Towson's Kennedy has 2-fold plan

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He was considered among the rising stars of college basketball coaching; a disciple, if not quite a clone, of Jim Valvano.

When then-34-year-old Pat Kennedy arrived at Florida State in the spring of 1986, the folks in Tallahassee didn't quite know what to make of this fast-talking New Jersey guy who had worked for and then succeeded Valvano as coach at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Then again, those who run football-crazy Florida State didn't know much about basketball, big-time or otherwise.

"I'll never forget the athletic director and the president saying to me, 'You've got a blank page here,' " Kennedy said recently. " 'You tell us what you need and why you need it and we'll give you a few years and look at the residuals.' "

The conversations Kennedy had last month with Towson athletic director Wayne Edwards and university president Robert Caret were reminiscent of that honeymoon period. The talks led Kennedy, now 52, to decide to leave the University of Montana and accept an offer from the Baltimore County school.

Yet with all the excitement at Towson surrounding Kennedy's hiring two weeks ago, there is also the inevitable question about the way his career has unfolded. Or, as cynics might suggest, unraveled.

What happened to the rising star who took Iona to two NCAA tournaments and two National Invitation Tournament appearances in six years? What happened to the guy who, in 11 seasons at Florida State, brought the Seminoles to five NCAA tournaments in a six-year stretch and to the brink of the Final Four. What happened to the coach who was going to revive DePaul?

After having only one losing record in his first 13 seasons as a head coach, averaging nearly 21 wins, Kennedy has coached losing teams in eight of the past 11 seasons. His teams the past four years have gone a collective 44-72, including 23-35 in two seasons at Montana.

"It does bother me because I thought I was a better coach than those records show," Kennedy said.

There are circumstances behind his steady decline, and for what some might regard as Kennedy's wanderlust when it comes to his profession.

Many believe Kennedy left Florida State because athletic director Dave Hart didn't think his basketball coach was deserving of a contract extension that Kennedy publicly campaigned for after the Seminoles ended a three-year losing skid with a 20-12 season and a trip to the 1997 NIT championship game.

Kennedy says that going to DePaul was his biggest career mistake. Inheriting a DePaul team that went 3-23 the previous year under Joey Meyer, Kennedy didn't understand how powerful the Meyer family remained despite the Blue Demons' decline since the early 1980s.

"I really admired and liked Ray Meyer," Kennedy said of the program's patriarch. "Coach is really a good guy. I underestimated the effect of replacing him and his son, 55 years, tremendous friendships, tremendous loyalties. There were a lot of people who were waiting in the bushes for us."

The sniping began after Kennedy was able to keep several big-name Chicago high school stars, particularly Quentin Richardson, at home. After the team reached the NIT in Kennedy's second year, a former walk-on charged that Kennedy had given Richardson and other recruits gifts such as video games.

The school hired an independent law firm to investigate the allegations.

"We spent six figures and came up with one kid getting free pizza in the locker room after a game," said former DePaul athletic director Bill Bradshaw, now the AD at Temple. "The only question I asked was whether it was pepperoni or mushroom."

DePaul went to the NCAA tournament after Kennedy's third season, losing to Kansas in overtime, but the Blue Demons soon saw four players - Richardson, Bobby Simmons, Stephen Hunter and Paul McPherson - leave for the NBA. A fifth, Chicago high school phenom Eddy Curry, opted for the NBA after signing with DePaul and wound up with the Chicago Bulls.

Unable to replace them because of an NCAA rule prohibiting coaches to immediately fill those scholarships (the rule was recently rescinded), the Blue Demons dropped to 12-18 and 9-19 in Kennedy's last two seasons at the school.

"As soon as we stumbled, and started to fall a little bit, they [Meyer loyalists] came out of the woodwork," Kennedy said. "I went through a two-year period of time that was extraordinarily difficult. I really got worn down. It was the first time in my career that I felt like, not like I could have not successfully fought back, but it made no sense for me to fight back."

Shortly after a season-ending loss at Marquette in 2002, Kennedy resigned. He had five years left on a seven-year contract and the parties negotiated a settlement. He told Bradshaw that he planned to go into broadcasting.

"He was frustrated," Bradshaw said. "He had already been contacted [by ESPN]. I was surprised a few weeks later when he accepted a job at Montana."

Off to Montana

The move to Montana had come almost by accident. Kennedy had run into some former coaches at the Final Four in Atlanta, including ex-Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who encouraged him to stay in the business.

Kennedy then heard from Montana athletic director Wayne Hogan, who had just fired Don Holst despite the fact that the Grizzlies had made the NCAA tournament as a bottom seed in the Big Sky tournament. Montana had just finished its fourth straight losing season, and Hogan wanted to get Kennedy's advice on whom to hire.

"He called me to see how I was doing. He wanted to run a bunch of names past me, and see what they needed to do," Kennedy said. "It worked its way up to, 'Hey, would you have an interest in this?' "

Kennedy and his son, Joseph, then a high school senior headed for DePaul, flew from Atlanta to Missoula on Easter Sunday.

On the flight home to Chicago, Kennedy turned to his son and said, "This might just be what the doctor ordered."

