On Thanksgiving Day in 2010, Terrence Graves sat like many others, surrounded by his family and with food covering the table.

“It was different,” Graves said Sunday. “First time in almost 16 years I had been able to go home.”

Coaching is Graves’ calling. An intense competitor who refuses to let much hinder preparation for the next game, Graves’ Southern defenses often practiced straight through Thanksgiving Day, preparing for the Bayou Classic alongside longtime head coach Pete Richardson.

But when Richardson and his coaching staff were fired in 2009, Graves’ journey changed. He became Mississippi Valley State’s assistant head coach and linebackers coach, unsure if he’d ever be back in the rivalry.

“To be honest, I didn’t know if I’d ever coach in the Bayou Classic again,” Graves said. “I had no idea five years later I would be back in the Bayou Classic and had no idea I’d be back on the other side at Grambling.”

Now the Tigers defensive coordinator under head coach Broderick Fobbs, Graves is quick to dispel the obvious question. When he returns to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday, it’s business as usual.

He’s been asked all week if his return will be weird. He swears it won’t be. There’s no altered mindset, either, even though the game determines a trip to Houston for the SWAC Championship Game.

That, Graves said, is the beauty of the Grambling-Southern rivalry, a matchup he termed a “family rivalry.”

“You’ve got brother versus brother, teammate versus teammate, neighbor versus neighbor,” Graves explained. “I have family members that graduated or attended Southern University. At the end of the game, we’re all one big family. It’s like nothing they’ve ever experienced before.”

Graves hasn’t needed to impart much of his past Bayou Classic experiences to the Tigers. Sure, the freshmen have asked about the luncheon that precedes the game and the festivities surrounding the weekend.

He chuckled Friday recalling his first few days at Grambling, where he found his players knew more about him than most after their own independent research.

“I think it speaks more to the volume of the players,” Fobbs said. “Anytime you have a group of young men who do that on their own, it tells you about them (and) what’s important to them. They wanted to make sure they knew who was going to coach them and they made sure they understood the system.”

It’s that understanding which has propelled Graves’ first defense, which currently sits third in total scoring defense in SWAC games. His secondary, led by Mike Roach and Dwight Amphy, earned the nickname “Body Snatchers” from a Tiger broadcaster and has 10 interceptions on the season.

Both aggressive coaches by nature, Fobbs praised Graves’ intensity and experience, explaining Graves strikes a unique balance with the rest of his coaching staff, some of which are SWAC veterans while others are first-timers.

“We have the perfect blend of guys who have been in this league and guys who have been other places,” Fobbs said. “(It) allows us to bring several and a plethora of views to the table.”

Coming in to the week, Graves told the staff to evaluate the Southern game film carefully. From his years on the Bluff, Graves knows the intensity that both teams put into the rivalry and whatever is seen from Southern on film will be played twice as hard on the Superdome turf.

It’ll be no problem for Graves’ crew to reciprocate.

“I am a ultra-competitive person,” Graves said. “I want to win in anything. I want to win in marbles, in pitching pennies, and definitely want to win in football.

“I just want to win. Whether it’s bitter, whether it’s a family rival, I want to win.”