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Jul. 25—LAS VEGAS — The Mountain West's 12 head football coaches gathered on the Ninth Island for sessions with the media, and after all these years—30-plus as a coach, including 14 leading Division I programs—Todd Graham still marveled at his place at the table.
He is living a coaching dream that was first inspired as an 11-year-old in Mesquite, Texas.
Back then, his mother had to rear five children on her own after his father walked away from the family. "He left my mom, and didn't have contact with us, " Graham said. "When he left, that was it. No birthday card. No nothing. He wasn't involved in our lives."
His mother worked three jobs. "She was kind of an inspiration to me, " Graham said. "But, you know, a young man needs a dad. So coaches ... my seventh-grade coaches, made the difference in my life."
In particular, Graham credits Buddy Copeland, a history teacher and head coach of McDonald Middle School's football team.
"That's probably whom I emulate more than anybody else as a coach, " Graham said. "He saved my life. He was a great person of faith. He was a great teacher, a great history teacher. He's probably the best teacher I ever had. A tough-love guy. He taught you about being a giver, about the simplicity of being successful in life."
It was Copeland who insisted a person is never too young to work hard. As a teenager, Graham went through several jobs to help his family and earn spending money. He cleaned offices and bathrooms. He worked for a roofing company, carrying the shingles.
"I pumped gas, when they used to have full-service gas stations, " Graham said. "I pumped gas and changed oil. The thing I hated the worst was washing down the drive. It was freezing cold. I poured concrete one time. That definitely motivated me to go to college."
He became only the second family member to earn a high school diploma. He then became the first to attend college when he accepted a football scholarship from East Central University in Ada, Okla. After receiving a degree, Graham was with the Arizona Cardinals briefly before going into coaching. It was a career path he wanted to pursue since he was in seventh grade.
"I grew up in Texas where people think it's just about football, and it's not, " Graham said. "Football was important because it basically was the identity of every community. But it also taught you the values to be successful in life. It's a very traditional-value place.. You look at the school systems and how they do academically, how they do whether it's the fine arts. ... It's a great place to grow up because of that. And the coaches are professionals. You can't coach if you're not a teacher in Texas. I was blessed to grow up where I grew up."
He said coaches, particularly Copeland, provided needed guidance.
"The coaches made up that difference, " Graham said. "That to me is why I went into coaching. I knew when I was in seventh grade and Coach Copeland was coaching me, I knew I wanted to be a coach. The way I looked at him, and what he did for me, I knew that's what I wanted to do."
Graham said it was not easy after his father left. "We had a hard time ... broken family and all that, " Graham said. "Coaches picked that up, and poured into me. And, really, Buddy was like my dad. When I think of who my dad is, I had a dad. My dad was my seventh-grade coach."—For more Hawaii football, visit the.