When Arizona State coach Todd Graham first heard about a powerful EF-5 tornado hitting suburban Oklahoma City, he felt nothing but intense fear.
“I was scared to death for my kids,” Graham said Tuesday.
Graham has a son and a daughter who attend the University of Oklahoma, and the tornado touched down about five miles from where his son lives in Norman.
Once Graham learned his children were safe, his fear turned to heartbreak for the state he called home for more than a decade.
“I’ve got friends and family all over that area, and just watching the news is tragic,” Graham said. “Your heart breaks at the loss of life, especially the young kids. It’s just such a tragic deal.”
Graham played football at East Central University in Ada, Okla., from 1983-86. He returned to the school as defensive coordinator from 1991-93 and in 1994 coached at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City, about 20 minutes from where Monday’s tornado touched down in Moore, Okla., and killed at least 24 people.
Graham also spent eight years in the state coaching at Tulsa, first as defensive coordinator from 2003-05 and then as head coach from 2007-10.
With so much time spent in the state, Graham and his wife, Penni, formed countless relationships. A few friends were affected, but no one Graham knew personally was hurt or suffered severe property damage. Still, Graham couldn’t stop thinking about the tragedy facing the people now and what it was like living in the area known as Tornado Alley.
“Tornadoes are just part of life there, but it’s a very, very scary thing,” Graham said. “I remember when we were living there, and it’s scary. If it directly hits you, especially if it’s a big one like an F4 or F5, there’s not a lot you can do.”
During his time living in Oklahoma, Graham experienced a few close calls. His first came while attending East Central.
“We had a tornado that hit right by our dorm, tore out a gas station, tore out some houses,” Graham recalled. “We had to take cover in the bathroom, pull the mattress over your head and all that stuff.”
While Graham was at Tulsa, a tornado hit in Bixby, Okla., just a few blocks from his home at the time.
“You live there, you’re going to have tornadoes,” Graham said. “There were many, many times while I lived there we had to take cover. We had a plan in place for it.”
Graham isn’t the only ASU coach with Oklahoma ties, as defensive coordinator Paul Randolph and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell spent significant time in the state on Graham’s staff at Tulsa. New defensive line coach Jackie Shipp spent the last 14 years coaching at Oklahoma, and his parents live in Stillwater. The coaches certainly have many friends in the state, but Graham said his staff didn’t experience any loss in the wake of Monday’s tornado.
While Graham’s time in Oklahoma gave him first-hand insight into what it’s like living with tornadoes, it also showed him how the people of the state come together in the face of tragedy and how they support each other to come back from it.
“The people in the state of Oklahoma, I’ll tell you, they’re going to support each other,” Graham said. “I remember I had just left being a high school coach in Oklahoma when the Oklahoma City bombing happened and how the people rallied. The resolve and the perseverance of the people in that state are very unique. They’re very incredible people.”