North Xtra: Ex-state trooper takes command at Slippery Rock

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Bobby McGraw is a Butler County man through and through; he graduated from Mars Area High School, played basketball at Butler County Community College, works in the City of Butler and lives in Butler Township.

So when an opportunity to coach in Butler County presented itself, it was just like the commercial says ... priceless.

McGraw, 42, recently was named head women's basketball coach at Slippery Rock University, replacing Tanya Longo after Longo stepped down after four seasons to join her husband Phil, a former Rock offensive coordinator in football who accepted the same position at Sam Houston State in Texas.

For McGraw, it's a dream come true.

"It's a special feeling. I grew up in Butler County, I played high school basketball in Butler County, I played for coach [Dick] Hartung at the community college. I've been around Slippery Rock pretty much my entire life.

"An opportunity like this, for my first head coaching job to be where I'm from, it's just an unbelievable feeling. It's something I want to make sure I make the most of."

It has been a long road to the SRU sideline for McGraw, but one that has more than prepared him for his latest endeavor.

A 1990 graduate of Mars, McGraw played basketball at Butler County Community College before transferring to Clarion to play his final season. He eventually earned a degree in criminal justice from Tiffin University in Ohio and then spent four years in the Marine Corps.

After the Marine Corps, McGraw worked as a police officer with several municipalities before landing a job with the State Police, where he worked from 2004-2011. He has been employed since then as a consultant in risk management for Kids Count II in Butler.

It's his extensive background in law enforcement that makes him the perfect authority figure behind the bench.

"Coaches throughout the country who have never been exposed to or talked to someone who has taken some else's life, or they haven't talked to somebody who's been in a tragic situation, dealing with players and their issues on the basketball floor, academic issues, it's a joy," McGraw said. "Those aren't issues.

"That's one thing I feel blessed. I've been in situations that are literally life and death. Coaching basketball, I can't wait to get up the next morning and come to the office again. I've been fortunate I've had so many experiences with so many different individuals, with so many personalities, with so many backgrounds, with so many issues, that coaching basketball is easy."

It was his first collegiate coaching experience, after short stints at Freeport Area and Karns City high schools, that solidified McGraw's burning desire to coach.

That, along with the passing of longtime friend, teammate and mentor Scott Lang.

Lang, also a Mars grad, played with McGraw through high school, Butler County Community College and Clarion, and was head coach at La Roche College with McGraw as his assistant when he died suddenly at practice.

His death had an immediate impact on McGraw's path.

"No matter who I talk to or when I talk to them, it's still hard to talk about," said McGraw, after a long pause and obviously holding back emotions. "Growing up he was my hero, he was like an older brother. When he passed, coach Hartung gave his jersey to his mother and she gave it to me. My wife had it framed and it's here in my office.

"I don't know if Scott's passing toughened me up as much as [it] was the final piece to that puzzle in 2010. That was kind of like Scott's way of telling me, you always wanted to do this. You better do it now because you're not getting any younger."

McGraw left La Roche after one more season and took a job as a volunteer assistant under SRU men's coach Kevin Rey-nolds in 2012-13. After one season with Reynolds, Longo asked McGraw to join her on the women's side where he was a full-time assistant last year.

"He did a great job for us," said Reynolds, whose team finished 23-9 that season and advanced to the NCAA Division II tournament. "It was arguably one of the best years in Slippery Rock men's basketball history and he made a huge impact on the team. We were really lucky to have him join us that year.

"Everybody knows him. He's from Mars, a state policeman. When he came to help us, I was amazed at what a people-person he is, everybody knows him. He has a real infectious personality. I think he's going to make a big impact."

Even though last year was his first at coaching women's basketball, he said there is very little difference between the two games ... except for one small aspect.

"Last year and this year, there's a 99.9 percent chance that I will not see one alley oop thrown for a slam dunk," he said. "Last year I didn't see one, I doubt I'll see one this year.

"Other than that, the strategy, the attitudes, everything is the same except for some, the men jump higher, the majority of men run a little faster, the majority are stronger."

He also has a little inside help when it comes to coaching the women's game. McGraw and Point Park women's basketball coach Tony Grenek, a Butler High grad, are brothers-in-law. McGraw's wife, Melissa, and Grenek's wife, Megan, are sisters.

"He and I have talked about some preparation for the season heading in," McGraw said. "The big thing we discussed, first of all, don't let him kid you, Tony never played any defense. He played zero defense. But as a coach, Tony says stop the ball and everything else will take care of itself. Just like [former Butler coach] Mark Jula, they stopped the ball, played hard and everything took care of itself."

McGraw is now ready to instill that same hard-work philosophy at Slippery Rock ... and he's thankful every day for the opportunity.

"Dr. [SRU president Cheryl] Norton and [athletic director] Paul Lueken, this would not be happening right now without their support, without them giving me this opportunity," he said. "I can't even explain how grateful I am to them for providing me with this opportunity to see where we can go."

Rick Davis: rdavis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3789.


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