PAXTON — After 12 years as Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School’s head football coach, it was hard for Jeff Graham to envision working anywhere else this upcoming fall.
Then the opportunity to work in the dual capacity of superintendent/principal at Ludlow Grade School came up, and he had his official interview for that position last February.
"Before it all got started, If you told me that I wasn’t going to be at PBL next year, I would have probably laughed," Graham said.
Graham has been named to succeed long-time administrator Dru Lobmaster at Ludlow Grade School. He will begin his superintendent/principal duties on July 1, drawing an annual salary of $103,000.
Therefore, Graham is resigning as PBL’s head football coach, as well as from his administrative duties as the high school’s director of student services.
"I’m very excited. I think it’s a great opportunity. I think it’s a great place, a place that I feel like I’ll fit in and a good opportunity for me," Graham said. "I just think the board is really good. They care. Everybody I’ve met just seems very passionate about their school. "Lobmaster has done such a wonderful job. She and I started to talk, and the board made a decision to bring me in for an interview. I met with them a few times, and then I was offered a position.
"That’s kind of how the process went. It was not necessarily a position — they had a full-time superintendent — the full-time super. Ms. Lobmaster’s been interim few years; they’ve just kind of been looking. We happened to talk, and then the ball started rolling a little bit on it. The more I talked to them and the people involved in Ludlow Grade School, it just seemed like a really good situation. They’re just great people."
Graham’s 12 years as PBL’s head coach are tied for the second-most in Paxton/PBL football history since 1945. Norm Henderson coached Paxton High School from 1965-79 and PBL from 2000-01, and Jerry Zimmerman was Paxton/PBL’s head coach from 1987-98.
During his past eight-year stint, participation in the football program increased from 43 players in 2011 to going up into the 80-player mark during the Panthers’ current streak of five straight playoff appearances. Recently, the participation level, according to Graham, hovered around the 70-player mark.
"Our numbers are good," Graham said. "We’ve had a lot of kids who have bought into the work that it takes as an athlete and as a whole. They’ve bought into weight training and conditioning and the importance of that. Some of the physical features of numbers and things like that is great, but I also think some of the other components that you can’t necessarily see — the positive mindset and culture — is in a good place."
Brock Niebuhr, the PBL High School athletic director, shares Graham’s optimism about the school’s participation as he hopes to hire a head coach that can continue to build the program.
"A lot of schools our size are struggling with numbers and participation a little bit," Niebuhr said. "We’re fortunate to have some really good participation numbers when it comes to football. I think a lot of that speaks to coach Graham and the job that he’s done building this program back up. Hopefully, the next coach we have can continue those relationships and keep those numbers at a high level, and that we can continue to see this program improve and, hopefully, ultimately get all the way to the top."
The Panthers’ five straight playoff appearances include three appearances in the second round of the IHSA Class 3A postseason over the last four years, including a 7-4 record this past fall.
"I think (the PBL football program’s) in a great state. It’s ready for the next level," Graham said. "The goal is to get it to the next level. You want to get it to the highest level that you possibly can. I think the culture is really positive. Our numbers are back up."
The playoff streak started with a 5-5 record in 2014 as PBL made the postseason for the first time since 2006. Before then, the Panthers were 2-7 in 2011, followed by back-to-back 4-5 seasons in 2012 and 2013.
"I was fortunate enough to be on the staff with him for seven years. We went through the growing pains, but we saw the steady improvement," said Niebuhr, who served as an assistant football coach under Graham from 2011-17. "He was dedicated to seeing PBL football get turned around. (Making it to the second round) three of the last four years shows that the dedication and determination has really paid off."
Niebuhr said the hiring process for a new head football coach will take place throughout April.
"The position will be posted, if not today, then this week," Niebuhr said Wednesday. "It’ll be advertised for a while. We’ll see what we get and go from there. Hopefully, that process will take, probably, for three-four weeks. We want to get someone in place so that we have someone to get going and get summer stuff organized and things like that. We’re going to take our time to get the best candidate available."
Niebuhr and the PBL school administration are keeping their options open to all possibilities.
"We’re going to open this up both internally and externally and see what we’ve got available," Niebuhr said.
Whomever PBL hires, Graham — who lives in rural Paxton — will be around watching.
"I’m not going anywhere," Graham said. "People will see me quite often. I’m very vocal about the fact that this will not lessen my passion, loyalty and respect for PBL. I will be visible at athletic events. I will continue to be the biggest supporter and advocate for PBL athletics that you can find."
Such support would come as no surprise to Niebuhr.
"To me, Jeff is PBL football," Niebuhr said. "His passion for high school football, specifically PBL football, is something that will definitely be missed."
Graham posted a record of 46-34 during his second stint as PBL’s head coach.
His first stint, in 2002-05, resulted in a 21-18 record and three playoff appearances through four years before he resigned to take a job as PBL Junior High School principal.
When Graham reclaimed his position as head football coach in 2011, he was reassigned from junior high principal to high school assistant principal.
Graham, who is 48 years old, has not completely ruled out the thought of having a third stint as football coach.
"I don’t think you can ever say never," Graham said. "This is kind of a new beginning for my career. We’ll see where this leads me and my family. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. If you had told me three months ago this is where I’m going to be, I would have questioned that. I think things happen for a reason. You never know what the future’s going to hold. I’m very excited for this next chapter in my career, but four, five, 10 or 15 years down the road, you have no idea what’s going to happen."
The thing Graham said he will miss the most about coaching PBL football is the relationships he built — "mainly, and most importantly, the relationships with the kids."
"I’m probably unlike a lot of coaches that always talk about missing the Friday night lights. I’m not like that. I actually miss the practices and being with the kids," Graham said. "It’s during the practices where you develop relationships with kids. It’s not the Friday night lights. It’s the Tuesdays and Wednesdays when you’re out there busting your tails. You’re talking and communicating. That’s when relationships are made. They’re also made in other components, too — the weight room and outside of the field as well."
Graham said his relationships with other people involved in working with the football program — assistant coaches, athletics, principals and the community — will be missed as well.
"All those types of relationships with those people are important, too," Graham said. "Those are things that I’ll miss."
Graham also said he "can’t give enough credit to this district and the administration and board and the opportunity they’ve given me here."
"This board of education and (PBL Superintendent Cliff) McClure are very supportive," Graham continued. "They’ve always been supportive. They want to do what’s best for kids in our district. That’s a great place to work when you have leaders with the end goal in mind of doing what’s best for the kids. You can’t get any better than that. I’m very thankful for the opportunity that this district has given me."
Niebuhr, who has served as PBL High School’s athletic director since the start of the 2017-18 school year, said the feeling of gratitude is mutual.
"I can’t express enough the job that coach Graham did over the past eight years," Niebuhr said. "To be a part of his staff for seven of those years was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun together. Hopefully, we can find someone that has that much interest in the community and PBL football."
Graham has two sons — Tate, who will be a PBL HIgh School senior next year, and Ty, who will be a freshman next year — and one daughter — Tanner, who will be a PBL Junior High School seventh-grader next year.
"My family’s been super-supportive," Graham said. "I have to give them a lot of credit because they’re very supportive. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without all of them."