E.A. Sports Today

Graves retiring from coaching

UPDATED Former Sacred Heart coach stepping away after one season at Mae Jemison, citing time demands on growing family

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

When former Sacred Heart basketball coach Ralph Graves took the head coaching job at Mae Jemison this past summer he saw it as an offer he couldn’t refuse. He was excited to start a new challenge when the local one closed to him.

Then life intervened.

Graves, 35, confirmed to East Alabama Sports Today Tuesday night he is retiring from coaching after one season at Mae Jemison, citing the time demands for building a championship program on his growing family. And for him, now, it’s family first.

He made the original announcement during a “Chop It Up Barbershop Talk” YouTube podcast taped in Anniston last week. He was joined on the hour-long podcast by his former Sacred Heart assistants Mook Hutchinson and Brandon Foster. The other participants, including the hosts, were all former Anniston teammates and classmates.

“It’s true; not coming back to coaching though,” Graves told East Alabama Sports Today Tuesday night. “The price isn’t worth it any more. Time is something I’m not willing to give up any more. Family dynamic has changed tremendously and I have to make some tough decisions for us.”

Graves and his wife welcomed the birth of their second child, Jackson, in August, a few weeks after he was officially hired at Jemison. A month and a half into it he gave up his teaching duties and was driving back and forth from Anniston to fulfill his coaching commitment. The long commutes were actually a cathartic experience, and it was a conversation he had with his first-born that led him to reassess his situation.

They were sitting together on the couch when young John asked his dad if he had had a good day. Graves wanted to be reassuring to the boy, but deep down felt badly about not giving him a truthful answer.

“What people didn’t understand in the Mae Jemison situation (is) it was an opportunity I thought I couldn’t pass up,” Graves said. “I didn’t want to leave – the job is great, it’s actually in good hands; next year’s team is going to be state championship quality – but it was one of those things I’ve got to do something for me.

“I sat down and looked at how much time it takes to be where I want us (as a program) to be. In order for us to get to the level that we need to be at as a basketball program, how much time, how much effort, how much zeal, how much of all of that did I have to have in order to get it to that level.

“There’s a high demand on winning, not only put on by everybody else, but myself also. When I look at that I say am I willing to pay that price, especially when I already know what that price is. At the sacrifice of my family and my peace and my sanity it’s not worth it.”

In nine seasons at Sacred Heart, Graves built a small-school dynasty, winning more than 200 games. His teams put together six straight Final Four appearances, five straight appearances in Class 1A and 2A state championship games and four straight state titles. They played in six Calhoun County Tournament title games and won two.

But in May the school changed the design of its curriculum and suspended varsity athletics for the immediate future.

Graves said he’s at peace with his decision. He wouldn’t say what’s next for him professionally but said “I’ve got some plans up my sleeve” that he wasn’t prepared to reveal. It wouldn’t be returning to Sacred Heart if the school brought back athletics and it sounded as if whatever Graves went into would be something he could have control over.

“I think one of the toughest things I had to juggle with is when I first became a head coach I didn’t have a wife, I didn’t have children, so when I made the decision I just jumped into it,” Graves said, noting in 15 years as a coach he’s never had a vacation. “This time here I think I made the decision to go to Huntsville but I wasn’t aware I was also making the decision for my wife and also for my children because I’ve never done this before.

“Now the decisions I’m making I’m making for all of us and I wasn’t used to that.”

Graves’ first team at Mae Jemison got off to a slow start this past season, but eventually played (and lost to) loaded area rival and eventual state champion Lee in the Class 5A Northwest Regional championship game.

As an Anniston alum and part of its two previous state championship teams, he was especially pleased to see the Bulldogs win the Class 4A state title this year. He was in the Bill Harris Arena to see it.

Two of Anniston’s players he had at Sacred Heart and the parents of many others he went to school with. He remembers when the Bulldogs’ two stars, Antonio Kite and Final Four MVP Malcolm Carlisle, were born.

“They kind of helped me make the decision a little bit,” Graves said. “I actually enjoyed just sitting there watching someone else be successful. I knew all the players and I know coach (Torry) Brown because he’s an Anniston alum also. I’m listening to the fans and I’m like I really do hope they win it and they actually won it.

“You get to see the joy on those kids’ faces, the fans’ faces, the coaches, the players. When you’ve won like that before you want other people to feel that, too, because it’s a feeling that you really can’t explain. Because I know the cost and the price you have to pay in order to win at that level, you’ve just got to take your hat off to those guys and be happy for them.”

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