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Originally published March 25, 2011 at 8:02 PM | Page modified March 26, 2011 at 7:19 PM

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Bud Withers

Washington would be crazy not to look at Gonzaga's Kelly Graves

Gonzaga women's basketball coach Kelly Graves has built a powerhouse that rivals the Zags men's success. Washington needs a new women's coach. Doesn't that make sense?

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Saturday

Louisville @ Gonzaga, 6 p.m., ESPN

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SPOKANE — Over the phone, Jim Sollars didn't mince words.

"I think the University of Washington would be gravely mistaken," said the University of Portland women's basketball coach, "if it didn't offer him a job."

Spend time around Gonzaga women's coach Kelly Graves and his program, and you understand why Sollars would feel that way.

Tonight, Graves has his team in the women's Sweet 16 against Louisville here at Spokane Arena. It's the Zags' second consecutive round-of-16 appearance, and nobody around here figures it's a fluke.

Graves is one of those people who intuitively makes others feel good, and the Zags women play like that — ebulliently, enthusiastically, with a healthy bounce in their step. And, oh, by the way, they led the nation in scoring this season, won 30 games and averaged a little more than 4,000 fans at home.

Across the state, of course, Washington is in the market for a new coach, and I'm thinking that as a result of the frayed feelings between the schools over men's basketball, there are two possible schools of thought on Montlake regarding Graves:

• We can pay more, we're in the Pac-10, and if Kelly Graves has the big time in his cross hairs, we can give him something Gonzaga can't.

• Meh. We're the Huskies, you're Gonzaga, and what could you possibly have that we'd want?

Whatever Washington might be thinking, the Huskies ought to be giving Graves some longing gazes. He can recruit, he can coach, and he's good in the community.

Recruiting? Sollars remembers his former assistant at Portland (1993-97) telling him how, as a Mormon in Santiago, Chile (Graves is a native of Utah and grew up there), he topped all his missionary colleagues in LDS converts in that country.

"He recruits with a religious zeal," said Sollars.

Before Portland, Graves, 48, got his coaching start at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. He was an assistant for the men's team, and when the women's coach quit shortly before the season, they asked him if he wanted to double up.

"It was an extra $2,500, I was young and we played doubleheaders, so it just meant I had to show up a little earlier," Graves said. "I loved it."

Big Bend was awful (4-22) that year, just like Gonzaga was his first year (winless in the West Coast Conference in 2000-01). But two years after he started, the two-year school won 23 games, leading to the assistant's job with Sollars, and in 1997, a head-coaching position at Saint Mary's.

The Gaels had 30 league wins in his three years when Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth came calling. The rise of the men's program was in relative infancy, but Roth sensed a similar opportunity for the women.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'Kelly, I want our women's team to be as good as our men's team,' " Graves recalled. " 'What do you need from me?' "

One night, Roth called the Graves home in the Bay Area to woo the coach, and he wasn't in. Instead, Graves' wife Mary answered — she has Spokane family ties — and Roth recruited her.

It all worked, although the first year was hardly easy. The Zags went 5-23 and, as Graves recalls, took six players on a trip to Sacramento State, partly because of four serious knee injuries.

"It was a perfect storm of ineptitude," he said. "Honestly, I questioned my own abilities. It humbles you."

There hasn't been a lot of that since. Gonzaga won 18 games his third year, and it dominates the WCC more than the GU men, having won 36 straight games against league opponents and seven consecutive titles.

Talk about déjà vu. All the things Roth went through 10 years ago with men's coach Mark Few and his appeal to bigger schools, he's doing now with Graves.

"It's not who's knocking on the door, it's about giving him the security and (the message) that we want you to stay here and never leave here," said Roth. "Having to do this on the men's side with Mark has given us a lot of information on how to do this."

Few stayed because the Zags found ways to elevate themselves from the dreaded "mid-major" level to become big-time in areas like scheduling. Just like Few, Graves chafes at the description.

"We have a school policy," he said, laughing. "We don't use that term.

"Here's how I answer it. Every player in this locker room was recruited by BCS, power-conference schools, offered by numerous schools, taken official visits. We recruit top-100 kids, we play in a beautiful arena, we draw really well, most of our games are on local television, and we fly to (most of) our games on private jet.

"What about all that says mid-major?"

So I asked Graves if he has interest in the UW job.

"As soon as our last game is over, then we'll think about it," he said. "Honestly, I would be doing them a disservice if I even thought anything else.

"But I'm happy here. This is a good fit for my family, and I like this environment."

That doesn't mean the Huskies shouldn't explore it, and hard. They'd be crazy if they don't.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Zags vs. Huskies
Here's how Gonzaga and UW have done in the 11 seasons that Kelly Graves has been the coach at Gonzaga:
GU Season UW
31-4 2010-11 12-17
29-5 2009-10 13-18
27-7 2008-09 8-22
25-9 2007-08* 13-18
24-10 2006-07 18-13
16-14 2005-06 19-11
28-4 2004-05 14-16
18-12 2003-04 18-13
18-12 2002-03 22-8
11-18 2001-02 19-12
5-23 2000-01 22-10
232-118 Total 178-158
* Tia Jackson took over as coach for the Huskies in the 2007-08 season. Before that, June Daugherty was the coach.

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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