Farewell, Coach Keady

When Purdue head basketball coach Gene Keady coaches his final game after 25 years in charge in West Lafayette, Indiana, it will mark a career's end for one of the most unusual personalities ever to roam the sidelines in college basketball, a man whom most fans know by the scathing scowls of disapproval he saves for referees and Boilermaker errors. When he leaves, however, the game will have lost one of the last of the genuine article, a true throwback, and an ideal ambassador of the game. 

Keady leaves on a sour note, and certainly not where he found the program. Keady took over in the spring of 1980, shortly after Purdue made the Final Four. This year, the Boilermakers will have to scrap just to win ten games, by far Keady's worst team. Yet for all the seasons in between, Purdue basketball was known for its toughness, intensity, graduating players, and for winning during some glorious days for the Big Ten Conference. These overarching objectives for any collegiate athletic program worth a damn were met in full under Keady's command at Purdue.

Keady remade the Purdue basketball program in his own image. Former Iowa Hawkeye Jess Settles put it well: 'Coach Keady could take five guys off the streets of Lafayette and compete for the Big Ten title.' Aside from schoolboy stars Russell Cross, Troy Lewis, and Glenn Robinson, Keady's teams were made up primarily of solid, fundamentally sound players that were talented all—city and all—state performers to be sure, but never marked for stardom the way recruits are at Duke, Kansas, or Kentucky.

Keady was always up front in the often dastardly recruiting process, telling these boys that they were expected to 'get their degree, practice hard, get better and be All—Big Ten material by their junior year. Maybe that was too honest. But I knew that if I told recruits that, they would be happy because you weren't lying to them.' Players like Mel McCants, Curt Clawson, Jim Bullock, Tony Jones, Ryan Berning, Dave Barrett, Ricky Hall, Mack Gadis and dozens of others register only with the most die—hard fans, but they were invaluable in constructing and maintaining Purdue's spot as a Big Ten powerhouse, and they executed at the highest levels the fundamental play drilled into everyone who ever attended one of Keady's summer camps or one of his practices.

Purdue recruits from the Midwest came to West Lafayette and nearly always exceeded expectations. Going into the 1983—84 season, the Boilers had lost Cross early to the NBA and most publications slotted Purdue for a ninth place Big Ten finish. Keady, an early proponent of weight training for basketball players, put 6'8' muscleman Jim Rowinski — heretofore a little—used role player — into the position Cross had dominated. With Rowinski leading a bunch of no—names, 'Keady's Kids' dove on the floorboards for loose balls, blocked out, took charges, made the key baskets, and tied Illinois for the Big Ten championship. Rowinski, the previously skinny walk—on from Long Island, was named the conference player of the year.

This was the mold for all future Keady teams, and the success of the improbable 1984 championship team catapulted Purdue to Big Ten titles in 1987 and again in 1988, when Purdue spent much of the season perched in the top five in the national polls. Indeed, Keady's clubs finished either first or second in the conference his first ten years at Purdue. Robinson showed up, staying only for two years and one conference championship and a tourney run to the Elite Eight in 1994, but Keady's band of role players and obscure recruits went on without him to repeat in 1995 and 1996. It was the first time in over 30 years that a Big Ten team had won three championships in a row. While Keady never had much success or luck in the NCAA tournament, his teams made deep runs in 1994, 1998, and 2000, coming within three excruciating points of the Final Four in 2000. The disappointment felt by Purdue fans over the lack of success in tournament play only underscored how much Keady had wrung from his teams during the season, and how hopes and expectations can rapidly skyrocket.

As the old cliché goes, teams — and programs — are a reflection of their coach, and one of Keady's enduring legacies is his puncher's approach to the long shadow cast by one of the greatest ever to coach the game, the inimitable Bob Knight at Indiana. When Keady took over at Purdue, Knight had established Indiana as perhaps the premier basketball program in the United States. In ten years at IU, Knight's Hoosiers had appeared in two Final Fours, won the 1976 national championship with an undefeated team, and won 36 consecutive Big Ten games in 1975 and 1976. At the end of Keady's inaugural season, Knight and Indiana would again win the national championship. High school coaches all over the state copied Knight's innovative 'motion' offense and produced players tailor—made for Indiana, whom Knight seemed to choose rather than recruit. The Hoosiers had an overwhelmingly rabid following throughout the state and Knight's omnipresence was chief among the unstated reasons that Keady's predecessor fled Purdue after a Final Four season.

