Kelly Graves | Rise to the Top: A Couch’s Journey on Rebuilding the Ducks Wings


All right. Thanks. I mean, can we get a better picture? Geez, I haven’t shaved in like a
week and I look like I’m yelling at Sabrina over something. All right. She probably earned it.
But first of all, I just want to say it’s an honor to be here with you. It truly is. And I think any
time you have a roomful of ducks, that’s pretty special. And I would love to talk in front of a
group like this at all times. The energy in the room is really good. Which is also great. But you
guys, I just want you to know that I am honored each and every day. I feel privileged to be able to be the coach of the, you know, women’s
basketball team University of Oregon. I am really one blessed man. There’s just no question about it. I love
my team. You know, each and every day I can’t wait to get up and go to work
because it’s so much fun. And I just want you to know, as alumns and duck fans here that the team
that I coach represents you very well, very well. If you had a chance to you know, I know a lot of you have seen them
play in person. OK. And you know what great, you know, basketball players they are. But I
just want you to know, if you had a chance to just spend a few minutes with them and talk to
them, I think you would be equally, if not more impressed with who they are as people. And so I tell people all the time that, you know, I get to work with
the best and the brightest that this generation has to offer. And I truly feel that way. And, you know, in our I guess it’s been four
and a half years since, you know, since I took the job here at University of Oregon. We’ve been
able to build something very special very quickly. So, you know, I think everybody knows how we
did last year. We got to the final four. And I think there’s an. Yeah. OK. All right. Yeah. Thank the coach. I didn’t score a single basket and I haven’t
gotten a single rebound. I do get some technical fouls from time to time, but only because
they’re well deserved. And then sometimes I can’t hold my tongue. But you guys, this has it. We have a chance this year to have one of those memorable seasons. And I know the expectations are great externally. You know, I know what
people are expecting. I just want you know, it’s really hard. It’s really hard. And so I hear
people all the time say, you know, coach, I got my tickets to New Orleans, which is where the final
four is this year. And I say, well, well, that’s great. You bought years. We have to earn
ours. And so I just want you to know that that is, you know, something that we do think about.
We know we’re good enough to get there. But contrary to what you might think, because I’m
sure you’ve heard a lot of coaches who talk about goal setting and things like that, you know,
we do not have a goal of winning a national championship. We do not have a goal of winning our third straight PAC 12
championship. You know what our goal is? OK. To have a great practice. All right, to
work hard and get better each and every day. We know what we’re capable of doing, but sometimes we put these goals
out there and we think that, you know, something that’s overlying over the entire program and
it’s just a lot of pressure. And I think needless pressure. What I love about coaching and what I
know my players love about playing in our program is that it’s a journey, it’s a process.
Each and every day’s different. We’re growing together. We’re having fun. We love being with each
other. And as we go on, you’ll hear me use the word love a lot. OK, but you guys, we do have a
phenomenal team. I want you to come down and see as many games as possible, okay, so
that we can realize really our potential and get back to that final four and this time
maybe win a national championship. But you guys, I have. You know, again, I travel with rock stars and
those that have been around my team, you know what I’m talking about. So last year, last spring, we
were in L.A., Sabrina and I at the John Wooden Award. So she won that John Wooden,
National Player of the Year. That’s like the Heisman for college basketball. And yeah, pretty cool. Pretty cool. Very cool and very well deserved. But, you know, after the party, there was a little after party. After
ceremony party. Right. And all the big timers were there. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. J., Karl
Malone, Jerry West, for you old timers out there, you know, kind of a
who’s who. And you know, and I think I’m okay and I’m kind of cool. So I go up and
introduce myself and they like brushed me off so fast. Right. But then I say, I’m Sabrina’s
coach and they go, Coach, great to meet you! Gosh, I love your team! You work with
Sabrina? So now that’s what I’ve become, Sabrina’s coach. OK. Sabrina’s
coach. But that’s an honor. Believe me, it’s an honor. And I’m going to talk a
little bit about her tonight. But you guys, I’m not going to give kind of a laundry list of what we
know about sports and what it teaches us. To me, the most important part about sports, about athletics, is
belonging. OK. Belonging. Just being part of something that’s bigger than oneself.
