SALADO — As 2-year-old Berkley rested her blond head on her father’s lap, Brent Graham brimmed with excitement for the future.
“She’s a daddy’s girl all the way,” boasted the 34-year-old father of four.
Surrounded by his family, Graham was unanimously confirmed as the next Salado athletic director and head football coach during a special and crowded Salado ISD board meeting Monday evening, with more than 70 members of the Salado community gathered in attendance.
“I’m extremely honored and I feel like this is an opportunity for us as a family to really ingrain ourselves in a community, and what a remarkable community it is here in Salado,” Graham said. “This is kind of a dream-come-true for our family.”
Standing beside Graham at the board meeting were his wife, Amanda, 13-year-old high school freshman Maddie, 9-year-old Hudson, 6-year-old Jaxon and Berkley.
Family was a major reason Graham was interested in coming to Salado in the first place.
“It’s about building genuine relationships with everyone that’s involved in the Salado Eagle community, and that’s what I aspire to do — to get out there one handshake at a time and get to know people and build genuine relationships with them,” he said.
“Because we are a family, we’re all a part of Salado, and we all want to do great things. And I think everyone realizes we have to do it together for it to make a difference.”
The son of a single mother who raised him and his sister in his grandparents’ house, Graham fondly remembers listening to his grandparents tell him about their great vacations to the Salado area when he was a child.
“If it was good enough for my grandparents, it’s good enough for my family,” said Graham, a 2001 graduate of Tarleton State where he was a letterman in football and baseball. “We feel like we’re on a 24-7 vacation (right now).”
Graham was chosen among four finalists after an exhaustive and extensive search that included 153 applicants and 43 initial interviews, standing out from the very beginning Salado superintendent Michael Novotny said.
“After sitting through three interviews and checking all his references, I wanted to throw a helmet on and get on the field,” Novotny said. “And if he can do that, inspire a middle-aged guy who’s never played football before, imagine what he’ll be able to do not only with our football players but with all the kids from all the sports.”
Salado is Graham’s second head coaching stint after spending the last four years as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Class 4A Sherman, which has been in the playoffs each season with Graham on staff (2009-12). Previously, Graham was the athletic director at fellow 2A program Tom Bean, guiding the Tom Cats to an 0-10 campaign as a 28-year-old first-time head coach in 2006.
“It was a tremendous learning experience and it’s something that fuels me to this day,” Graham said. “The kids in Salado are going to get the best from me, and that’s something I feel we need here.”
Between Sherman and Tom Bean, Graham spent two years (2007-08) as the recruiting coordinator, secondary coach and director of football operations at the University of Tulsa, where he worked under his uncle, current Arizona State head coach Todd Graham. Prior to Tulsa, Graham was the defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Mesquite Poteet, for two years, after spending his first three years in coaching as an assistant at 3A Canton and 5A Allen.
“I think it helped prepare me for the situation that I’m in today,” Graham said.
Graham replaces former athletic director Glenn Talbott, who resigned Feb. 13 after three seasons due to conflicting opinions with Novotny on the direction of the Eagles athletic program.
In three seasons under Talbott, two of which were in Class 3A, Salado struggled on the gridiron, compiling an 8-22 record and failed to make the playoffs each year. Following a 1-9 campaign in 2010, the Eagles’ first in 3A, they rebounded to finish 5-5 in 2011 but regressed some in a return to 2A, finishing 2-8 this past season.
Salado has a proud athletic history across all sports, including winning the prestigious 2A Lone Star Cup in 2007-08, but hasn’t reached the playoffs in football since a 7-4 campaign in 2008. The year before, under former AD Jeff Cheatham, the Eagles went 13-1, advancing to the 2A state semifinals by a combined score of 126-7 before falling to eventual state-runner up Tatum 41-31.
Graham is eager to bring that kind of success back to Salado.
“I’m extremely passionate about what I’m doing, and it could be playing Monopoly or out there coaching track. Whatever it is, I aspire to be successful and compete, and I think that philosophy and expectation I have with myself bleeds over into the kids that I coach,” Graham said. “Because that’s what it’s all about.”