Keady refused to be intimidated, and vowed to 'fight Knight' as he said. During his first game against Indiana in Bloomington, Keady was assessed two technical fouls for getting his Irish up and vociferously accusing the officials of being rattled by Knight's sideline antics. Many a Keady sport coat went flying into the stands during games against Indiana, and Keady was on the opposing sideline when a chair went flying across the floor of Assembly Hall in 1985. Purdue began to play on a level field with Indiana and the rivalry — already bitter and long lasting — hit a fever pitch. Purdue defeated Knight's national title team in 1987, and Indiana turned around and beat Purdue's dominant Big Ten title team the next season. Neither team was safe. Every game between the two schools became a carnival of noise, tension, and great, great ball.

Even when Purdue had the occasional slip, Indiana could not count on running away from their northern rivals. On the final day of the 1992 season, Indiana only had to defeat a Purdue team it had earlier beaten by 40 points to win the conference title. That particular Boilermaker team was rebuilding and ended up in the National Invitational Tournament rather than the NCAA. Mackey Arena was electric and the entire arena shook with incandescent rage when Knight and the Hoosiers walked on to the floor. At game's end, Purdue had won, handed Ohio State the conference championship, and so enraged Knight that he cancelled the team banquet. When Indiana University fired Knight in 2000, his teams had faced off against Gene Keady's 41 times. Purdue won 21 of those games, Indiana 20. For this, Keady forever endeared himself to Boilermakers everywhere. Keady's predecessor had fled in fear of Knight; Digger Phelps and Notre Dame became too afraid to schedule Purdue while Keady was there.     

One of Keady's more delightful legacies is his oft—mocked wardrobe and hairstyle, both of which are, to put it mildly, unique. Following the changes of Keady's hair has been almost as fun as watching his teams play. Receding on top and light brown hair gradually graying on the back and sides in the mid 1980s, Keady's mane took on a mysterious jet black hue in the late 80s, eventually 'evolving' into the fiercely slick comb over seen today, accompanied by a part beginning perilously close to his left ear and inching its way along the back of his head. It is eye—popping, hilarious, wild, and arresting at first glance. It is Keady. The t—shirts handed out to Purdue's 'Gene Pool' student section this season feature the famous comb over on top of a basketball.

Keady's sense of humor regarding his peculiar hair was never more publicly evident than in 2000 when, following an exciting NCAA tourney run to the Elite Eight, Keady appeared on 'The Late Show with David Letterman.' That spring, Letterman had taken to having certain segments of his program 'sponsored' by Purdue Basketball with clips of Keady on the sidelines and the accompanying slogan 'It will comb you over!' Rather than bristle at the barbs, Keady took the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater and read a Top Ten list of 'Gene Keady Tips for Looking Your Best,' which included such helpful hints as 'You can find some snazzy ties in the stadium lost—and—found,' and 'Tight pants highlight the fact that you're a member of the Big Ten.' Part of Keady's charm is that he could not have cared less about being the object of some good—natured fun, and he told the Purdue Exponent 'It's all the hair I've got. If I cared, I'd change it!'

Likewise, Keady was never mistaken for patterning himself on Beau Brummel. As John Feinstein wrote in A Season on the Brink, 'Purdue coach Gene Keady was guaranteed to do two things every season: dress worse than any coach in the country and produce a team that played as hard as any in the country.' Early in his Purdue career and for most of the 1980s, Keady often took the floor wearing a garish gold sport coat with black pants, prompting the always—smarter—than—Cameron—Crazies student section at Northwestern to chant, 'Sell us a house! Sell us a house!' whenever the Boilers showed up in Evanston. Lately, Keady's expanding paunch has made his neckties stop well short of his belt and exposing a lot of shirt, making him look like some two—bit gangster in a B movie. But it's okay — Gentlemen's Quarterly and a guy like Keady just don't go together.

