Former Conway High basketball coach Joe Graham appeared both in person and in video at the Arkansas Sports Club on Monday.
Graham, who coached the Wampus Cats to a 36-0 season in 1976-77, has a rare mouth disorder that prevents him from talking at length. Much of his presentation was from a recent pre-recorded video interview with Mike Harrison, executive director of the club.
During a short time at the microphone, Graham, with his typical, wry humor, downplayed the situation.
"My grandmother always told me to not talk about your problems because 90 percent of the people don’t care and the other 10 percent are kind of glad you have those problems," Graham said.
He began a 36-year career as a coach at Conway coaching two years of junior high for C.D. Taylor. When Taylor moved on to Arkansas State, Graham took over the Conway varsity. In his first four years in Conway (junior high and high school) Graham’s team were 101-11.
The average margin of victory by that 36-0 team was 24 points. His starting lineup those years consisted of Lawson Pilgrim, Austin Sullivan, Herman Hammons, T.J. Ticey and Tony Griffin, all of whom became iconic players and went on to play college or junior college ball, primarily at Hendrix College.
"I always told people about that team that my assistant coach, Coy Roberts, was the bus driver, and I was the dietician," Graham said. "We just had to make sure we got the guys to the games and got them fed. They had grown up together and played together so long, and I coached them in junior high that it got to where Austin Sullivan would know when we needed to call a timeout and would call a timeout before I did.
"After that year (36-0), I got to thinking I’m pretty good at this. There’s not much to coaching. Then, those guys graduated and I got normal players and it got tougher."
His Conway teams were runner-ups in state four times and made 19 state tournament appearances. His team won nine conference championships and four runner-ups. Under his leadership, the Cats had 10 20-plus win seasons.
"That meant I had a lot of good players," he said.
But he said he was proud to have spent 36 years in Conway, unusual for a coach.
"I won so much early with great talent that maybe that built up a lot of insurance when I didn’t have as good of talent," Graham said.
Graham’s father was one a high school principal in White Hall, and his mother was a science teacher. He said he first got enthused about basketball while playing for legendary coach Lynwood Cathey at Pine Bluff in his youth.
"He gave me the passion," Graham said.
An interesting set of circumstances brought him to Greenbrier and eventually Conway.
The White Hall school board fired his father as principal. Graham said not long afterward, Doyce Winningham, the legendary coach at Greenbrier, showed up at his basketball practice.
"I hit a few shots and had a good day," Graham said. "The next day, I learned my dad got a job as principal of Greenbrier."
Greenbrier had won two state titles in a row. Graham was never member of a state title team but the Panthers came close. In three years as a high school player (one at White Hall and two at Greenbrier), Graham played on teams with a combined 104-8 record.
"There were a lot of good players at Greenbrier," Graham said. "I was the only one recruited. The rest were homegrown."
He almost played football for Greenbrier. He and four members of the basketball team were asked by the coach if they wanted to suit up and play the last game of the season against Vilonia.
"We hated Vilonia so we were willing," he said. "Then, Doyce Winningham got wind of it and he pretty much shut that down."
He said he learned a lot about coaching from Winningham and one reason players played so well for him was they were afraid of making him look bad.
"We’d go into these local places, like to get a haircut or something, and if we weren’t playing well, the people would ask us, ‘Aren’t y’all listening to coach Winningham?’ We didn’t want to play badly and reflect on coach Winningham and the townspeople helped with that."
He played junior college basketball at Central Baptist College, helping the Mustangs to some regional junior college tourney appearances.
He said the highlight of his college career was probably hitting a half-court shot at the buzzer to tie Hendrix. CBC then won in overtime against a Hendrix team not coached by Cliff Garrison.
"Neither one of us was very good," Graham said. "It’s bad when your best memory is that you beat someone just to stay out of the cellar."
His uncle, Jim Stone (the namesake of a Conway elementary school), helped him get a job in the Conway system after graduation. He coached in the Conway school system from 1972-2000, retiring with 447 victories.
"Mother and Dad died within about 15 months of each other in the late 1990s and part of me died with them," he said. "I lost a lot of passion for the game. For the first time, it seemed like work. The game had changed and I’m stubborn. A lot of my idols in coaching were older coaches. I was pretty much a throwback. I was like a lot of coaches. You kind of know when it’s time to get out."
One of his former players, and later his junior high coach and assistant in high school, was current Wampus Cat coach James Bates.
"I learned so many thing from coach Graham like how to work with kids, develop players and deal with people one-on-one. He definitely showed me how to do things right," said Bates, who spoke during the special tribute.
Buzz Bolding, Graham’s athletic director much of the time, remembered a day when the Wampus Cat male basketball players, including current assistant coach Brian "Salty" Longing, dressed up like girls one day and were sent home from school. He said he asked Graham whether he would allow Longing to play that night. "As long as he makes free throws and doesn’t wear that dress to the game, I’m OK with it," Bolding said Graham told him.
Graham worked for more than 30 years as one of the major coaches in Cliff Garrison’s basketball camp at Hendrix.
"And more than that, he kept me supplied with players for a long time," Garrison said. "Every former Wampus Cat player we had became a great contributor for us. Joe was as good at a game plan as anyone I’ve ever seen. He also knew how to motivate and handle kids, which is a major part of coaching. He had the best bench demeanor I’ve ever seen and I think his players picked up with on the poise he showed.
Graham’s wife, Rhonda, and two daughters were in attendance and he praised his wife for raising the children because "when you’re coaching, you may not be home much and when you are, your minds not at home."
And he said she "helped keep my feet on the ground."
He remembered one night one of his teams tipped in a shot at the buzzer to beat a highly ranked team at the time, possibly Morrilton.
"I came home real excited and said, "Honey, we just tipped in a shot to beat a top-ranked ranked team. ‘That’s good,’ she told me. ‘Now would you please throw those clothes in the dryer?’"