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January 9, 2009During Saturday's game between Arizona and Oregon State at McKale Center, one of the biggest fans of the UA basketball program will actually be on the OSU bench.
OSU assistant coach David Grace's rise from an AAU basketball coach in Arizona to a Pac-10 assistant in just three years has to be one of the better coaching success stories in the country, and Grace attributes the help of several former members of the UA basketball program as one of the reasons he's been able to move up the coaching ladder so quickly.
After growing up in Aberdeen (Md.), Grace joined the Air Force for 20 years. The son of a longtime basketball official in Maryland, Grace had always hoped of being a college basketball referee once he retired from the Air Force and even worked as a referee while stationed in Turkey.
In 1996, when Grace was stationed in Virginia, he noticed a basketball plaque on the wall of his supervisor, which was similar to the one he had gotten years earlier from coaching his five-year-old son's YMCA team.
The supervisor explained to Grace that he was a coach for Boo Williams, one of the biggest AAU programs in the country to this day.
"He asked me if I ever thought about coaching basketball and I said, 'no, I think I'm going to be a referee,'" Grace recalls. "He said, 'why don't you just come down and see what it's like to coach the 12-year-olds?'"
Grace took his supervisor up on the offer, was an assistant coach for Boo Williams that year and the following season Grace, 32 at the time, was Boo Williams' head coach for the 12-year-old division.
That only lasted a year, as Grace was then moved to Phoenix, but it didn't take him long to get involved in the basketball community. Boo Williams hooked him up with Art Dye, who ran the Arizona Stars AAU program and, like Boo Williams, was sponsored by Nike.
Grace hoped to coach the Stars' 12-year-old team so he could coach his son, but the squad already had a coach in Jon Perryman, who now runs ArizonaVarsity.com on the Rivals.com network.
So Grace helped coach a different Stars team, and the next year asked Dye to let him run his own team in the West Valley, as he was driving across the city of Phoenix and back for every practice.
Dye gave Grace his own team and one of the parents of the kids that was going to be on the squad was friends with Mike Ellsworth, the head coach of Trevor Browne High School at the time, and asked permission for Grace to use his gym for a tryout.
Permission was granted and during the tryout, Ellsworth hung out in the gym. Afterwards, he approached Grace.
"He liked how I ran the tryout, and asked if I would be the freshman head coach and assistant varsity coach at Trevor Browne," Grace said. "I told him that didn't really want to do it because I wanted to be a college coach, but he asked me three times and on the third time I said I would do it."
Grace parted ways with Dye soon after and it didn't take long before his decision to coach the Trevor Browne freshmen paid off.
In 2003, Jeff Meadows, who along with Anthony Ray ran the Arizona Pump N'Run, saw Grace coach Trevor Browne and was impressed, so he asked Grace if he was interested in coaching Meadows and Ray's new AAU squad, the Arizona Magic.
Grace took the job and had immediate success. His first team had one junior, Ty Morrison (Creighton) and several sophomores in Lawrence Hill (Stanford), Joey Shaw (Nevada via Indiana), Daren Jordan (Oral Roberts), Ray Murdock (San Diego) and Kaleo Kina (Navy).
Despite the team's youth, Grace led the squad to the Final Four of the team's first major event, the Las Vegas Easter Classic.
That was the beginning of an extremely successful spring/summer for the Magic, who finished it off by becoming the first team in Arizona history to win any games in the Open Division of the adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas, and even won a pool that was headlined by Shaun Livingston's Ft. Sooy No Limit squad.
After the Magic's successful 2003 summer, the program's talent pool significantly increased, and they added so much young talent that they had to make a second team that would compete on the national level.
The second team was led by Jerryd Bayless (Arizona), Christian Polk (UTEP via Arizona State), Harper Kamp (California) and Zane Johnson (Arizona).
With so much talent in the program, Grace started to get to know several college coaches, including Lute Olson and Josh Pastner of Arizona.
"Josh being a hard worker and me having success on the AAU circuit, as well as having players of enough talent to play at the University of Arizona, of course that drew the interest of a Hall of Fame coach in Lute Olson," Grace said.
"Josh Pastner and I built a great relationship and Josh introduced me to Lute Olson, who always treated me great."
Grace led the Magic to another successful summer in 2004, and then parted ways with the AAU program, which took a sponsorship from Reebok, separating itself from Etop Udo-Ema, who had previously been sponsoring the program.
Grace had become close friends with Udo-Ema and between getting the opportunity to coach Udo-Ema's Campton Magic squad - which was led by future Wildcat Jamelle Horne - and some differences of opinion with how the Magic should be run, it led to Grace's departure from the program.
Soon after, Grace received his first high school varsity head coaching opportunity, from 5A-II South Mountain High School, which was looking for a new head coach after finishing with a 4-17 record in 2003-04.