This season's dreadful performance by the Purdue basketball team has been the exception and not the rule during Keady's quarter century as the steward of a program first introduced to the wider world of college basketball by Piggy Lambert and a tough—as—nails guard from Martinsville named John Wooden. The 'Keady Way' in many respects harkens back to that simpler time, where success was not measured merely by Final Four appearances or national championships, but by how hard you worked, whether you earned your degree, conference championships won, and whether you played the game correctly. Winning matters, make no mistake. Keady wouldn't have lasted this long had he not, and that is as it should be in competitive intercollegiate athletics.

But with coaches who act more like overly cautious middle managers watching what they say to the press or looking like J. Crew model wannabes content to recruit superstar players who only stick around for a year with no intention of getting a degree, old fashioned, tough—talking, take—no—prisoners street fighters like Keady are an endangered species in college basketball. It is indeed a shame that Purdue's play this season (and, truthfully, Keady's recruiting disadvantages and mistakes that led to it) will deny the college hoop scene the chance to see the Boilermakers play on the big stage of the NCAA tournament one last time with Keady barking at the refs and his players. Hopefully Purdue can make a little run in the Big Ten Tournament and generate one last wave of excitement, and maybe even a minor miracle though, if not, there is slight consolation in knowing that the nation's number one team this season is coached by a man who spent 20 years as Keady's top assistant.

Fans all around the conference have been saying how sorry they feel that Keady is going out with a losing season, and that is understandable and magnanimous. But Keady does not need to be pitied, and he shouldn't be; he should be celebrated for what he brought to the university, its basketball fans, and to the game — intensity, love, loyalty, and a team that, on the whole, nobody looked forward to playing. What fans should remember is that after Gene Keady walks away from his last game as Purdue head coach, we shall not see his like again.

Matt May can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his blog is http://mattymay.blogspot.com.

When Purdue head basketball coach Gene Keady coaches his final game after 25 years in charge in West Lafayette, Indiana, it will mark a career's end for one of the most unusual personalities ever to roam the sidelines in college basketball, a man whom most fans know by the scathing scowls of disapproval he saves for referees and Boilermaker errors. When he leaves, however, the game will have lost one of the last of the genuine article, a true throwback, and an ideal ambassador of the game. 

Keady leaves on a sour note, and certainly not where he found the program. Keady took over in the spring of 1980, shortly after Purdue made the Final Four. This year, the Boilermakers will have to scrap just to win ten games, by far Keady's worst team. Yet for all the seasons in between, Purdue basketball was known for its toughness, intensity, graduating players, and for winning during some glorious days for the Big Ten Conference. These overarching objectives for any collegiate athletic program worth a damn were met in full under Keady's command at Purdue.

Keady remade the Purdue basketball program in his own image. Former Iowa Hawkeye Jess Settles put it well: 'Coach Keady could take five guys off the streets of Lafayette and compete for the Big Ten title.' Aside from schoolboy stars Russell Cross, Troy Lewis, and Glenn Robinson, Keady's teams were made up primarily of solid, fundamentally sound players that were talented all—city and all—state performers to be sure, but never marked for stardom the way recruits are at Duke, Kansas, or Kentucky.

Keady was always up front in the often dastardly recruiting process, telling these boys that they were expected to 'get their degree, practice hard, get better and be All—Big Ten material by their junior year. Maybe that was too honest. But I knew that if I told recruits that, they would be happy because you weren't lying to them.' Players like Mel McCants, Curt Clawson, Jim Bullock, Tony Jones, Ryan Berning, Dave Barrett, Ricky Hall, Mack Gadis and dozens of others register only with the most die—hard fans, but they were invaluable in constructing and maintaining Purdue's spot as a Big Ten powerhouse, and they executed at the highest levels the fundamental play drilled into everyone who ever attended one of Keady's summer camps or one of his practices.

