I remember it clear as day. I was surfing the Internet to see if there were any new men’s water polo commitments before I began the task of settling into my real job. Like a shiny Yuengling waiting for me in the refrigerator as I walk in the door at night, an article in the Stockton Record jumped out at me. It said:
“Pacific athletic director Lynn King said he plans to announce the hiring of a new men's water polo coach sometime this week. King identified the candidates as UCLA assistant coach Matt Flesher, Cal assistant Boyd Lachance and Santa Rosa Junior College head coach James Graham.”
All of the sudden my brain was racing…….James Graham…….wait a second. Immediately the words “James Graham”, “Water Polo” and “Santa Rosa Junior College” got popped into stalker, I mean google.com. My suspicions were confirmed within seconds. The same James Graham that I once played high school club water polo with was squarely in the running for a Mountain Pacific coaching job. So I sat back and waited with my fingers crossed that Pacific’s Athletic Director would settle on James Graham and sure enough a little less than a month later he became the face of the UOP program.
It has been over three months since I last penned an article on men’s water polo for College Sports TV, but I felt compelled to jump back into the fray with this interview of my former Marin Water Polo Club teammate. I have gotten the sense that there is a perception out there that Pacific did not choose the best man for the job and that one of the bright, young assistants would have been a superior option. I want to step up and shatter that. While I know the other candidates were dynamic players and will someday be tremendous head coaches, I know that James Graham will also be an exceptional Head Coach and is the perfect fit for this job with his Northern California ties.
With absolute confidence I can convey to you that while there were better players on the Marin Water Polo Club team that I played on with James Graham, there was not a smarter player on the team. As a two-meter guard, Graham was as good a thinker at the position as I have ever seen. When I spoke with him for the first time in years, I was still in awe of how much water polo knowledge this man brings to the table in terms of just talking offensive and defensive sets and styles. With this article, Coach Graham agreed to the below interview with Water Polo Planet.
You were extremely successful at the Junior College level in winning 86 games and leading Santa Rosa Junior College to a third place finish in the California State Championships in 2007. If you had to point to one reason as to why your teams have been successful, what would it be?
The main reason my teams have been so successful is because of selfless discipline. We have never been talented enough to win on that alone and we knew this. Individuals play the games but teams beat the odds and that was our philosophy each year. Each player cared more about the common good than their individual statistics. In fact, I usually do not show them their statistics until after the season.
Pacific lost seven of their last eight games to end the season and then their coach. Is there anything you have had to do in order to get the guys going again? How is the overall attitude of the team?
The team has definitely had a rough six months but you would never know it by talking with them or watching them practice. In fact, I believe they are inspired by the fresh start and the chance to recreate themselves. My job in this process is to help us all believe in something bigger than ourselves. We have everything we need to be a great team we just need to find a way to get seven individuals to play as one.
Getting named the coach at UOP in March has put you at a huge recruiting disadvantage. What strides have you made in trying to close that gap and add talent to your squad?
I am definitely at a huge recruiting disadvantage but I am working very hard to make up the ground. I believe there are some great players out there that still have not signed and I think that we can offer a very unique opportunity to them. I know that the "best players" have already committed but I am not looking for the best players, I am looking for the right players.
We both played at Marin Water Polo Club on a team that had I believe ten NCAA varsity recruits. Year in and year out Marin Water Polo Club along with the East Bay water polo clubs like Concord have always produced a large amount NCAA-caliber players. I took a look at the UOP roster and I noticed there were not a lot of guys from North Coast Section (CA) schools. On the flip side there are a ton of those players appearing on the rosters of California and UC Davis. Does James Graham being named the Head Coach of UOP mean that the Tigers are now firmly in the Northern California recruiting mix again?
Yes, but I would go one step further and say that now that I am the Head Coach at the University of the Pacific we will be in the recruiting mix all over the country.
You played for an outstanding college coach in Tom Whittemore who has notched over 300 victories. Tell me about that experience and how it will help you in your first Division I head coaching job.
University of Redlands was one of the greatest experiences in my life, both athletically and academically. I know that has prepared me well for this position because I believe greatly in the benefits of a private university experience. Tom was a great mentor to me and continues to be. I thank him for everything that he has done for water polo and myself.
Obviously the long-term goal is to win a national title, but what are the short-term goals for your program right now? What do you want to see out of the 2008 University of Pacific Tigers?
The short-term goals for us are all simple ones that if we achieve will lead to a very successful season. For instance respecting each other, opposing teams and officials. No missed practices, win the field blocking battle, outperform our opponents on 6 on 5, become deeper, play as one unit, and recruit!
Out of all the questions, I’m going to ask, I think this one might be the single most important and the one that separates this interview from any other interview I have done with a coach in terms of pure water polo quality.
Let me take you back to the Chuck Metz Tournament circa 1994. Do you remember the time I scored five goals on you in that tournament game?
You sure you didn't score 10 or 15 goals on me? It is your dream! If you get a chance please tell me more, I always enjoy a good story.
With that my interview with Coach Graham concluded. There is no doubt in my mind that UOP got the right man for the job and will be a team to contend with in the Mountain Pacific in the near future. The quality of the conference only gets stronger with another top-notch head coach joining the fray.