OK. And I think that’s what, you know, we need a lot more of in this world. But, you know,
we’re part of a group, part of a family. We’re working together each day to accomplish something.
OK. To find our own purpose within a team context, OK, and that’s such a
powerful thing. And I think sometimes I truly don’t think that we can truly be a whole
person until we become part of something that’s just bigger than us. OK. Each one of our
players, you guys, has value. They have value. And we do not determine what that value is by their
playing time. OK, because each individual person is important. JazzArt. Right. Was it
arts? JazzArts. OK. That beautiful ensemble. OK. I liken our team to a symphony, to a band
all the time. We’re making beautiful music. And if you watch us play, you know that’s
the case. We’re the best offensive team in the country hands down by every metric
that the NCAA keeps. Just to give you an example, our true shooting percentage last year, our true shooting percentage, OK, so it’s an analytic, we’re not going
to deal with that right now, was 57.6 percent, number one in the
nation. The Golden State Warriors were number one in the NBA, 57.4 percent. So
we’re a better shooting team than the Warriors. Right. So it’s like making
beautiful music and every player has a role in it. It’s just like the band that we saw up here before. You take one of
those instruments away and it’s not the same. It doesn’t sound the same. You need everything to
make the team whole to make the band sound just right. When Lindsey Buckingham left my
favorite band, Fleetwood Mac, for a decade, they still made music. It just wasn’t very damn good. OK. They needed him and his guitar abilities. Right. So we like it that way. And I’ll give you a good example of a
young person, a young woman who just graduated this past spring named Oti Gildon. Oti Gildon
came to us four years ago. She was our highest-rated recruit that the University of Oregon had
ever signed. So Oti got there as a freshman. Shy, you know. She struggled in school.
It didn’t come easy to her. Played a little bit, played behind an all-American named Jillian
Alleyne that first year as a freshman. But, you know, we all thought, hey, she’s going to, you know, like they
all do, they get better and they improve and they find a more significant role on the floor. Well, that next year we signed Ruthy Hebard, Lydia Giomi, Sabrina
Ionescu and on and on and on, we had, you know, really the number one class in the country. And so Oti didn’t get to start. And Oti became a role player for the
next four years. OK. She didn’t leave. She didn’t go, “Because, well, I’m not playing much,
so I’m going to go somewhere else.” If you asked anybody on our team in the last three years when we went
to Elite Eight, Elite Eight, Final Four, who the heart and soul of our team was, they’d
all say Oti Gildon. OK. She made our team go. If we don’t have her, I’m telling you, who knows
what happens after that. But she accepted that role. OK. And what she did as she grew as a young person, you know, a young,
strong woman. She graduated from college and in four years at U of O. First in her
family to ever graduate. She inspired her mother. Now her mother has gone back to school to get
her degree. She is now realizing her dream. We Facetimed yesterday, she’s in
Portugal playing pro basketball, OK, and doing quite well. So this is a person that came in here and she blossomed as a young
person at the University of Oregon through basketball. And when you say that’s what I do. That’s why I do what I do as a
coach. It’s not about the wins. This my thirty third year of coaching coming up. OK. I’m far beyond.
Hey, you know, we won all this many games. To me, it’s about those kind of moments. OK, Oti Gildon. So four and a
half years ago, when I did get the job, the one thing we needed to do, you guys would change
the culture. OK. I’m not saying it was broken because there was there were very fine
young women in the program, but it wasn’t a championship level. OK, in attitude, in talent, in kind, everything that we did daily. OK.
