E.A. Sports Today

Heading to Huntsville

Former Sacred Heart basketball coach Graves approved to be head coach at Mae Jemison

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today
It didn’t take long for Ralph Graves to land another quality coaching job, not that he was in a rush to get back.
The architect of one of the state’s biggest small-school basketball dynasties, Graves was approved Thursday by the Huntsville City Schools board to be the head basketball coach at Mae Jemison. He replaces Howard Pride, the 1993 Alabama Mr. Basketball who left for a job in Tennessee, and will be the Jaguars’ third head coach in four years.
Graves, 35, just completed his ninth season as Sacred Heart’s head coach, but in mid-May didn’t have his contract renewed as the school changed the design of its curriculum and suspended varsity athletics.
He planned to use the break to recharge and prepare for the birth of his second child, then the Jaguars came knocking — actually, again. He interviewed for the job on his wife’s birthday, May 27.

“I didn’t have any intention coming back that quick to coach,” he said, “but once Mae Jemison reached out to me it was kind of like maybe I need to take a look into this because they actually offered me the job there a few years ago and I had to decline because of family reasons and things like that.
“When it happened again I was like maybe this is something God is trying to tell me I might need to look into. When I reached back to them and they found out I was interested, it was like maybe this could be pretty good fit for us.

“I’m excited about it. It’ll be different, but it’s always comfortable when you’re around your kids. When you’re around your players and your coaches and you’re in the gym, I missed that a little bit. I’m glad to be back in that.”

Graves said coaching at Sacred Heart had been stressful as the private school playing in a public school league, but he still directed the Cardinals to unprecedented success. At Mae Jemison, he’s going to a program with high-level facilities, a rich tradition and a community where they consistently play a good brand of basketball.
The Jaguars, once coached by another Anniston legend, Jack Doss, have bounced between Class 5A and 6A since its inception from the merger of J.O. Johnson and Butler high schools. They will be back in 5A for this current round of reclassification and return a solid core of players to compete in it.
In time, he’d like build on his coaching relationships in this part of the state to schedule sure-to-be-appealing matchups with the likes of Gadsden City and Anniston. 
“The big appeal with Mae Jemison is they have a tradition of having really good basketball, not only there but Huntsville to me has always seemed to be the place that played the best brand of basketball in the state,” Graves said. “Not only that, they have the resources there to have success.
“They have one of the state-of-the-art facilities there, a practice facility, weight rooms, things like that and those are things we didn’t have at the school I just left but we made it work somehow. Now we have those resources and now it’s just a matter of putting everything in place and trying to get it done.
“Also, it’s a public school. We don’t have to deal with the private thing any more or all that stuff. Now, I’m at the public school and it’s a free school and if the kids come they’re not judged about if they go to school there or anything like that like they were at the last school when I was around here. I think Huntsville is a very progressive place and I think looking at it 15-20 years from now if Huntsville’s going to be our home is that what’s best for my family and my children and the answer is probably yes.”

Graves won more than 200 games at Sacred Heart. His teams put together a string of six straight Final Four appearances, five straight appearances in Class 1A and 2A state championship games and won four straight state titles. They played in six Calhoun County Tournament title games and won two.

The school’s size classifies as Class 1A, but the basketball programs were moved into Class 2A in the previous realignment cycle due to the AHSAA’s competitive balance formula for private schools.
Despite its size, the Cardinals played a schedule that regularly featured some of the largest schools in the state; they even beat a few of them. Throughout the Cardinals’ championship run rivals lobbed charges of recruiting and other chicanery at the program, none of which were proved by state officials.
Three of their most celebrated players — D.J. Heath, Diante Wood and Kevion Nolan — the anchors of that state championship run, all had their jerseys retired and all signed to play Division I basketball. Another celebrated player, Jayden Stone, played for Sacred Heart as a junior, transferred to a prep school in Kansas following the season and eventually signed to play at Grand Canyon University in the Division I Western Athletic Conference. 
Graves will take the same standards that built the Cardinals into a juggernaut with him to Huntsville. And he’ll accept no less of an effort from his players in return.
“That’s the standard I’m going to set and if you’re not going to go by that standard you’re not going to play here,” he said. “We have a job to do and my job is to basically develop those boys into young men. They want to win, they have an expectation at Mae Jemison to win and I have an expectation to win also. We’re not going to drop our expectations and our standards so if the Lab is what it is and that’s where we’ve got to go to go to work that’s what we’re going to do.”

Ralph Graves directs his Sacred Heart basketball team during one of its games at Jacksonville State. (File photo by B.J. Franklin)

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