No light at end of this tunnel

A sullen Graham (AP)

AS THE PAUL GRAHAM era of Cougar basketball comes to an end this weekend, his hardwood epitaph seems pretty straight forward. He had the recruiting ability of <b>Len Stevens</b> and the public relations skills of a tobacco company executive. Combined with the fact he was inheriting a program already driven into the ground by <b>Kevin Eastman</b>, it was a recipe that cooked up just 31 wins in 109 games.


Paul Graham yells at his team after a turnover to Oregon Jan. 26 in Pullman. (AP Photo/Kevin German)

That's a winning percentage of .284 --- the worst in the more than 100 years basketball has been played on the Palouse. The Cougars are 7-19 this season.

But that's not why Graham deserves his packing papers. George Raveling and Kelvin Sampson, the two most successful Cougar coaches of the modern era, also had wretched records in their early years.

With them, however, you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Their teams were slowly getting better every year, with successively better players coming into the fold. By their fourth seasons, the program was sailing into some halcyon days.

Not so with Graham. There was no progress. None. Three last-place conference finishes in four years. Two seasons with but one conference win. And this season will conclude at a whopping two Pac-10 victories unless Marcus Moore can pull another miracle at USC on Saturday.

But the most damning stat of all, courtesy of research by the Spokesman-Review, is this one: Only five of the 18 players Graham recruited to WSU were high schoolers. All the rest were JC players.

You don't build lasting success with JC players. They can fill in the gaps, as Ron Davis and Harold Rhodes did for Raveling. But you don't build a program that way.

And get this: The Cougars do not have a scholarship freshman on the team this year. Up-and-coming Randy Green is a walk on.

Here's another sorry stat, courtesy of the Vancouver Columbian, that helped spell the end of Graham's tenure: Ten scholarship players have left -- either because they were forced out or decided on their own -- during his reign.


Washington State coach Paul Graham (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Paul Graham is not a bad guy. His life's story --- from dirt-poor poverty as a youth in the south, to respected assistant coach for the likes of legendary Eddie Sutton, to the last four years as a head coach in the mighty Pac-10 --- is testament to the power of the human spirit.

His a devoted family man. And his teams always --- always --- played hard. His Xs and Os also seemed basically decent.

It was the inability to attract and retain the right talent that doomed him.

And that, it seems, stemmed from unbelievably poor political judgment and interpersonal skills. Don't forget that two of his first orders of business upon arriving in Pullman were to chase off scrappy Eastman holdover Blake Pengally and pull the scholarship of freshman recruit Bryan Whitehead of Mount Vernon.

Both moves sent shivers through the Pacific Northwest prep ranks and drew critical stares from the crimson faithful weaned on the compassionate ways of Mike Price.

For us, at Cougfan.com, there is perhaps no better metaphor for the man's PR and political failings than his refusal to be interviewed by our executive editor in 2000. No agenda, just a chance to share his view of the world. Here was a golden opportunity to speak directly to the crimson faithful, to help shave the rough edges off his public persona.

Graham's response?

Not only did he decline, but he did it with disdain. Fans sites, he said, are not legitimate so he doesn't work with them.

Mike Price, other the hand, never failed to return a call or open his door to us.


Graham lets official Richie Ballesteros disputes a technical foul called against him last year. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

Athletic Director Rick Dickson, it seemed, had replaced Eastman --- a guy with the personality of an oak door --- with a lifelong assistant coach from Oklahoma State who had the warmth of a rattle snake.

Yep. Graham was yet another in Dickson's long line of hiring blunders. Eastman, Farrington, Jenny P. and then Graham. Could it have been any worse?

Graham's sorry tenure at WSU will conclude Saturday in Los Angeles with his firing made formal on Monday. It will bring a dismal end to Dickson's reign of error on the Palouse.

But more than anything, it will be the capstone on a road map of missteps that his successor ought to study very closely if he wants his name mentioned in the same breath as Harshman, Raveling and Sampson rather than the rogues gallery of basketball horror known as Stevens, Eastman and Graham.

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