The way we behaved. So we had to change that. First thing I did in our locker room, I had a
mural built or drawn or done or I don’t know how they do it. OK, but of
Mt. Hood. And I don’t know if there’s a river that runs the Mt. Hood, but I put a
river in my mural. OK. Going up to it, there was another little peak to the side. And on
the bottom I have one of my favorite sayings. OK. “A vision so powerful it has to become a reality.” So on that big wall-sized mural at the very top peak it said National
Champions. On one of the lower peaks, it put PAC 12 Champions. OK. I just left it there. We didn’t talk about it, but I just put it there. They saw it every
single day when they went into their locker room. The other piece of art I had done was, by the way, a beautiful piece by
a group here at Portland. They used part OHSU’s old basketball court. So it’s a beautiful wooden
court. OK, with the five core values that we believe in. OK, five core
values. Number one: Unity. OK. Unity. Two: passion. Integrity. Thankfulness.
Servanthood. Those are our five core values. If you talk to any one of my players,
they not only will tell you what those are, but they’ll tell you what how they affect them and what
they believe in and what that means to them. OK, so those aren’t really the values you would think that you would
hear from a coach, right? Normally a sports team, it’s toughness, it’s discipline. It’s hard
work. Those are our values. No servanthood. Thankfulness. Integrity. Unity.
Passion. So we’ll quickly talk about each one integrity, you guys. What we’ve
done is we’ve tried not to cut corners. We make mistakes like everybody. We try to own up to them. But right from the start, we have recruited championship character
people. They happen to be really good basketball players, but they’re
championship people. OK. And to me, that’s the most important. Knuckleheads never win for
you in the end. Ever. Knuckleheads. Just you can quote me on that. Knuckleheads never win the
big game. OK. So so we recruit integrity. We tried to do the right thing all the
time. I think our players really respect and they trust each other. I think that’s part of integrity. Secondly, all right. Let’s go with passion. That’s part of my MVP of
leadership. Passion, right? You got mission, vision, passion. You know, loving what you do. And if
you’ve seen us play, that’s the one compliment I get more than any. “You guys really look like you love each other and you play well
together. You can tell you have fun.” My team is very passionate and I say the same thing every year, about
five or six times. If you don’t love what you’re doing, do something else. You’re going to kick yourself 20 years down the road. This life is
short. Twenty years from now, when you say, well, I just stayed there because
I got a scholarship. No, you should stay there because you love your teammates and you’re
passionate about playing the game of basketball for the University of
Oregon. So passion is is something that’s just, again, vital for us. And I
think we recruit passionate people. All right. The next one is unity. We have a saying you don’t have to like each
other, but you got to love each other. All right. I have brothers and sisters, and every once in awhile, I get mad at em.
Right. And I don’t like em, but I still love him because they’re
family. And that’s how we try to treat each other. OK. Unity. We’re always
together. I think that’s just so critical. And in today’s society. Our kids nowadays, they got a lot of problems and a lot of pressures. The one thing about being on a team, you can’t fake it. If you have
some mental health issues, you can’t fake it. Your teammates are going to know and they’re going
to help you. That’s what they’re there for. OK, unity being part of each other,
building that relationship that lasts a lifetime. You know how many weddings I’ve been to? How many kids that have been
born to former players of mine? We’ve laid one to rest. But the last week of her life, she died from
cancer last summer. The last week of her life, her teammates gathered around here for that
last week. And they had so much fun. Just talking and relive and great times
because that in the end is what it’s all about. We forget how many games we win. But what you remember those great
times and that family that you built together. So unity, OK, Thankfulness. Thankfulness. Tell you a true story at the final four last year. Nike surprised our
players, as they did a couple of, I think there were three Nike teams at the final four with, you guys,
just a mountain of Nike, new Nike gear, specifically for the final four, including two brand new
pair shoes. And to see our players reaction, it was like Christmas Day. So I’m sitting there back like dads do at Christmas, right? We let the you know, the kids, they all enjoy it. We sit back there and
watch. Right. So I was sitting back there watching and there was a gentleman next to
me from Nike, one of the Nike executives. And I looked over and he had tears in his eyes. He’s crying. I asked, I said, “Why are you crying?” And he goes, “Kelly, this is why
we do what we do.” He says and not every team has this same reaction. And I was really proud of that, that we’ve taught our kids to be
appreciative. It’s so easy, it’s easy to feel entitled at the University of Oregon
because we get so much stuff. But they truly appreciated that moment and being there, and that made
me so happy. And then the last one, you guys, and I think perhaps the most
important, is servanthood. And that’s where I get the chance to talk about Sabrina a little bit. You see her on the exterior, you see her toughness and her skill level
and her championship competitive spirit. Something that you just can’t teach. That’s in you.
