Earlier this year, Liberty County High School varsity boys’ basketball coach Willie Graham announced he was stepping down from his teaching position. However, he hoped he would be able to stay on as a coach in some capacity. After all, he has
37 years of coaching experience under his belt.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
“My high-school coaching career and my career as an educator is now over,” Graham said Friday morning by phone.
Friday afternoon, Graham walked out of LCHS, where he posted a
394-256 career record for the Panthers. Applications still are being reviewed, and no one had been appointed as his replacement yet.
Shortly after Graham announced his retirement, LCHS Principal Dr. Paula Scott told the Courier that Graham chose to step down so that other young assistant principals would not lose their jobs. The Liberty County School System had announced earlier this year that it would cut one assistant principal from each high school.
Graham’s coaching career started in Statesboro, where he coached the junior-high girls’ team in the early 1980s. In 1984, Graham became the varsity boys’ coach at Bradwell Institute.
Graham came to the new Liberty County High School when it opened for the 1990-91 school year and was the school’s first principal. At that time, Tim Jordan was the head coach, but Graham acquired the position within a year.
“I can recall the first year we went varsity, and we went 0-22,” he said, adding that the team’s second- season record was 0-23. “Then we broke through our first year with full-fledged seniors … this school started with only ninth-graders, so our second year we were ninth- and 10th-graders … and we were playing when the region was Beach and Savannah and Johnson, and those teams were all were strong … one thing I can say about our background is that our kids have always fought hard and always accepted challenges.”
Graham said the Panthers may have started at the bottom, but they soon worked their way to the top. The outgoing coach took the Panthers to the state playoffs 15 times in the past 20 years.
“We’ve always been, since our first graduating class, at the top of our region … that’s been one of our goals and the kids have kept the program there … and we’ve been in some tough regions,” he said.
This past season was the Panthers’ fourth final-four appearance under Graham.
“And all four times, we’ve had the misfortune to lose to the eventual state champion,” he said. “We lost to Cross Key our first one, lost to East Hall in our second one, lost to Dunwoody and now Jonesboro in the fourth.”
The coach said his career would not have been possible without solid support from his wife and kids. “You have to have a family that is supportive of you,” he said. “You have to have a wife and children that are pretty much gym rats so they don’t mind that you are always out coaching. That is one thing that has helped me over the years.”
He added that he’s been blessed with a supportive administrative staff.
“Dr. (Gene) Nesbitt, Dr. Paula Scott were very supportive principals,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with some very good athletic directors like Dr. (Warnella) Wilder … the school itself … the community … I’ve enjoyed my time here at Liberty County High School.”
He said the new incoming coach will need a lot of patience and time working with administrators and developing a new staff.
“That’s going to be the biggest key … finding the staff that will want to work as hard as you want to work to make the program successful,” he said.
Graham said coaching in this day and age is much harder than it was before. He said coaching has to come from the heart and requires many long hours.
“It’s not about the money,” he said. “I remember years ago when I first got into it … I started figuring it out, the hours we put in during the school year and during the summer, and we figured out we were making about 27 cents an hour — and it’s probably a lot less than that now.”
He added these days a head coach needs to be a lot more finessed in the nuances of working within school-board regulations and dealing with parents, as well as other potential outside influences, and stand firm on their decisions.
“You have to look for the best athletes and you pick the best regardless of who their parents were or who their brothers and sisters were,” he said.
Graham said he recently spoke with Statesboro High basketball coach Lee Hill, who asked him to come back there to help out as needed.
“I told him I couldn’t coach at another place other than Liberty County High,” he said. “They spoiled me.”
Graham said he would be just a phone call away should the new Panther head coach ever need him.
“If they call me, I’ll come out and help,” he said.