Thursday, February 22, 2018

Wrestling tournament is ultimate homage to coaching icon

BRANDON — Payback is how Brandon coach Russ Cozart views the Jim Graves Invitational, a tournament he initiated in 2003 to honor his mentor.

"Jim Graves — that's the guy that started it all," said Cozart, who replaced Graves in 1980. "He basically built the program. He started the program that started the streak."

The 459-dual meet winning streak began on Graves' watch in 1974, but as far as he is concerned Cozart took what he started to another level. Indeed he has, evident by Brandon's 24 state championships including the past 13.

"He's an outstanding coach. He's the best I've ever seen," Graves said. "Nobody outworks him. I thought I was the best. He put me to shame, basically."

Graves is a bit modest when it comes to the invitational being named after himself.

"That's (Cozart's) doing," Graves said. "I'm not in favor of it, but if that's what he wants to do that's fine."

Graves has been a fixture during the finals of his namesake tournament. The 2013 version begins Friday night at Brandon and continues Saturday morning and afternoon, with the finals expected to start around 5 p.m.

The host Eagles have won the tournament every year except for 2008 and, as is always the case, they will be challenged by state championship-caliber programs from Florida and Georgia. Cozart enjoys the top-notch competition in a series that initially welcomed teams to break Brandon's former record-setting winning streak.

"I formed it for anybody to come and beat us in the streak," he said.

This year's 20-team field, five more teams than last season, includes such formidable challengers as Lake Highland Prep, South Dade, Tampa Prep, Alonso and Plant, along with Georgia powerhouses Suwanee Collins Hill and Kingsland Camden County.

"I think the tournament is a little deeper in talent this year," Cozart said. "There's going to be a lot of talented wrestlers there."

Cozart, a championship high school and college wrestler who competed internationally for 13 years, had little coaching experience when he arrived at Brandon. He said he learned a lot from Graves.

"I was a young kid and it was my third job," Cozart said. "I was by no means an expert at that point."

One of the most important aspects of coaching Graves imparted to his successor was to be prepared for the future.

"I always told him to know who his wrestlers were three years in advance," Graves said. "If you want to keep winning you've got to have a plan for the future."

Cozart took over a program that in 1977 won the first state wrestling title in the Tampa Bay area and boasted the area's first state champion in the late Tony Ippolito. Graves, 98-11-1 in nine seasons, left Cozart with 10 returners and two prominent transfers for that first season.

"He couldn't lose if he tried the first year," Graves said.

For his part, Cozart appreciated Graves helping him out, especially with the junior varsity program, for eight years after he retired.

The mutual respect and friendship continues for both men.

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