You can’t teach that. That’s how she’s driven and that’s who she is. But you guys, she has the most the softest side you’ll ever see. She’s very spiritual. OK. She’s a great teammate, very selfless in
everything that she does. If you listen to her press conferences after a game, she might have 35
points, 15 rebounds, 12 assists, another triple double. First thing that will come out of her mouth is, “My teammates played so
well tonight.” “Well, Sabrina, how? Tell us how you got those 35 points.” “Well, my teammates, they set me up. They knew I was hot. They set me
up.” “Well, you had 15 assists.” “My teammates were getting open, OK? They were making the baskets.” That is who she is to the core, you guys. And here is one thing that you’re the first people that will hear this. At Elite Eight game last year in Portland, 12000 people. Right. Going
crazy. We win the game. We’re going to the final four. We win the game. Everybody’s celebrating out on the court, you know, with family and
friends, and alums, and the cheerleaders, and the band, and everybody else. We have the net cutting ceremony. Sabrina goes up there and she cuts a
loop for herself. That’s the tradition, right? And then you take a piece and you’ve got a
piece of that net forever. Then she cut about eight other little tiny pieces.You probably never
even recognize that. So in the midst of the biggest moment, perhaps, of her basketball life.
She’s thinking of others. You know what she did with those seven or eight little loops? She went and handed them to all the support staff that help us. That
didn’t get a chance to go up. There are sports information director, our announcer, our trainer, our
strength coach. She had the wherewithal to do that for everybody else. OK, not wanting
any kind of limelight. But that’s who she is to the core. She is a great teammate. She is a
servant leader. And if you want a great team, you’ll get your best player to buy in and
to serve their teammates like that, to sacrafice for em, you’ve got something and you’ve got
something special. And when she said that she’s coming back, I think that spoke to the
fact she really loves her team. She could have gone pro, she’d have been the number one pick, should
have started her pro career. But she loves the University of Oregon, you guys. She loves her
teammates. She loves her coach day to day. OK. Day to day. But you know that’s who she is. And quite frankly, the rest of the team
takes that lead from her. That’s who they are. You will never find a more unified basketball
team. There are more athletic teams out there. There are bigger teams. There are quicker teams. There is not a closer
team. There is not a closer team, and I can say that with 100 percent
assured. So that being said, I would love to do I just open it to the questions
myself? Do I need your help? OK. All right. Well, let’s talk some questions.
Well, hold the phone. I got a buck nine left. [Cross talk] So I’ll hurry and finish this so we can get some dessert? Let’s go. Let’s go to Alexis. Oh, you’re calling on them all. I’ll stay back. So as many years of you growing as a coach, were there any moments
where you’re scared of what other people thought of you? Sure. Tonight. You guys, I do this kind of stuff a lot. I have never,
ever been this nervous, ever. I was less nervous going into the Final Four game against Baylor and I
looked up to every one of them. OK. Geez. And then you see that and
that’ll scare you to death. But no, no, you know why? And here’s Sabrina says it all the time.
Ruthie says it all the time. “Coach, we got you. We got you tonight.” And I know that they’re gonna go out and kick the other team’s butt. We’ll go to Dwayne right here. Coach I’m surprised that you’re staying so far away from those drums because,
I saw you last Saturday at the at the tailgate he was banging. And I don’t even drink. He was banging on the drums. Hey, so great, great season last year. You lost a couple players, but
you got a ton of players coming back. How do you integrate a graduate transfer into your program considering
that everybody else that’s been there already? Lives the five values. Yeah. Well we check our egos at the door. I think we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction. We want to be
as good as we can be. Players work out and practice against each other every day. They know
who the better players are. And so that’s what we do. We play that the team that, you know, is
going to work the best together. And they’re again, they’re selfless. They’re selfless, you know. And I’ll show you an example of our unity if you ever watch us play.
