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New challenge for McGraw at Baylor

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A new challenge awaits Mike McGraw, who on Monday was named the head men’s coach at Baylor.

This isn’t like his reign at Oklahoma State, a perennial national-title contender for the past half-century. This isn’t like his stint at Alabama, the best team in the country over the past five years.

No, in Baylor McGraw will be taking over a program that didn’t win a tournament last season, that has advanced to the NCAA Championship only once in the last 12 years, that lost its second-best player to graduation. This represents a fresh start in a familiar area.

The private school in Waco, Texas, is smack in the heart of Big 12 country, where McGraw coached for 16 years. More importantly, it’s also closer to both his and his wife’s families.

“It’s a natural fit and I’m thankful,” said McGraw, whose courtship began within a half-hour of 11th-year coach Greg Priest announcing his resignation last Tuesday. “I’ve got a place to be a head coach again.”

There have been several high-profile vacancies this offseason – Florida, Ole Miss and Baylor, among them – and, no surprise, McGraw has figured prominently in each. The 54-year-old helped lead Oklahoma State to the national title in his first year (2006) and also repeatedly produced one of the country’s top teams, but after two substandard seasons he was fired in June 2013. One of the first calls he received was from Alabama coach Jay Seawell, a longtime friend, who was only a few weeks removed from the school’s first men’s title.

“I’d love for you to come work with us and be a part of what we’re doing,” Seawell told him in that initial conversation, and a few days later, after a visit to Tuscaloosa, the deal was official.

Most everyone assumed it was a one-year gig, but that didn’t diminish the experience. With Seawell and McGraw at the helm – arguably the two best coaches in the sport – Alabama won a school-record nine times in 2013-14 and became just the second team in the past 30 years to win back-to-back national titles.

For McGraw, though, his detour to Tuscaloosa proved a necessary pitstop – in his final few seasons in Stillwater he had lost some of his passion for coaching. Few ooze enthusiasm more than Seawell, 46, and they instantly formed a formidable duo that led to the best season in program history.

“Our year together was as close to a perfect coaching year as you can have,” McGraw said. “What it did for me, how the team played, the time we spent together, I’ll never forget that.”

The partnership was mutually beneficial, with McGraw serving as a steadying presence for not only the Tide’s core group of seniors but also freshman Robby Shelton and redshirt sophomore Tom Lovelady.

“In the spring he had gotten his groove back, his hunger to be a coach again,” Seawell said Monday. “This team did a fantastic job of healing his heart and rebuilding him to be a coach again.”

Said McGraw: “I haven’t been this motivated to coach in 20 years. Jay helped me do that and rekindle that passion. I’ve got a fresh start now. These kids don’t even know me.”

Baylor finished last season ranked 29th in the country, having bowed out at NCAA regionals. The Bears have a strong No. 1 player in rising senior Kyle Jones, who had seven top 10s a year ago, but the rest of the roster remains largely unknown.

With a few loose ends to tie up in Tuscaloosa, McGraw said he hopes to be in Waco by early next week. Not only will he need to get acclimated to his new environs, but he’ll also have to hit the recruiting trail, hard.

“I’ve enjoyed what’s happened in the past but I have to look forward now,” he said. “It’s a different challenge.”

As for Alabama, the two-time defending champions are scrambling once again this offseason. It is the third consecutive year that Seawell has needed to replace an assistant coach, after Scott Limbaugh left for Vanderbilt in 2012 and Rob Bradley bolted for Purdue in ’13. This, of course, is the trade-off for running the country’s top team for the past few seasons.

From a recruiting and stability standpoint, it’s imperative that Seawell hires his next assistant as soon as possible, and he said Monday that he hopes to have someone in place by next month. In the meantime, he will fly this week to Chicago, site of the Western Junior, with more junior events and qualifiers to follow. By the end of the month, he will have spent only four days at home.

For the first year in a while, Alabama is a team in transition, having lost three starters from a year ago. A new challenge awaits.

“There are pieces in place,” Seawell said, “but there will also be a lot of unknowns."