The principal at South Mountain, who happened to be the aunt of Anthony Goods of Stanford, received a couple phone calls that helped sway her decision on who to hire.
"Lute Olson and Josh Pastner called on my behalf, and that was huge," Grace said.
While Olson and Pastner helped Grace get the job, not many people expected him to do anything with the program, which wasn't in strong shape.
However, Grace had previously convinced himself that South Mountain, which hadn't won the state title since 1992, was a place you could outperform expectations.
"When I was an assistant coach at Trevor Browne High School, I never scouted other teams, but one game coach Ellsworth knew we were going to win, so he wanted me to go scout Westview, who was playing at South Mountain at the time," said Grace.
"I had never been to that school. I drove over there and I was kind of upset because I wanted to be at our game. I got there and I just had the feeling that if I got this job, it would be a goldmine because of the location and the athletes that were at the school."
In 2004-05, Grace led South Mountain to the state playoffs. In his second season, he had even greater success, but not before one of the highlights of his coaching career.
"During my second year, coach Olson came to my gym and sat there for over an hour and watched an open gym, along with coach (Rob) Evans over at Arizona State," Grace recalled.
"We had 80 players in there for open gym and not one of them was good enough for Arizona or Arizona State, but they stayed that long and I thought the world of that."
That year, just two seasons following South Mountain's 4-17 record, Grace led the school to a state title.
Following the season, the principal was relieved due to health issues, and the new athletic director that the school hired wasn't the one who hired Grace and she wanted her friend, Brian Fair, as the school's head coach.
Due to Grace's success and popularity with the players, he couldn't be fired, so the athletic director made his job as difficult as possible until he resigned in the summer of 2006. South Mountain hasn't won a state playoff game since.
Determined to not let the politics of the South Mountain situation get to him, Grace looked for college opportunities that summer, and when nothing came up he accepted a job to coach 2A Precision High School.
However, soon after he was hired, a better opportunity presented itself.
Sacramento State head coach Jerome Jenkins was looking for a new assistant coach and asked the opinion of Udo-Ema, who is a well respected part of the basketball community in California.
Udo-Ema recommended Grace and he interviewed for the job. Once again, his friends from Arizona lent him a hand. Olson and Pastner called Jenkins, recommending Grace for the job.
"Coach Jenkins told me that once Lute Olson called, it was a done deal." Grace said. "It was a dream come true for me."
Grace cut his Precision salary of roughly $60,000 a year in half in order to pursue his dream and coach at Sacramento State. The financial situation was so tough that he had to leave his wife - who he married a week before he left for Sacramento - and kids in Phoenix.
That season, 2006-07, the team went 10-19 but under Grace, recruiting was going well, as he signed Oakland point guard Vinnie McGhee, who would become the conference Freshman of the Year the following season.
However, University of San Francisco head coach Jessie Evans, an assistant at UA during its 1997 national championship, was looking for a new lead assistant for 2007-08 and knew about Grace because of his ties to Arizona.
"Jessie talked to Josh and was well aware of my Arizona connection," Grace said.
Evans was willing to double Grace's pay, move his family to San Francisco and help get his wife a job. With all that and San Francisco being a step up from Sacramento State, the decision was a no-brainer for Grace.
At San Francisco, Grace was given significant recruiting and scouting duties for a program that finished third in the WCC in 2006-07. With the addition of Texas Tech transfer Dior Lowhorn, the team was expected to challenge Gonzaga and San Diego for the top spot in the conference.
However, Grace could never have predicted the hornet's nest he entered when he agreed to coach for Evans. San Francisco's athletic director, Debra Gore-Mann, had been hired in 2006 and wanted to hire her own basketball coach.
Instead of making a coaching change in the off-season, Gore-Mann waited for San Francisco to start off 4-8 and called Evans into her office on Dec. 26, 2007 to inform him that he was relieved of his coaching duties. She had already worked out a deal with ex-Oklahoma State head coach Eddie Sutton to replace him for the season.
Sutton brought along one assistant, ex-South Florida head coach Robert McCollum, meaning that the Dons had five coaches for four spots.
With the other two USF assistants being ex-San Francisco players and one of the two, Chris Farr, being close friends with Gore-Mann's husband, Anthony Mann, that meant Grace was the most expendable, despite the fact that he was Evans' lead assistant.
Gore-Mann moved Grace from assistant coach to Director of Basketball Operations and when Sutton found out about it, he apologized to Grace and said he had nothing to do with the move.
Upon learning that Grace had the lead scout for the Dons' next opponent, Weber State, Gore-Mann moved him back to an assistant spot for one game, since the Director of Basketball Operations isn't allowed to do any on the court coaching, per NCAA rules.
After the game, knowing Grace's loyalty to Evans, Gore-Mann once again moved Grace to Director of Basketball Operations, except this time he was told to take a leave of absence and go home.