Some of his friends in the business thought that doctor might have been a psychiatrist. While the scrutiny on Kennedy at Montana wasn't as intense as it had been in Chicago, Kennedy was never a good fit in Missoula. Many thought his East Coast style was a little too flamboyant.

After his wife, Jeannie, and their two daughters moved out from Chicago last spring, things began to settle down for Kennedy. Recruiting picked up.

But earlier this year, Hogan was forced to resign after the athletic department fell nearly $1 million in debt. An internal investigation found that Kennedy was one of the culprits in the department's overspending. He was among several to be reprimanded for using a state-issued credit card for personal use, in Kennedy's case for expenses involving the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

"God works in funny ways. If Wayne Hogan doesn't resign, I'm probably not at Towson because I'm too loyal of a person," said Kennedy, who was on a year-to-year contract.

Kennedy has always left jobs on his own terms, though his detractors contend his departures are a case of being one step ahead of the posse. Kennedy says that he left Montana's new coach, Larry Krystkowiak, with a strong team, just as he did at his previous stops.

There were rumblings of potential recruiting violations at Florida State after Kennedy left Tallahassee, but nothing ever surfaced, as it did later at DePaul. Kennedy's programs have never been officially investigated by the NCAA and have never come close to being placed on NCAA probation.

Edwards said he checked with all of Kennedy's previous athletic directors and none questioned the coach's integrity or recruiting tactics. Caret said he did the same with presidents of schools where Kennedy worked.

"I think anytime you have success recruiting and out-recruit some of the bigger schools, I think those types of innuendos are out there," Edwards said. "But I couldn't find anything that indicated that there was any substantiated violation."

If anything, the biggest question Edwards had was whether a coach who had worked in the Atlantic Coast Conference could be happy in the Colonial Athletic Association.

How often does a coach with 416 Division I wins and a profile that includes being president of the national coaches association fall into the lap of a CAA program that hasn't had a winning season in eight years and hasn't gone to the NCAA tournament since making back-to-back trips under Terry Truax in 1990 and 1991?

Those concerns were quelled during their first meeting at a Minneapolis airport last month, a couple of weeks after Michael Hunt had resigned at Towson.

"I left there convinced that it wasn't a problem," Edwards said. "Being at Montana, between being at DePaul and here, is indicative that he understands the other side of basketball. What he did at Iona was truly indicative of how much success there can be at a so-called mid-major."

New beginning

Kennedy said that his excitement about Towson grew after talking with Caret and Edwards during an on-campus interview.

"If we can build the type of program I envision, and Dr. Caret wants on this campus, I think we can develop a program that would be very difficult to leave, like Homer Drew at Valparaiso," Kennedy said. "If we built it the right way, it would really take something special to pull you away, and I'd probably be 56 or 57 by the time that develops, so why do that all over again?"

Kennedy's former athletic director at Montana doesn't think Towson should worry that the Tigers' new coach is one good season away from leaving.

"I don't think Pat spends one minute thinking about where the next move is," Hogan said. "I think he's so determined to prove that he is the coach that he once was. ... I think he wants to return to that."

Kennedy said it will take the length of his contract to get the Towson program where he wants it. He received a four-year deal, the terms of which were not disclosed, from Towson.

The CAA has become a respectable mid-major, ranked 13th in the Rating Percentage Index last season, with George Mason, North Carolina-Wilmington and Virginia Commonwealth at the top. Kennedy says Towson has the potential to be another Southern Illinois, a state school of similar size that has become one of the nation's top mid-major basketball programs.

"If anything, I want Towson to become Baltimore's team," Kennedy said. "Maryland is Maryland's team, there's no doubt about it. That's a given. If we're going to do something special, it's going be because people relate Baltimore to Towson."

Jeannie Kennedy has seen her husband rebuild before. From the day a 28-year-old unknown assistant took over at Iona in 1980 after the late Valvano left for North Carolina State, it has been a 24-year ride that has one common theme.

"He's always loved the challenge of rebuilding," Jeannie Kennedy said recently from Missoula, where the family will live until next month. "The ADs who came after him love the fact that he loves that challenge. Along the way you have the bumpy years, you have the winning years and then sustaining it."

Jeannie Kennedy told her husband one thing when he returned from his interview at Towson.

"I said that if we do this, we're going to stay there," she said. "Career-wise, he needs to be there and get his signature on the program and be there a long time, just like he was at Florida State and Iona."

Back when he was one of the rising coaching stars in college basketball.

Pat Kennedy file

Born: Jan. 5, 1952, Keyport, N.J.

College: King's (Pa.) College, 1975. Played basketball for two seasons, coached junior varsity his junior year and was a varsity assistant his senior year.

Age: 52.

Family: Wife Jeannie, son Joey (20) daughters Kimberly (16) and Kathryn (11).

Career highlights: Has taken teams to eight NCAA tournament appearances and five National Invitation Tournaments. ... At Florida State, he reached the NCAA's Elite Eight in 1993 and the NIT championship game in 1997. ... Eleven of Kennedy's former players have gone to the NBA, including Sam Cassell (Dunbar). ... President of National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Record: 416-311 in 24 seasons as a head coach at Iona (N.Y.), Florida State, DePaul and Montana.

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