Western Illinois women’s basketball coach J.D. Gravina once said in an interview he’s probably among the few coaches in the country who isn’t big on goal-setting with his team.
He prefers to focus on the moment at hand, which has always been true of Gravina’s coaching career as well.
“I was pretty humble, knowing I wasn’t a spectacular player, but I always loved the game and grew up watching my dad (Jim Gravina) coach the Liberty High School girls,” Gravina said.
That passion is why Gravina, an Oak Park High and William Jewell College graduate, set aside a career as a software developer for Overland Park-based Actuarial Resources Corporation to give the coaching profession a try.
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It didn’t feel like work for Gravina — who participated in basketball, tennis and track during his college career with the Cardinals — but some friends wondered if he’d lost his mind, giving up that job to coach the Putnam County girls in Unionville, Mo.
He hadn’t, and he was hooked.
Two years later, Gravina wound up at McPherson (Kan.) College in 2005, leading the Bulldogs to a winning record in his second season.
That led to a job at Quincy (Ill.) University, where the Hawks won at least 20 games in all four seasons under Gravina.
After posting a 93-28 record, including two Great Lakes Valley Conference titles and three NCAA Division II Tournament appearances, Gravina wound up at Western Illinois, an NCAA Division I program in the Summit League.
The journey’s been every bit as unexpected as exhilarating.
“It’s honestly something, when I started out in the coaching field I never thought I’d get to this level,” Gravina said. “I used to tell people my dream job was Rockhurst College.”
But there was Gravina coaching the Leathernecks against Florida State on Friday in the NCAA D-I Women’s Basketball Tournament — his clapping, cajoling and encouraging shouts broadcast to the country on ESPN2.
“I was kind of lucky to get the Quincy job and have some success there, so it’s been a dream come true,” Gravina said. “At the same time, I’ve enjoyed every step that I’ve been so much. It’s been a neat process because I’ve never been the person looking for that next step. It’s always just came to be and I’ve been really lucky some people have taken some chances on me.”
Gravina, who also served as an assistant for two seasons on Jewell coach Jill Slominski’s staff, doesn’t know where the journey goes from here, but he’s not worried either.
“My goal was to be a college head coach,” said Gravina, who married the former Meredith Rash in 2008 and now has a daughter and a son. “If I would have coached at McPherson College forever, I think I would have been really happy doing that. I remember, when I got into coaching, I said, ‘I’m not getting into coaching to be (Connecticut’s) Geno (Auriemma) just like I wouldn’t get into politics to be the president.’ I love coaching. I love working with the kids.”
Western Illinois’ breakthrough 26-7 season capped by the program’s first NCAA berth since 1995 suggests the players feel the same way about Gravina.