Purdue recruits from the Midwest came to West Lafayette and nearly always exceeded expectations. Going into the 1983—84 season, the Boilers had lost Cross early to the NBA and most publications slotted Purdue for a ninth place Big Ten finish. Keady, an early proponent of weight training for basketball players, put 6'8' muscleman Jim Rowinski — heretofore a little—used role player — into the position Cross had dominated. With Rowinski leading a bunch of no—names, 'Keady's Kids' dove on the floorboards for loose balls, blocked out, took charges, made the key baskets, and tied Illinois for the Big Ten championship. Rowinski, the previously skinny walk—on from Long Island, was named the conference player of the year.

This was the mold for all future Keady teams, and the success of the improbable 1984 championship team catapulted Purdue to Big Ten titles in 1987 and again in 1988, when Purdue spent much of the season perched in the top five in the national polls. Indeed, Keady's clubs finished either first or second in the conference his first ten years at Purdue. Robinson showed up, staying only for two years and one conference championship and a tourney run to the Elite Eight in 1994, but Keady's band of role players and obscure recruits went on without him to repeat in 1995 and 1996. It was the first time in over 30 years that a Big Ten team had won three championships in a row. While Keady never had much success or luck in the NCAA tournament, his teams made deep runs in 1994, 1998, and 2000, coming within three excruciating points of the Final Four in 2000. The disappointment felt by Purdue fans over the lack of success in tournament play only underscored how much Keady had wrung from his teams during the season, and how hopes and expectations can rapidly skyrocket.

As the old cliché goes, teams — and programs — are a reflection of their coach, and one of Keady's enduring legacies is his puncher's approach to the long shadow cast by one of the greatest ever to coach the game, the inimitable Bob Knight at Indiana. When Keady took over at Purdue, Knight had established Indiana as perhaps the premier basketball program in the United States. In ten years at IU, Knight's Hoosiers had appeared in two Final Fours, won the 1976 national championship with an undefeated team, and won 36 consecutive Big Ten games in 1975 and 1976. At the end of Keady's inaugural season, Knight and Indiana would again win the national championship. High school coaches all over the state copied Knight's innovative 'motion' offense and produced players tailor—made for Indiana, whom Knight seemed to choose rather than recruit. The Hoosiers had an overwhelmingly rabid following throughout the state and Knight's omnipresence was chief among the unstated reasons that Keady's predecessor fled Purdue after a Final Four season.

Keady refused to be intimidated, and vowed to 'fight Knight' as he said. During his first game against Indiana in Bloomington, Keady was assessed two technical fouls for getting his Irish up and vociferously accusing the officials of being rattled by Knight's sideline antics. Many a Keady sport coat went flying into the stands during games against Indiana, and Keady was on the opposing sideline when a chair went flying across the floor of Assembly Hall in 1985. Purdue began to play on a level field with Indiana and the rivalry — already bitter and long lasting — hit a fever pitch. Purdue defeated Knight's national title team in 1987, and Indiana turned around and beat Purdue's dominant Big Ten title team the next season. Neither team was safe. Every game between the two schools became a carnival of noise, tension, and great, great ball.

Even when Purdue had the occasional slip, Indiana could not count on running away from their northern rivals. On the final day of the 1992 season, Indiana only had to defeat a Purdue team it had earlier beaten by 40 points to win the conference title. That particular Boilermaker team was rebuilding and ended up in the National Invitational Tournament rather than the NCAA. Mackey Arena was electric and the entire arena shook with incandescent rage when Knight and the Hoosiers walked on to the floor. At game's end, Purdue had won, handed Ohio State the conference championship, and so enraged Knight that he cancelled the team banquet. When Indiana University fired Knight in 2000, his teams had faced off against Gene Keady's 41 times. Purdue won 21 of those games, Indiana 20. For this, Keady forever endeared himself to Boilermakers everywhere. Keady's predecessor had fled in fear of Knight; Digger Phelps and Notre Dame became too afraid to schedule Purdue while Keady was there.     

