By Bruce Sayler
Displaying enthusiasm and emotion, Jeff Graham embraced the role of Montana Tech head women’s basketball coach Wednesday as he was introduced to the public at a press conference in the school’s HPER Complex.
“I’m extremely excited to be here as head coach of the ‘Diggers,” he said at a podium before a small gathering of Montana Tech athletics staff, players, boosters and media in the Hall of Fame Room across from the Kelvin Sampson Court where the Orediggers play their home games. “I’d like to thank (Provost) Les Cook, (Athletic Director) Matt Stepan and the selection committee.”
Graham joked that he immediately connects with Montana Tech sports because “I have a wife with the patience of Pam Green,” referring to the spouse of retired Bob Green, the legendary Oredigger football coach who still cast a long shadow over the school’s athletics about a dozen years since his retirement.
Graham previously served a highly successful coaching tenure at Belt High School and emerged as the selection committee’s choice after considering more than 60 applicants for the position, Stepan said.
“It’s an exciting day, today, to welcome the newest member of the Oredigger community,” Stepan said. “I believe we have something special beginning here.”
Graham is succeeding Carly Sanon, who guided Montana Tech women’s hoops 2014-22 and resigned June 28 to become executive director of the Tongue River Valley Community Center of Dayton/Ranchester, Wyoming.
Graham pointed out he and Sanon grew up together In Chester and remain friends.
“The coaching staff at Montana Tech sold us,” Graham said, speaking about his co-inhabitants of the HPER Complex office spaces.
At times, his voice cracked during his introductory speech as he expressed his happiness with the situation with the move from the Hi-Line creating a new adventure for the Grahams, including four children, the oldest entering eighth grade.
“I get emotional, I’m a crier,” he said, smiling while trying to hold back tears. “The kids won’t let me speak at Senior Night anymore.”
Graham had a won-lost record of 358-42 with six state Class C championships at Belt and took the Huskies to the Saturday night session of the state tourney 11 times in his 16 years at their helm.
Stepan said the selection committee forged a list of non-negotiable priorities during their dive into the application pile. The non-negotiables, he said, included proven to have built a culture of success, a history of positive impact in the community, high basketball I.Q., emphasis on player development, character-driven philosophy, embracement of the Montana Tech community and the Butte “culture of toughness,” and fitting “our department.” Stepan said the latter pertained to enjoying the successes of the other athletic programs and willing to lift up when “one is down.”
“The applicants made our job difficult,” Stepan said, “and coach Graham wasn’t the only one to check all the boxes.”
Stepan identified the committee members as former player and current city council member Hattie Thatcher, men’s basketball head coach Adam Hiatt, marketing director Amanda Badovinac, head football coach Kyle Samson and Montana Tech Foundation executive Shannon Panisko.
“They turned over every rock and they challenged the candidates, and they challenged me,” Stepan said. “And I’m sure they will continue to challenge Coach Graham.”
Graham has experienced sports success at Montana Tech as a player for Montana State-Northern, Carroll and Montana Western, and as an assistant coach, briefly, at Providence University of Great Falls.
He said situations and coaching changes played large parts in his transfers around Frontier Conference programs as an athlete.
His first success at an Orediggers facility, however, came in 2001 when he was voted an MVP of the Treasure State Classic Class C All-Star Football Game, which is now named after late Ennis coach Bob Cleverley. Graham had starred at Chester and is a third-generation coach and also was Belt’s head football coach for several seasons.
Graham’s wife, the former Megan Schmitz, was a Hall of Fame basketball player at Montana Western as an All-American Honorable Mention and all-time school assists leader. She also has coached basketball, along with cross country and track.
“We will show grit, determination and our ‘Butte Tough’ will carry over to the classroom and through life,” Jeff Graham said about team makeup. “I will coach every day and we will never take it for granted. I want to get the HyPER Hooligans (rowdy Oredigger student fans) and give Montana Tech the best homecourt advantage in the conference.
“We will bring energy every day. My goal in recruiting is to win the recruiting battle in the state, like the football program here does, and to find out-of-state athletes who fit our program.”
He said he will stress community involvement to the team members.
Graham said he thinks some of what he employed in the Belt system will be of use to him at the college level, but it will take a while to find what works as he and the players adjust to each other.
“We will probably change two or three times what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ll evaluate what we’ve been doing around Christmas time and re-evaluate again.”
Graham said the Orediggers are a bit undersized versus conference opposition and would “like to find a couple of big kids, “but I want to see the (Montana Tech) girls play first. I’m excited about what they’re doing.”
He has watched video of the Orediggers met with them earlier in the week.
“If you believe in the kids, they’ll work for you,” Graham said. “Look what coach (Brian) Solomon (volleyball) and coach Samson have done here.
“This is sort of a dream job. Butte has always had fantastic sports and the history, and we’re excited to be here to start our Butte life.”