Everyone has a passion in life, but few get to earn a living pursuing that passion. Even fewer get to do so with someone they consider their best friend.
University of Dallas assistant men’s basketball coach Matt Grahn had all of that. But he suddenly had it all taken away last year.
Now, Grahn is back, and is excited to be back with longtime friend, head coach Jarred Samples.
“I’m overjoyed to be working alongside my friend and my family member,” Grahn said. “Whether he knows it or not, he is an amazing man and a fierce champion of my career.”
Grahn has been coaching for 25 years at several different colleges. He has a big personality and will make you feel like his best friend within a few minutes of talking to him, making him perfect for recruiting.
In 2003, as an assistant at Texas Lutheran University, Grahn met another assistant coach at rival Southwestern University while both were on the road recruiting.
The other assistant was Samples.
“We actually recruited against each other, that’s how we got to know each other,” Grahn said.
Samples liked Grahn and kept up with his career.
“You always just kind of stay in touch in the coaching business when you see people out, so I knew he was a Division III guy,” Samples said.
According to Samples, college coaching is a tightknit business, and coaches often find themselves running into the same people at various recruiting events.
Other factors made the eventual partnership seem like destiny.
“The crazy part about this is my wife was an assistant at Southwestern on the women’s side before I knew her, [and] they actually shared an office space together,” Grahn said. “When I married her, my relationship with him got even tighter because they had a great relationship too.”
In 2008, Samples, a graduate and former player at UD, became the head coach at his alma mater.
As fate would have it, two years later, Grahn would be moving to the Dallas area as well.
“I remember he called me one night … that his wife had just gotten a job up in Frisco and [he] wanted to know if I’d be interested in him volunteering,” Samples said. “I said, ‘yeah, heck yeah,’ because I already knew him, I knew his wife, I knew his background being here, a Division III coach in Texas, so it was great to have someone with his experience willing to come up here.”
Grahn brought his fiery personality and enthusiasm to UD. After the team went 4-23 in his first year, he hit the ground hard on the recruiting trail.
“That first year we hit it hard, but especially him, he worked like a madman,” Samples said. “He also understood the type of student athletes that we had to recruit here,” he added, speaking to UD’s academic standards.
Grahn’s first class included Kym Malone, Aaron Wyatt, and Blaine Blackburn. By the time they were seniors, the program had won 18 games, the most in school history, including the first Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) tournament game in school history.
After two years as a volunteer assistant, Grahn was able to get a paid position with the athletic department as the recruiting coordinator for all sports. Assistant coaches in college sports, particularly Division III sports, usually don’t stay at a job very long. Grahn’s paid position and his respect and admiration for Coach Samples have kept him here long-term.
“He’s the best tactician I know,” Grahn said of Samples. “I’ve worked for 10 other head coaches, one of them just retired from the NBA, and Jarred Samples is the best X-and-O guy I’ve worked for.”
In addition to his recruiting prowess, Grahn is also a big believer in culture and creating a winning culture.
“I’m a firm believer that culture eats talent and tactics for breakfast, and that’s the most important part of success for me,” Grahn said.
His relationships with his players are an important part of that culture.
“I really appreciated him,” said senior basketball player Manny Calton. “When I wanted to quit basketball, he was one of the people I talked to, and he basically made me not want to quit anymore.”
Things were going well for Grahn and Samples, but a few weeks before the 2016 season got underway, Grahn was met with a complication.
An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) stated that employees earning less than $913 per week must be paid overtime. Grahn fit that category, and as a result of the new law, he had to be paid overtime to coach basketball. With the financial limitations in UD’s athletic department, the school decided he would not be able to coach basketball last year.
“It felt like, to be honest with you, it felt like somebody ripped my heart out and threw it on the ground and stomped on it,” Grahn said.
This all happened a few weeks before the basketball team began practice, and as a result Samples and the rest of the team didn’t have time to dwell on the situation.
“There was nothing we could really do about it, it was what it was, so we had to keep going with what we were trying to do with practice, with planning, with recruiting and everything,” Samples said.
Despite this, there was still a lot of disappointment from all parties.
“When I [found] out that he wasn’t coming back, I was extremely devastated and I felt like I lost not just a coach, but also a friend in the process,” Calton said.
“It broke my heart, it was like somebody forced a break up,” Grahn said.
“I felt bad for him, I knew it was going to affect me the way we did things without him, … but I felt more bad for him in that situation than I did for myself or our program,” Samples said. “I know how much he’d invested, how important it was to him, his relationship with our guys, and for him to lose that — I know it was tough on him, and I felt really bad.”
Grahn thought that it opened up an opportunity, however, to achieve his goal of becoming a head coach. In the short term, he volunteered at another program in the area and focused on his paid position as recruiting coordinator.
“I just stuck my nose to the grindstone,” Grahn said. “I plugged away at my work. I was deadset on having a stellar year and we did, we knocked it out of the park recruiting wise. We had 108 freshman student athletes, which is the most in my time here. My goal was 100, we got 108. That might be the most in school history, to be honest with you. I don’t know for sure, but that’s got to be close.”
As Grahn did this, the program he’d been forced to leave struggled. The basketball team went 9-16 overall and just 2-12 in conference, and struggled with chemistry issues.
Watching from afar, Grahn felt the team’s biggest problems were things he could solve.
“I saw a disjointed group of people and dissension amongst the ranks, if you will, and I believe that’s really where my strength lies — [in] being the connector and the glue to hold guys together, or even the hammer to break down barriers,” Grahn said.
“His presence was deeply missed the whole season,” Calton said. “From the first day of practice until the last second we played our last game, he was deeply missed.”
Grahn was unable to get another coaching job, and as a result thought he’d be going another year doing the same thing, unable to help repair the program he’d helped build.
“This job helped pay the bills and provided the insurance benefits for my kids, and ultimately that’s the most important thing to me that my family’s taken care of,” Grahn said. “From that perspective I felt stuck, I had no other options.”
Two separate lawsuits were filed against the amendment to the FLSA. The law was supposed to go into effect on Dec. 1 of 2016. UD decided to implement it on Oct. 1. However, a district court judge in Sherman granted a temporary injunction until May 31, 2017. During that injunction, there was a presidential change. The law was now being held in limbo, and on Aug. 31 it was ruled that the law wouldn’t go into effect, according to Grahn.
Of course, this would lead one to believe that Grahn would be allowed to coach again.
“I didn’t hear anything, and at that point … I was so tired, I wasn’t going to raise a stink,” Grahn said.
Four days before practice started, Grahn was informed that he’d be allowed to coach again. Now, both Grahn and Samples very much have a “band-is-back-together” feel.
“I feel really lucky to have him back, [to have him] be a part of our program,” Samples said. “I know what he has contributed and what he can continue to contribute, and we’re better for it.”
“I was excited to be working with a guy that I love and I trust, that I would lay across train tracks for,” Grahn said.
Grahn missed an entire year with this team, and still feels like he’s playing catch up, but Samples believes in him and what he’s done for him in the past.
“He’s worked his tail off for me for a number of years,” Samples said. “Ultimately I would like this to be his last year. I want to see him get a head coaching job, and it’s going to stink whenever that happens because he’s going to leave, but I’d definitely like to see him get that opportunity. I think he’s earned it.”