PALMYRA _The end of an era.
When the wrestling season gets under way this year the unthinkable will take place: Ralph Graham will not be sitting in the coaching chair for Southeast.
For the past 25 years Graham has presided over the Southeast wrestling program, and his impact on both the sport and the community is immeasurable.
Under Graham's tutelage the Pirates have done more than just prosper. In his 25 seasons Graham has taken home the Portage County League title 18 times, including the past 11 years in a row. The Pirates also captured the Division II state championship in 1991 and crowned 10 individual state champions during Graham's tenure.
With a resume like that, Graham would appear to be a lock to remain in his position until his retirement, but the coach and Southeast are parting ways and not on the best of terms, with Graham just four years from retirement eligibility.
"My kid is going to be a freshman and I always thought we would walk out the doors together," said Graham. "Southeast and Ralph Graham are just not a good fit right now."
While no one specific incident pushed the long-time wrestling mentor to his decision, there have been signs of trouble brewing between Graham and the Southeast administration for years. Several ex-Southeast coaches and former athletic director Dick Young also felt friction with the relatively new administration, which almost prompted Graham to leave last year.
An emergency community meeting helped persuade the coach to remain, but the stay was short-lived.
"It is more of an accumulation of things over the years," said Graham. "If I thought detailing the things that are wrong at Southeast would help, I would. (But) we could talk for days."
Graham tendered his resignation to the Board of Education on March 20, and first expressed his intent to resign to his team. The meeting with the team was an emotional affair for Graham.
"Telling the kids was one of the toughest things I've ever done," said Graham. "I wanted to just tell them first, and I was fine until I walked in. I had to tell them that I just can't go on."
The future for Graham is uncertain, but the coach has not ruled out any possibilities. Becoming an administrator is a preferred option, but Graham could be back on the mats as well.
"If I could pick what I do, I'd like to be an athletic director," said Graham. "I certainly haven't ruled out coaching again."
With his kids in the Southeast school system as well, Graham may not just be looking for a new job but a new address as well.
"One of the real benefits of my profession is that with all the time I give up for coaching, I can still be involved in the life of my children because they go to the same school," said Graham. "If I took another job, I would look to move into that district."
One point of concern for Graham has been the action of the school board, a group the coach sees as making headway towards real change. Mary Kaley has been joined by Dave Kemble on the board, but the two are still outvoted 3-2 on most issues.
Southeast athletic director Felix Carmello noted the loss of Graham is definitely a setback, but pointed to the fact that the superintendent will start the process of selecting a new coach by opening the job internally, as per the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers.
"He is an outstanding coach that has obviously done a wonderful job," said Carmello. "He really has developed an outstanding program by surrounding himself with outstanding assistant coaches and nurturing the whole system."
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