Johnny Graham has stepped down as manager of the Belgrade Bandits following a second stint at the helm. He informed players of his decision at the conclusion of last week’s state tournament.
The Bandits earned a top four finish at the Montana-Alberta Class A State Tournament in Havre to cap a 48-19 campaign. Graham made the announcement after a season-ending loss to Glacier.
“I have been kind of contemplating this for a while and I didn’t want to rush it. I knew it would be difficult,” he said. “When I came to the conclusion I wanted to chat with the players first.
“The hardest part of that was looking at the underclassmen and telling them that. Because you want to help these kids through their career and help them achieve their own personal goals. And I kind of felt guilty like I was walking away on those guys.”
But Graham added that it’s the right time to step away from the game he loves to devote more time to family. His kids, Brooklyn and Ryan, are 12 and 10 years old, respectively, and are excelling in their own activities.
Graham was only able to watch five of his son’s games this summer, so it will be a "treat" to catch every game next year, and he's looking forward to doing more camping and fishing with the family.
“Selfishly I could coach forever,” he said. “But I don’t want to miss out with some pretty good years with the family either.”
Graham joined the Bandits as an assistant coach in 2006 and was head coach from 2007-09 when the program was competing in Class AA. He returned in 2012 and had 10 very successful years at the helm.
Belgrade won seven regular season conference championships, advanced to state eight times and finished as the state runner up in 2013 and 2017. During that stretch, Graham’s teams posted a 419-167 record, including 176-23 in the Southern A conference.
“My personal goal as a head coach was to build a program that regardless of what we had we were going to be very competitive and very good every year. And I think we achieved that,” he said. “Looking over those years we never really had a down year. So I’m content with that.
“But that state title, it was elusive. So I am disappointed about that.”
Belgrade reached the state semifinals five times, but was unable to get over the hump and win a state championship. Graham noted there’s element of luck in winning a title, and the Bandits weren’t fortunate enough to catch the big break they needed.
“I really wanted to bring one home to Belgrade. It would have been the first one in program history,” Graham said. “It just would have been magical to watch the kids dog pile on each other and celebrate it. That would have been something to be a part of, but didn’t quite get it.”
Coaching is what continues to drive and motivate Graham, and he plans to return to the game at some capacity in the future. In the meantime, he'll continue to study the game and perfect his craft.
“Ideally, and I don’t know what the future holds, but if I’m fortunate enough and blessed enough I’ll get a chance to coach at the high school level again. I’m hoping that’s the case,” said Graham. “I’d love to coach when Ryan gets up there in some capacity in a head role or an assistant.”
Graham will be in the stands next year to support the Bandits, and feels good about where he's left the program and the facility at Medina Field.
“Belgrade’s been a great place. The kids have been so good over the years to me and their parents as well, and the board’s been outstanding,” said Graham. “It’s been a great place to coach.”