And now you will. OK. We have a little saying called PTT: Point Touch Talk. So if you ever watch us play, somebody makes a pass and somebody goes
in and makes a layup. The player that makes the shot will always point to the player that
made that pass. Always. So don’t give me the credit. It was the pass. And then the second part of that. So point, touch, you know, we’ll slap
em on the butt, right? Or something like — I can’t do that. But they can do that. OK. And then you talk, you know, “Hey, great pass! Let’s get em!” You know, whatever the case may be. Point. Touch. Talk. That is inherent to our basketball program. We have a team lent before every season where our players sacrifice
something for that year or they add something that will enhance their life, as kind of a way of
dedicating the season to the basketball team. You know, that might be called my grandparents once a week. Attend
church every week. Cut out potato chips, which is what I’m gonna do this year. OK. And
we’ll see if that helps. So on and on and on. So those are the things that that that we
sacrifice. So I can’t remember what the question was, but what the
heck? I just kept going. I’m like Springsteen, man. I’ll just stay up here until you tell me
you’re all done. We’ll keep going, Coach. You got Lou Wood over here. Coach recruiting is a very competitive activity. So what are the keys
to the success that you’ve had in recruiting the players into the
university? A great question. And recruiting is the lifeblood. I’d like to sit here
and say I’m some kind of a genius. I’m not. I have better players than the teams I play with or play against. What it comes down to and it also is what’s the most important part
about the team? Recruiting comes down to building relationships. That’s it. That’s it. They’re not coming to Oregon because of beautiful weather. You know, they’re coming because they develop relationships, really
strong bonds with the coaches and with the players that we have. That’s the key. That’s the key. I just blew myself out of the water
right there and exposed ourselves. That’s what it all comes down to. Now, that being said, we work really
hard and I think we attract the right kind of players. Unselfish
players. When I talk to a player and she says, “Well, how many minutes am I
going to play?” You think, as a freshman? You’re not coming here. I don’t worry about
that. You shouldn’t worry about that. ” Hey, how many touches?” That’s what they say now. “How many touches
am I going to get?” Well, I don’t know how many you’re gonna get for that other school, but
you’re not going to get… Those kind of things, those are red flags for me, you know. To me, it’s all about the team, team, team, team. Good question. So build good relationships and even at your companies, you know, get
deep with your with your employees so that you really can care for one
another. And not in a fake kind of way, but in a real kind of passionate way.
Okay. You care for that individual. So what about any lessons from your childhood? Like, how did you sort
of come to believe in these values? Any lessons you learned early? You know, it’s funny. I kind of came upon coaching women’s basketball
by accident. My first job out of college, I went to the University of New Mexico. My high school coach was the men’s basketball coach at Big Bend
Community College up in Moses Lake, Washington. And so he talked me into coming up and maybe helping him teach and then
coach. And, you know, my salary was that first year? Twelve hundred and fifty
bucks. Yeah. Twelve hundred and fifty dollars was my salary. I plowed potato fields five o’clock every morning, did some odd jobs
here and there, just, you know, trying to make ends meet because I
really wanted to be a coach. Well the women’s job opened up right before school started. And they didn’t really have time to open it up for a coach. And so they just said, “Well, you’re here. You want to do it?” And I’d
never seen a women’s basketball game in my life. And, you know why I took the job? It paid twenty five hundred dollars and they let me stay on as the
assistant men’s coach. So I’m living in the lap of luxury. Plus, they gave me a room in the
dorms. So that’s how I got started. And then the reason I stuck with it. I never had a more fun season
coaching as I did that first year. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything about anything. But I
had a great time. And four of my players from that team went on to win state
championships as high school coaches. We had some really special we weren’t very good. We ended the 55
straight game losing streak in league. We won four games that first year, but I stuck with it because I really
liked…I think women are more open to coaching. They don’t think they know what all. They’re a lot more fun to be
around on a daily basis. They’re better students. They’re equally strong. People say, well, they’re really emotional. Baloney. You know what?
