bought their first house together in Oregon, and two of their three sons had been born here.
“There was only one position in this conference I would have left for,” said Graves, who was pursued by another Pac-12 school in 2011. “And it was Oregon.”
Mullens and Peterson endured a hellish travel day back from Nashville that Friday, April 4. During a delay in Denver, Peterson and Graves connected over the phone. Graves wanted to visit campus. Peterson was thrilled to oblige – and hopeful it would be understood by both sides as the last formal step before an agreement was reached.
The Ducks knew they were in for a fight in that regard. Gonzaga made a 10-year commitment to Graves when he turned down that previous Pac-12 overture in 2011, and the Zags figured to renegotiate if necessary.
“That’s a very passionate women’s basketball community,” Mullens had been told by one contact during the pursuit of Graves. “Their president is into it. Good luck.”
With the potential for a Graves visit to Eugene at hand, the two sides negotiated a few contract points Saturday. That night, the trip was booked.
On Sunday, Graves visited the Jaqua Center and met with Oregon’s academic support staff. Then he went down the block to Matthew Knight Arena – which was hosting a monster trucks show that afternoon – and met with UO players.
After the meeting, Peterson said, “I got a zillion text messages from them. They were really excited – ‘do whatever you have to do to get him here.’”
There were two possible departure flights for Graves on Sunday evening. One was to Palm Springs, where his family was vacationing. The other was to Spokane. When he told UO officials he’d be leaving on the latter, it was a good sign: If Graves was going to leave Gonzaga for Oregon, he'd want to inform his former players and administration in person.
Throughout the weekend, Mullens, Peterson and the search committee continued following up with the other two finalists, in case a deal with Graves couldn’t be reached. There was cautious optimism Sunday evening they’d get their man, but several key hurdles remained – including what Mullens knew would be the gut-wrenching process for Graves of telling his Gonzaga players he’d be leaving.
On Monday of this week, Graves met with Zags officials, and scheduled a meeting with his players. It was an anxious few hours for Mullens, Peterson and company, particularly after the player meeting was pushed back a few hours. There was more paperwork to do from an HR perspective, but none of it would matter unless the Ducks got final word that Graves was ready to become their next women’s basketball coach.
And then, at midday Monday, a text message arrived over Peterson’s cell phone. It was a photo of Graves, in a yellow polo shirt bearing an Oregon logo. The two-word caption got right to the point – “I’m in.”
The message’s arrival was heralded by more than the simple beep and buzz of a cell phone. “Oh, I think everybody heard me,” Peterson said. “I screamed.”
The Ducks had their coach.
A signed contract arrived around 4:30 p.m., shortly before Graves finally met with his players at Gonzaga. After learning the meeting had taken place, the athletic department quickly circulated news of what one national writer said would be “a huge coup,” if Oregon were able to pull it off.
Once the decision was made, Mullens went back to several key contacts he connected with during the search.
“Every single person that I called who was advocating for someone else said, ‘Oh yeah, great hire, you guys are going to do great things,’” Mullens said. “And that’s not always the way it works.”
Come Tuesday, Graves was introduced as Oregon’s new coach. At his press conference, he demonstrated why he is so universally respected, showing off a self-effacing wit, an ability to connect with a large audience, and a commitment to building a championship culture.
He said he likes to push the tempo, “but there will be an emphasis on defense.” He told fans that practices would be open to the public and that he’d never turn down an offer to speak in public, saying that “I really look forward to having everyone on board with us and getting this going.”
Graves acknowledged Mullens’ desire to compete for conference championships, noting that Gonzaga has played several recent home-and-home series with Stanford, and thus that “I know what the standard is, and I know what we have to do to reach that.” He was asked about all the talented in-state recruits who have signed elsewhere in recent years, and said “this is the flagship university. Kids locally want to stay here if there’s a reason to. So we’re going to give them a reason to.”
“From the time I first got into coaching, this was a dream,” Graves said. “I’m an Oregon guy. Oregon is part of who I am.”
That he was able to take his dream job seemed a stroke of fate. That, and a few harrowing weeks of work by UO administration.