But the 26-year-old rookie head coach is wise enough to know his success isn’t solely due to his efforts.
“I thank God and Sacred Heart Catholic School for the opportunity,” he said.
Graves, who led the Cardinals to an 18-6 record, a Class 1A, Area 10 tournament title and an appearance in the Northeast sub-regional round of the state playoffs, also thanked his assistant coach Kevin Nolan and, of course, his players.
“Without my assistant and without my players, there’s no way I’m the coach of the year,” he said.
Despite Graves’ youth, he’s no spring chicken.
The Anniston High School alumnus won a Class 5A state title as a player in 2002 and served as an assistant under Bulldogs coach Schuessler Ware and Jacksonville coach Anthony Kingston.
He said he began to ponder a career in coaching once playing college ball didn’t work out. He earned a bachelor’s degree in recreational leadership from Jacksonville State University and is working on a master’s in physical education.
“I figured I was never the best player on any of the teams I played on. Maybe, I can be the best coach.”
Graves said he noticed the difference in being a superior as opposed to a subordinate early on.
“As an assistant coach, you make suggestions. As a head coach, you make decisions,” he said.
The moves he and Nolan made this season rarely missed.
They started a pair of seventh-graders in Nolan’s son, Kevion, and DJ Heath, both of whom were both first-team selections to the all-county team. Freshman Sam Bowman was a second-team choice. Senior DJ Parker was an honorable mention.
Most of the schemes the Cardinals ran this past season were based off the personnel they had. But Graves knew he wanted to pressure the ball and mix both zone and man defenses. Graves said he’s picked things up from his playing days as well as his previous coaching stints.
He’s also a student of the game, watching countless hours of college ball and reading books written by legendary coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and former UCLA great, the late John Wooden.
“I’m thinking long-term,” Graves said. “In three years, I want my program to be one of the best programs around here. And I think it can be done at a small school. We just have to put in the work. I want to be one of the only guys to win a state championship as a player, assistant coach and head coach.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. Reach him at 256-235-3575. On Twitter: birds_word.