They’re not. Sabrina is going to knock your block off and try and beat you in
anything. Game of UNO, poker, Connect Four, whatever it is. And she’s going to
find any single way to do it. Emotional. Yeah, I don’t buy that stuff. All right. There’s still
competitors, just like guys. But the one thing I’ve noticed with women, it’s a lot more about the
process. The daily interactions with their teammates is much more powerful than
it is with men. That fits me. And so I just kind of connected with that and 33 years later I’m at the
University of Oregon, baby. Yeah. And here until 2023-24, right? With a contract? Thank goodness. We got
Sabrina here. . Sabrina? You’re my favorite person. So Coach, I’m known as the other Sabrina at the university. 5′ 3″ and I
do not have a good jump shot, full disclosure. I don’t have a question. Can I just say something? It’s not you know, height doesn’t matter. 5′
3″. It’s the size of the heart that matters. I love this guy. So I really don’t have a question, I’m more so have a
comment. I am actually really impressed that you’ve put forward sort of five
values or pillars that not only serve these student athletes as athletes, but as students and as people
going on in the future. And I think sometimes people forget that they are students first,
athletes second. And you, sir, have put forth pillars that will serve them in all
aspects of their way. So congratulations. Thank you very much. Last question. I will say this, though — you’re cutting me off already? No finish. Finish, brother. So we talked about the height, you guys. Before I got to Oregon I was 14 years head coach at Gonzaga and we had
just a just a lovely sister, you know, a nun that sat on our bench for
every game. And she really kept me in check. You know, my language and everything
like that. But she used to always say, she used to always say, “Kelly. You know,
players work better when prayers are bigger.” And I would say, yeah, “You’re right, sister. But, prayers work better
when players are bigger,” so 5’3″ is fine. All right. And I can’t say
I’m putting all this together in one. I do believe in higher education, because right now my team is 6’7″,
6’6″, 6’6″, 6’5″, 6’4″, 6’4″ and on down. So, yes, we believe in higher education down there at the University of
Oregon. So last question, Greg Bell, a former player. And sitting the UO
foundation board. Hey, coach, you’re going hard. I know your family in that. But how do
you keep balance? You know, just if you’d speak it from it, from the perspective of I
mean, all of us are busy with lives and work and, you know, how do we
keep that balance? Greg, thank you so much for asking that. By the way, “What’s Going
Well?” Phenomenal book. “Water The Bamboo.” Phenomenal book by our own Duck. Hey, my father-in-law is here, so I’m partly saying it because he’s
here. But the other part is because it’s the truth. You guys, I think I have been able to do what I do and love what I do
because I do have work-life balance. I am married 25 years to Mary, a St. Mary’s Academy gal right here in
Portland. And we have three sons, all of whom are in basketball. One’s working for the Dallas Mavericks in player development. One’s
coaching at a women’s basketball team at Lane Community College. And my youngest son is playing basketball at Gonzaga University. So
they’re all in basketball, which is a lot of fun. But Greg, honestly, I can be a better coach when I’m a better father
and husband. I can be a better father and husband when I’m a better coach. They go together. If I’m too much of one and not enough of the other,
then I’m not going to be happy. My life isn’t going to be as fulfilled. The honest truth is, my wife’s been the best assistant coach that I’ve
ever had. I’ve run more stuff by her than anybody. And she’s usually
right. She’s usually right. And one of the best things she taught me and you know, sometimes you
hear about coaches and players, they’re always fighting each other. And
there’s always drama on a team. You know, Mary and I over the years have disagreed on how to discipline
the boys. Boys need discipline when they’re young. And so we might argue over
that. But she always says, you know, Kelly, we’re on the same team. And so we try to have that same kind of attitude with our team. You
know, it’s the coaches and the players. We’re all together. We need synergy. And so I rely on them, you know,
to help me coach them. They inspire me to be a better coach, because I better come prepared
each and every day and not have a bad day because I know they won’t. So, yeah, good question. Thank you. That good? Time for dessert? One big thunderous applause for Coach Kelly Grace. Thank you. Thank you.

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