One of Keady's more delightful legacies is his oft—mocked wardrobe and hairstyle, both of which are, to put it mildly, unique. Following the changes of Keady's hair has been almost as fun as watching his teams play. Receding on top and light brown hair gradually graying on the back and sides in the mid 1980s, Keady's mane took on a mysterious jet black hue in the late 80s, eventually 'evolving' into the fiercely slick comb over seen today, accompanied by a part beginning perilously close to his left ear and inching its way along the back of his head. It is eye—popping, hilarious, wild, and arresting at first glance. It is Keady. The t—shirts handed out to Purdue's 'Gene Pool' student section this season feature the famous comb over on top of a basketball.

Keady's sense of humor regarding his peculiar hair was never more publicly evident than in 2000 when, following an exciting NCAA tourney run to the Elite Eight, Keady appeared on 'The Late Show with David Letterman.' That spring, Letterman had taken to having certain segments of his program 'sponsored' by Purdue Basketball with clips of Keady on the sidelines and the accompanying slogan 'It will comb you over!' Rather than bristle at the barbs, Keady took the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater and read a Top Ten list of 'Gene Keady Tips for Looking Your Best,' which included such helpful hints as 'You can find some snazzy ties in the stadium lost—and—found,' and 'Tight pants highlight the fact that you're a member of the Big Ten.' Part of Keady's charm is that he could not have cared less about being the object of some good—natured fun, and he told the Purdue Exponent 'It's all the hair I've got. If I cared, I'd change it!'

Likewise, Keady was never mistaken for patterning himself on Beau Brummel. As John Feinstein wrote in A Season on the Brink, 'Purdue coach Gene Keady was guaranteed to do two things every season: dress worse than any coach in the country and produce a team that played as hard as any in the country.' Early in his Purdue career and for most of the 1980s, Keady often took the floor wearing a garish gold sport coat with black pants, prompting the always—smarter—than—Cameron—Crazies student section at Northwestern to chant, 'Sell us a house! Sell us a house!' whenever the Boilers showed up in Evanston. Lately, Keady's expanding paunch has made his neckties stop well short of his belt and exposing a lot of shirt, making him look like some two—bit gangster in a B movie. But it's okay — Gentlemen's Quarterly and a guy like Keady just don't go together.

This season's dreadful performance by the Purdue basketball team has been the exception and not the rule during Keady's quarter century as the steward of a program first introduced to the wider world of college basketball by Piggy Lambert and a tough—as—nails guard from Martinsville named John Wooden. The 'Keady Way' in many respects harkens back to that simpler time, where success was not measured merely by Final Four appearances or national championships, but by how hard you worked, whether you earned your degree, conference championships won, and whether you played the game correctly. Winning matters, make no mistake. Keady wouldn't have lasted this long had he not, and that is as it should be in competitive intercollegiate athletics.

But with coaches who act more like overly cautious middle managers watching what they say to the press or looking like J. Crew model wannabes content to recruit superstar players who only stick around for a year with no intention of getting a degree, old fashioned, tough—talking, take—no—prisoners street fighters like Keady are an endangered species in college basketball. It is indeed a shame that Purdue's play this season (and, truthfully, Keady's recruiting disadvantages and mistakes that led to it) will deny the college hoop scene the chance to see the Boilermakers play on the big stage of the NCAA tournament one last time with Keady barking at the refs and his players. Hopefully Purdue can make a little run in the Big Ten Tournament and generate one last wave of excitement, and maybe even a minor miracle though, if not, there is slight consolation in knowing that the nation's number one team this season is coached by a man who spent 20 years as Keady's top assistant.

Fans all around the conference have been saying how sorry they feel that Keady is going out with a losing season, and that is understandable and magnanimous. But Keady does not need to be pitied, and he shouldn't be; he should be celebrated for what he brought to the university, its basketball fans, and to the game — intensity, love, loyalty, and a team that, on the whole, nobody looked forward to playing. What fans should remember is that after Gene Keady walks away from his last game as Purdue head coach, we shall not see his like again.

Matt May can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his blog is http://mattymay.blogspot.com.