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Coaching with Class: Humanics Professor Naomi Graves Thrives with Springfield College’s Teacher-Coach Model

Justin Felisko


Upon being named the 2011-12 Distinguished Professor of Humanics, women’s basketball coach Naomi Graves wiped away her tears of shock and joy to crack a joke to the Fuller Arts Center crowd last April.

“It’s dangerous to give a coach a microphone,” she said.

Being a coach at Springfield College certainly gives Graves and her fellow coaches the “microphone.” They have the platform and the opportunity to not only coach but to educate students and athletes on the Springfield College Humanics’ philosophy as part of the teacher-coach model at SC.

Therefore, it was an easy decision to focus her Humanics’ Lecture research around the impact of the teacher-coach model at Springfield College.

“Coaching and teaching is such a powerful and exciting way to work with young people,” said the 27-year coach, 21 at Springfield. “You can leave footprints on [them] without even realizing it.”

“For some coaches, we become a pseudo-parent because that person trusts you, comes to you and confides in you,” Graves added. “You end up guiding them well beyond the game or the sport.”

The question Graves, an associate professor of physical education, will address at this year’s Humanics Lecture focuses around the idea of stewardship within the teacher-coach model.

“I’m examining how the teacher-coach exemplifies or stewards the Humanics philosophy,” Graves said. “How we cover the mind, the body, the spirit. What ways do our alumni receive it? What ways do our student athletes embellish it?”

Her lecture will also include select videos based off David Letterman’s Top 10 Lists from the 26 intercollegiate athletic teams on campus. Each team is completing a video top 10 of how they live out the Humanics philosophy.

It was an easy choice for Graves to focus on the role of the teacher-coach because she has always had a passion for coaching and teaching. It’s who she is and “why I work so hard,” Graves said.

Graves told the 2009 Distinguished Professor of Humanics Robert Accorsi at least 100 times she could not believe she was selected. Accorsi has been a mentor for Graves, listening to the coach’s ideas and offering his advice during her research. He was the first to hear of Graves’s topic selection.

“It’s been a long time coming since we have reinvestigated the teacher-coach model at Springfield College because it is unique,” Accorsi said. “One of the fascinating things for me talking to her about this is how many coaches, not just in basketball, [use] the approach [that] is very much centered around Humanics.”

The former University of Rhode Island basketball star (Graves ranks second in URI history with 1,862 points) returned to Western Mass, where she used to hold the Western Mass. girls’ high school basketball scoring title (currently held by Memphis’s Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir) before Rebecca Lobo, for graduate school in the early 80s. The Williamsburg, Mass. native was a basketball GA and fell in love with Springfield College and its traditions.

“I came back to Springfield College because I believe in what this place does, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Graves said. “I love the teacher-coach. I wouldn’t change it. This is my passion.”

From the beginning of her time at Springfield as a graduate student, Graves “cemented” her impression on others, remembers Accorsi. Graves interned under the now-associate professor of sport management and recreation at the United Cerebral Palsy of Western Mass., as an adaptive physical educator for athletes with disabilities.

“She was very hands-on and was all about the program,” Accorsi remembers. “She would ask ‘what expertise do I need to help individuals with disabilities achieve their goals? How can I make this experience more memorable?’”

“She embodies the spirit, mind and body,” he added. “She models knowledge and wisdom and service to humanity. It’s always about what can her basketball team and she do by example to make sure that they never, ever forget that they need to give back to the community.”

Graves officially returned as the head women’s basketball coach in 1991 after six seasons at WPI, and she completely revamped an SC program that had won just nine games in three seasons before. In the process though, she continued the Humanics philosophy through her relationships with her players.

“Coach Graves has been almost like an extension of family for me since I’ve been at SC,” said senior captain Kelly Murphy. “She has supported me through many different aspects of life off the basketball court. She’s showed me, through her own modeling, how to try and help others better themselves.”

Just this past weekend, the men’s and women’s basketball team hosted the Play 4Kay day to raise awareness for breast cancer, a disease that hits close to home.

Graves has battled breast cancer before, and during her bout she realized how much of an impact she has had over her teacher-coach career. It gave her a chance to check in with her past athletes.

“That’s one of the things, when I got my breast cancer, I got to see because people then called back,” said the three-time NEWMAC coach of the year. “I think most of us, as teacher-coaches, the best thing to see, is to see certain student athletes come back and see where their lives are at. It doesn’t matter if they are in my profession as long as they are out there making a difference, enjoying what they do and that they’re happy. Those are things that are really treasures to me.”

Darren Bennett ’95, G ‘97, head coach of the Skidmore College women’s basketball team, took Fit for Life with Graves as an undergraduate at Springfield and later worked as a part-time assistant coach for her following his stint as an intramurals GA.

“With a lot of love and passion, you can see that what she is doing is from a love aspect,” Bennett said. “She is all about the grind, all about the hard work and paying your dues. She taught me that being a good human being, which really is what Humanics is, being a good person really pays off.”

Bennett credits Graves with instilling in him the hard work and confidence to succeed at the collegiate level. He had no plans of coaching college basketball until Graves convinced him to try it. Since then, Bennett has loved coaching and teaching college athletes and has embraced the teacher-coach model.

“There’s a great amount of respect for teachers, academic people and coaches that work to help shape, mold and nurture the minds of young people,” Bennett said. “It’s not always us having to direct them and tell them what to do. It’s really planting a seed of thought. Planting a seed of aspiration and helping them reach their goals and dreams.”

Nicole Chaszar G‘03, head coach of Western New England women’s basketball, worked under Graves as a graduate assistant for two years and remembers how open the Springfield College athletic department and Graves were, even playing a couple of pick-up games against the former high school All-American.

“I paid extreme attention to how she ran a program and what she did,” said Chaszar, who also credits Graves with helping her land her first full-time coaching job at URI. “[She taught me to] balance not only the profession of teaching-coaching, but how extremely important it was to develop relationships with your players.”

“They’re more than just an athlete,” the seven-year coach said. “You really need to concentrate on all aspects of their career, meaning academics, how they’re doing socially, how their family is doing, how they’re playing and what you can do to further their life after basketball.”

Helping student-athletes beyond sport is one of the pleasures of being a teacher-coach.

Part of Graves’s desire to lecture about the teacher-coach model is because it is part of the responsibility that comes with coaching at Springfield College. Each coach is a steward of the Humanics philosophy. Graves said she was lucky to have all of the greats as her mentors. Former SC coaching legends Dottie Zenaty, Mimi Murray and Diane Potter all dazzled and mesmerized Graves with coaching, and more importantly, Humanics knowledge.

“They were the ones that passed the torch to me, and now it’s my generation’s role to continue to pass the torch to the new coaches coming in,” she said.

A torch right now that is lit by Graves’ passion for Humanics.

“She’s intense about a lot of things in life, but she is really intense about making sure the Humanics philosophy is shepherded along to the future generations,” Accorsi said. “The way she is going to do that is to make sure that she imparts that on her athletes and the students she touches in the classroom. To make sure that they actually protect, guide and nurture Humanics for the next generation.”

Justin Felisko may be reached at 

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