For the next several months, Grace used every resource available trying to find another coaching job. He paid for himself to go to the Final Four to network, as well as the Houston Kingwood Classic and Arizona Cactus Classic.
It had been months since he left San Francisco and no opportunities were coming available.
"It wasn't easy," Grace said. "Everyday I woke up, looked on the Internet and called people. I didn't have anything."
Finally, Deer Valley High School in Glendale offered Grace a head coaching position, but the school didn't have any teaching jobs available so he couldn't get paid until the season started.
Grace accepted the offer on the condition that the school understood he was still hoping for an opportunity for a college coaching job, and considering Deer Valley couldn't pay him, the two had an agreement.
Soon after agreeing to run the Deer Valley program essentially for free, Grace got a call from Bill Johnson, who he temporarily coached with at San Francisco, and said he was good friends with Craig Robinson, who had just gotten the head coaching job at Oregon State.
Grace was introduced to Robinson, and eventually he was hired as Director of Basketball Operations because they had already verbally hired someone else for the third assistant spot.
Because the third assistant hadn't yet joined the program in July, Grace was allowed to go on the road, where he got to get to know Robinson and prove that he was a capable recruiter.
In fact, even though Grace was only Director of Basketball Operations, he landed commitments from two Top 120 2009 prospects in Roberto Nelson and Joe Burton, both of whom played for Udo-Ema's Compton Magic squad.
In late August, Robinson called Grace into his office and informed him that the assistant who had agreed to come to Corvallis couldn't make it, due to family reasons.
"He told me that he was going to hire me as his third assistant," recalled Grace. "I was elated. It was a dream come true."
Coming off of the worst Pac-10 season in history - 0-18 - the Oregon State staff certainly knew it had its work cut out for it. However, the Beavers are 6-7 and have already gotten off to a 1-2 start in Pac-10 play.
The team has responded to Robinson and his staff's coaching, and after several years of mediocrity, the Beavers program finally seems to be heading in the right direction.
That's never been more apparent than now, as the Beavers are days removed from a 62-58 upset win over USC, their first Pac-10 win since Feb. 22, 2007.
"It's been great," Grace said. "Any time you get to coach in the Pac-10, you're blessed. I've been very blessed and I'm extremely grateful to work for a great coach who is a tremendous human being, along with a great staff.
"The confidence level has jumped throughout the team. The city of Corvallis is just jumping for joy right now. I was at the bank today and four people came up to me and said congratulations."
Of course, one of the perks for working for Craig Robinson is the fact that he's the brother-in-law of United States president-elect Barack Obama.
Oregon State played its first game of the season in Washington D.C. and took a team picture at the Senate. Robinson's wife took the picture, got it signed, put it on a plaque and sent it back to Grace. On the picture, read: "To David, Yes we can! Barack Obama".
"Getting to know that family has been very special," Grace said. "They're great, down to earth people. I'm so thankful to be where I'm at."
While Grace is happy where he is, he's also not forgotten where he's come from and remains close with several members of the Arizona Basketball family.
"So many people from the U of A program have helped me so much and I'm extremely thankful for that," Grace said. "From coach Olson to Josh to Roz (Jim Rosborough) to Reggie Geary to Miles Simon to Jessie Evans, I have so many close friends from there and so many people from Arizona have helped me get where I am today. They've done wonders for me and my career.
"I just talked to Jamelle Horne's dad and I saw Jamelle in the summer. I saw Zane Johnson over the summer. I never coached Nic Wise but I talk with him. I'm close friends with Brendon Lavender's father and B-Lav. I didn't coach him but he's part of the Arizona family. Me, Jerryd Bayless and his family have a tremendous relationship."
As an Arizona fan, Grace is optimistic that the UA's next head basketball coach will be able to pick up where Olson left off.
"I hope so," Grace said. "I'm a big Arizona fan. Hopefully they'll bring in a big name coach who will continue the standard that Lute Olson has established."
The last time Grace coached a game in Phoenix was March 7, 2006, when he led underdog South Mountain to an upset 75-54 victory over Deer Valley to win the 5A-II state championship.
Who would have ever predicted that his next game coaching in the city would be on Jan. 21, 2009, as an assistant coach on Oregon State playing at 20th ranked ASU?
It's been a crazy journey for Grace, who has maneuvered by one roadblock after the other during his amazingly fast ascension through the coaching ranks.
"It hasn't been easy and I've had to persevere and get through some struggles," Grace said. "It's been a lot of work. People don't see the long hours and the time away from my wife and kids. But it's been a great joy for me and hopefully I've helped some kids along the way.
"I'm a big believer in God and am so thankful he gave me this opportunity. I've been extremely blessed and I'm very thankful for everyone who has helped me get here."