PORTLAND, Hours. – To Kelly Graves, it was never a question.
Yes, the coach of the Oregon women’s basketball team had a big game the next day at home, with defending national champion Stanford coming to Eugene. But it was senior night for Graves’ youngest son, Will, a walk-on with the Gonzaga men. Dad mode kicked in.
Kelly and his wife, Mary Graves, flew to Spokane, smiling big as Gonzaga, the favorite to win its first national title, started Will for the first time in his career. After the game, an 81-69 win over Santa Clara, the family traded stories and smiles at Jack & Dan’s, the legendary Spokane sports bar.
Then Kelly had to get back to Eugene. Worried about potential flight delays or cancelations given the instability of airlines during COVID-19, he hopped in a car around 10:30 pm Before that, he’d issued a call to Ducks fans:
“Can’t rely on my earliest flight out of Spokane to get me home by 1 pm for tip-off vs. Stanford so I’m pulling the all-nighter drive,” he tweeted. “It’s only 7 hours 🙂 If you have my number, feel free to call me w / jokes, interesting anecdotes, etc anytime throughout the night. Gotta stay awake!”
“Will has been living his dream for the last few years,” Kelly, who arrived in Eugene around 6 am, told USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t care what the stakes were – I wasn’t going to miss his senior night di lui.”
Will’s take on his dad’s trip: “That’s pretty psychotic.”
When the NCAA Tournaments tip off this week, Kelly Graves is just one of a handful of coaches who will juggle parent and coach duties. It’s unique to have parents fully understand the pressure their college-athlete children face – and vice versa.
“It’s really, really special. Sometimes when I look out there (I remember), oh yeah, Max is on the team!” said Boise State coach Leon Rice, whose son Max is a redshirt junior for the eighth-seeded Broncos, who tip off Thursday against No. 9 seed Memphis. Rice said it’s not surprising that many coaches ‘kids become college players because “that’s all they’ve ever known. And it shows up in the way most of those coaches’ kids play – they’re a little bit wise beyond their years on the court. “
Some coaches, like Rice and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery play two roles but don’t have to worry about scheduling, because their kids play on their team (Connor and Patrick McCaffery are a redshirt senior and redshirt sophomore, respectively).
But others – like Kelly Graves, Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey (son Jaden is a sophomore for the third-seeded Purdue men) and Ohio State’s Kevin McGuff (daughter Kilyn is a freshmen at Belmont) – have to juggle two schedules and two sets of games . It’s fun, chaotic and beyond rewarding, they say. And boy, are they grateful for technology. When mom or dad can’t attend a game in person, phones and computers play critical roles in keeping up with their kids.
Niele Ivey’s MVP for the 2021-22 season: Notre Dame video coordinator James Spinelli, who frequently cuts clips of Purdue’s games and loads them onto Ivey’s computer so she can watch every possession her baby boy plays. Spinelli leans heavily on Synergy, the video and analytics platform most teams use for scouting opponents.
Working moms in coaching balance basketball and family
When Notre Dame’s schedule allows, Niele Ivey will make the 2-hour, 15-minute drive to West Lafayette, passing time by calling recruits. She’s been to about 15 games this year, often in Jaden’s No. 20 jersey. She admits she’s not exactly reserved as a fan.
“Oh my gosh, I am completely nervous as a mom, hanging on to the edge of my seat every possession,” she said. “That’s my baby. As a coach, I’m intense and my energy and passion are the same, but I’ve got to be strategic. But as a mom, my heart is beating through my chest every game.” She lets loose by celebrating wildly when appropriate and dancing in the stands with other parents.
Jaden grew up around basketball, tagging along with his mom to Notre Dame’s practices and rebounding for Skylar Diggins-Smith, practicing jumpers with Kayla McBride, studying the defense of Jewell Loyd.
Last season, Jaden told the Indianapolis Star, “She was always in the gym, so I was too,” adding that most their conversations revolve around basketball.
About those conversations: While Niele is happy to play the supportive mom, she can’t fully turn off the coach switch. She doesn’t so much offer critiques of Jaden’s play but a scouting report – of him.
“It’s actually been really cool, because I can help him by telling him, ‘Here’s how I would guard you,'” Niele said. “I can tell him the tendencies I see as a scouter. It’s unique to be able to share that.”
Of course, Niele isn’t just studying Purdue’s offense for Jaden, but herself too.
“I take a lot of sets from them,” Niele said. “There’s stuff they run for Jaden that I watch and I say, ‘Yep, I’m stealing that.’ “
‘Thrilled for the opportunity’
Kelly Graves, who previously coached the Gonzaga women for 14 years before moving to Oregon in 2014, isn’t necessarily watching for Xs and Os. Instead, he’s reveling in the fact that in earning a spot on the nation’s top team, Will has accomplished more than most aspiring athletes – even if he doesn’t play much.
“He was just thrilled for that opportunity,” said Kelly of Will, who is best friends and roommates with AJ Few, Mark Few’s oldest son who works as a student manager. “Of course he wants to play, but he gets it – and I think he learned, in being a coach’s kid, the value he can bring.”
Even without an inflated stat line, there are highlights: Kelly still remembers when Will hit his first 3-pointer at Gonzaga and “the little twirl” that accompanied it. Anytime Will’s involved in a play worth spotlighting, Kelly’s phone is flooded with texts and videos.
Will, who’s appeared in 15 games this season, plans to take advantage of the free year of eligibility every NCAA athlete has been granted because of COVID-19. He wants to transfer somewhere he can contribute before chasing another dream: playing pro overseas.
“My dad gave me the love of this game, and I’m definitely thankful for that,” Will said. “I’m not ready to give it up yet.”
While Will sees his mom for many of GU’s home games – Mary frequently makes the 7-hour drive solo, usually with a car packed full of home-made goodies – it’s extra special when dad is in the stands, too. That’s why the entire family was disappointed when the Oregon women failed to secure a Top 16 seed, which would have come with hosting duties. Had the Ducks been home in Eugene, Kelly could have driven up to Portland to watch Gonzaga’s first-round game vs. Georgia State on Thursday.
Instead, the Oregon women will tip off Saturday in Knoxville against 12th-seeded Belmont, which features another coach’s kid. Kilyn McGuff is a freshman guard for the Bruins, which won the Ohio Valley regular season and conference tournament titles in auto qualifying for the tournament. Kilyn, a 6-foot freshman guard, is an efficient and versatile contributor for Belmont, averaging 3.3 points and 2.7 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game.
Kevin McGuff described playing in the same tournament as his oldest child as “totally awesome,” adding that he and his wife were thrilled Kilyn chose a school, and a level, that was a great fit for her. Seeding-wise, there was a chance dad and daughter could have matched up against each other in the first round (Ohio State, a 6 seed, opens against the winner of Missouri State vs. Florida State.)
“It would have been awesome, but at the same time, it would have been stressful,” Kevin said, adding that his wife Letitia, a former Notre Dame standout, would not have found the matchup enjoyable. “It probably would have sounded cooler than it actually was for anyone in our family.”
As for any of these coaches’ kids venting to mom or dad about their current coach, no one is having it.
“Between Letitia and I, we’re pretty hard on her and we have high expectations of her,” Kevin said. “She, just like all those other coaches’ kids, probably has it harder than most. But she knows she’s not going to call and complain about coaching – that’s not how we do it in this house.”
Follow reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell