SIU isn’t new to the debate game

By Anna Spoerre, @annaspoerre

A small room in the Communications Building was filled with energy Thursday, as five teammates sat around a table clicking keyboards, scribbling notes and exchanging yellow legal paper like a well-oiled machine. 

Director of Debate Todd Graham sat across from two debaters and two graduate assistants, giving suggestions and occasionally cracking jokes as his team prepared for its first practice debate of the semester since returning from the World University Debating Championships in Greece. Teams such as Harvard and Duke fell victim to SIU’s superior discussion ability during the World Universities Debating Championship, held in Greece from Dec. 27 through Jan. 4.

SIU’s debate team has existed since at least 1937, said Nathan Stucky, department chair of communication studies, and the team has had waves of success and failure.

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Graham, who has been the coach since 2000, said he choose to coach at SIU despite other offers because the team had a rich history.

“I knew how proud the institution used to be of its debate team and the success it used to have, and I wanted to recreate that,” said Graham, who has won five national championships at SIU.

When he came to Carbondale, Graham said the debate team had almost disappeared because of numerous interim coaches and low funding. So he began to rebuild it. But, the road wasn’t easy.

Graham, who previously oversaw the debate program at Northwestern State University from 1990 to 1997, said his first team was made up of two walk-on debaters. As head coach, he did not go to a single competition that year, but instead worked with university administrators to build funding and traveled the country recruiting, leading to a team of eight members the following year.

Graham said after a few years the team was competitive at nationals. In 2015, for the eighth consecutive year, the team made it to the final four.

“Nobody wins this much,” Graham said as he sat in his office, pointing to a bookshelf with a dozen first place trophies from 2015 on it — too many to fit in the building’s trophy case.

Graham said he attributes some of the team’s success to luck, but also to its focus on recruiting and practice methods. He said he travels across the nation, checking out high school debates and deciding which individuals would fit his vision of the team. 

Even while prepping for nationals in March, Graham was making calls to potential recruits for next season. 

This year’s team includes Graham, two debaters and two assistant coaches. Arielle Stephenson, a junior from Torrance, Calif., studying business economics and Bobby Swetz, a freshman from Flossmoor studying economics are his two debaters while Zach Schneider and Ben Reid — both of whom won national champion titles — help with coaching. 

Stephenson and Swetz regularly debate in practices against Schneider and Reid. 

“[SIU debaters] now have the best coaching rounds in the country,” Graham said.

Stephenson, who won competitions in her home state, said SIU is held in high regard in the debate world.

“The legacy is very strong,” Stephenson said. “People know that we have tough practices. People know that we have lots of research.”

Debaters spend much more time reading and writing than they do debating, Graham said. He recommended his debaters spend at least two hours a day reading news, in addition to practicing from 3:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

When asked how much time they spend together, they all laughed and said “too much.”

Despite having a fairly young team, Graham said he has been happy with its success this year. The team won its first competition of the year at Ohio University earlier this month, a win Graham said he was not expecting. Now, Stephenson said the team is ranked seventh for nationals, which take place in California in March.

“We have to have a lot of things go our way to do well at this tournament,” Graham said. “But things so far have been going our way pretty well.” 

Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3325

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