Building programs, people

Published 6:59 pm Saturday, April 4, 2009

Glen Graham’s first Isabella volleyball team, in 1998, lacked experience – to say the least.

“I don’t think any of us had ever played before,” said Mary Roberts, a member of the team that laid the foundation for what has become one of the most recognized programs in the state’s 1A classification. “None of us had ever seen a volleyball before.”

With expertise and command, Graham has directed Isabella’s varsity basketball program since 2000 and built the volleyball program into one that has won 11 consecutive area championships. But Graham’s accomplishments go further, to the positive effect he’s had on the community, the school and, especially, his players.

“I think I’ve had a good relationship with the kids,” Graham said. “That’s the important part to me.”

Graham graduated from Isabella 1979, and a circuitous path led him back. Graham earned a degree from Jacksonville State University before taking a job in Tuscaloosa at the Sprayberry Regional Education Center for mentally and physically handicapped children.

After 2 1/2 years at Sprayberry, Graham went to Oregon State University for a master’s degree. Why OSU? It was one of only a few institutions that offered the program Graham was looking for, but it was also a place Graham said he had been attracted to since a young age.

“I’d never been West of Little Rock, Arkansas, so it was a big experience,” Graham said. “It was fabulous.”

Next, it was back to Sprayberry for eight years. During this time, Graham married the former Leah Chadwick of Clanton. Also while at Sprayberry, Graham, an adaptive physical education specialist, coached athletic teams that won more than 20 international championships at locations including Notre Dame University and the University of Minnesota.

“This little country boy from Alabama got to do a lot of things,” Graham said. “It really opened up a lot of doors.

“These experiences made me a better coach because you had to break the skill down.”

Graham said he returned to Isabella when the opportunity arose because he wanted his children – Sarah is in the 6th grade, and Isaac is in the 3rd grade – to have the same positive experience he had in school. So far, that mission has been accomplished: “They love it here,” Graham said.

Graham’s players, meanwhile, have learned to love Graham, even if the coach does have an abrasive side. Roberts recalls the time that first team underperformed in a road match. When the team returned to the school, there was an unscheduled practice.

“That was the day he invented the ‘Tower Drill’ and pretty much put the fear of God in us,” said Roberts, who served as Isabella’s B-team coach from 2002-07.

For this drill, Graham would stand on the official’s tower and blast balls down onto his helpless players. If you missed, you did push-ups or laps.

“After that, everything went a lot smoother,” Roberts said. “A lot of other programs don’t do well because the players think they are the coach. That’s not something you do with coach Graham.

“You have to adapt to him; he’s not going to adapt to you.”

Graham’s teams have enjoyed much success, but Graham has loftier goals than just wins.

“I hope I’ve done something off the court. I hope I’ve steered them toward Christ, and that’s something that I’ve always been open about, my faith, and it might get me in trouble one day.

“I’ve always said I’d get fired for paddlin’ or prayin,’ and I don’t do much paddlin’ anymore. But I always felt like, if anything happened, He would have something else for me.”