"Coaching Greats" Series: Pat Kennedy (Iona, FSU, DePaul, Montana, Towson)

January 15th, 2012
In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Pat Kennedy, who spent more than thirty years as a Division I head coach. During his time at Iona, Kennedy led the Gaels to three MAAC titles and two NCAA appearance, taking over for the late Jim Valvano after he moved on to NC State. After his time in New Rochelle, Kennedy went on to coach at Florida State, DePaul and Towson.

Jon Teitel: After three years as an assistant at Iona you replaced your mentor Jim Valvano as head coach at age 28. What made Valvano such a great coach, and what made him such a great mentor?

Pat Kennedy: Jim was a renaissance man. He was very much out of the mold of an Al McGuire. When you work with a guy in athletics you work together 24/7. What made him such a great coach is that he really studied game situations rather than X's and O's, and had the guts to put it into the framework of a game plan.

JT: USA Today cited your program at Iona as having one of the most outstanding graduation rates in college athletics, and at DePaul you suspended three of your top four scorers for academic reasons (even though they were eligible by NCAA standards). What importance do you place on academics, and how do you balance it with athletics?

PK: Anybody that is a coach at this level who does not understand the importance of players getting an education has something wrong with them. If you are sincere when you are recruiting guys then it is easy to back it up once they get to campus. If you are phony up front then you will be seen as a phony at the back end. If you sell it to a kid and his family and then the kid misses class or study hall, then he is missing out on a big part of the program.

JT: What are your memories of the 1984 NCAA Tournament (Othell Wilson made a jumper in the lane with six seconds left for a one-point Virginia win)?

PK: That Virginia team was very good, as they went on to the Final Four. We played our brains out on St. Patty's Day and executed our game plan very well. I was extremely proud of that team: that is the kind of game that coaches remember the most.

JT: What are your memories of the 1985 NCAA Tournament (senior co-captain Tony Hargraves missed a potential game-tying free throw with three seconds left in a one-point loss to Loyola-Illinois)?

PK: Loyola had a kid named Alfredrick Hughes, who was an All-American that year. That one really hurt because I felt that we were unlucky. The one good thing about that night is that I ended up meeting Doug Bruno (long-time women's coach at DePaul), who has become a great friend.

JT: In 1991 your team won Florida State's first-ever conference tournament title when Charlie Ward made a game-winning shot in a comeback win over Louisville. Where does Ward's shot rank among the most clutch you have ever seen, and how big a deal was it to win the conference tournament?

PK: We had to make a huge comeback just to put ourselves in that position. Charlie's shot was probably the biggest of his career. The FSU baseball team was playing Miami down the street at the same time, and I heard that their game was interrupted by the screams coming from our gym!

1992 NCAA Tournament

JT: You had a costly ten-point win over Montana in Boise when Ward dislocated his left shoulder. Did you fear that your chances of making a deep run in the tournament had fallen apart?

PK: Yes, but it just showed me how great Sam Cassell was going to be. I think Sam was the best player I ever had, with Quentin Richardson a close 2nd.

JT: Doug Edwards had 15 points and 16 rebounds in a ten-point win over Georgetown. How on earth were you able to keep Alonzo Mourning from making a field goal in the first half?

PK: I gave Sam the ball and ran a box offense, but I think the key is that we had less than ten turnovers that night. I pulled a page out of the Valvano playbook and told Bob Sura to play right in Mourning's chest. Mourning got frustrated because Sura would just wait for him to bring the ball down and then tie him up or poke it away.

JT: Edwards had 20 points in a loss to Indiana (who was led by Eric Anderson with 24 points off the bench). What was it like to coach a tournament game against Bob Knight, and do you think the bench scoring was the key to the game?

PK: We were concentrating on Calbert Cheaney but Anderson stepped up and played extremely well. That was the tournament when Knight brought out the whip! I was secretly offered the UNLV job the night before that game. Andrea Joyce from CBS came up to me and said that it was reported I was offered the job, and after the cat was out of the bag I decided to stay at FSU. I actually kept the contract from UNLV, as people forget how hot we were at FSU.

1993 NCAA Tournament

JT: Sam Cassell scored 18 points and your team had an 18-0 run during the first half of your win over Evansville in Orlando. Did you feel like you had a home-court advantage, and was the game over after that run?

PK: We became a very confident tournament team and we had a group of guys who felt they could win under any circumstances. What hurt us was that we had some injuries each year that we got to the tournament.

JT: Cassell scored 31 points and set a tournament record by making all seven of his three-pointers in a win over Tulane. Where does Cassell's shooting display rank among the best you have ever seen?

PK: Sam had so many of those kinds of efforts for us. The only other thing that could compare was a five or six-overtime game that we won at Fairfield back in the day.

JT: Cassell missed two shots in the final ten seconds of regulation, but Cypheus Bunton's potential game-tying three-point shot hit the rim twice before falling out and giving you a three-point overtime win over Western Kentucky. Did you feel that you might have blown it after Cassell missed the free throw, and did you think that Bunton's shot was going in?

PK: That was a very good WKU team who was well-coached by Ralph Willard. It did not surprise me that Bunton's shot missed because we had a bit of destiny going our way.

JT: Jared Prickett had 22 points (9-12 FG) and 11 rebounds in a 106-81 Kentucky victory. What was it like to coach a tournament game against Rick Pitino, and where does that rank among the best offensive displays you have ever seen?

PK: We actually cut their lead to one with nine minutes left before Prickett took over due to his height advantage over Sura. They just had more horses and wore us down.

1997 Postseason NIT

JT: You beat Syracuse (the first Big East team to ever win 18+ regular season games and not make the NCAA Tournament). Did it seem to you like their players were not focused because they felt that they belonged in the tournament instead?

PK: I think all Syracuse teams that do not get to the tournament are unhappy.

JT: James Collins scored a career-high 29 points as you turned a five-point deficit with less than a minute left in regulation into a six-point overtime win over Connecticut (Richard Hamilton had 26 for UConn). How were you able to even get the game into overtime, and could you tell at the time that Hamilton was going to become a star?

PK: Hamilton was a great player. Our most important guy was PG Kerry Thompson, as he controlled the tempo of the game (only two turnovers in 39 minutes).

JT: Robert "Tractor" Traylor had 26 points and 13 rebounds and was named NIT MVP in a nine-point Michigan win in the title game. How unstoppable was Traylor, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?

PK: Michigan had a great talented team. I thought Traylor could have been even better if he had some good conditioning.

JT: What are your memories of the 1999 NIT (Quentin Richardson had 23 points and ten rebounds in a five-point win over Northwestern, and then Willie Coleman missed a shot at the buzzer in a one-point loss to Cal)?

PK: I did not think we were ready to make a big run.

JT: What are your memories of the 2000 NCAA Tournament (Kenny Gregory scored 22 points [11-12 FG] in Kansas' five-point overtime win)?

PK: We had the game won but could not inbound the ball at the end. Kansas made some plays down the stretch that we did not make. Rick Reilly said that if all our talented players stuck around long enough even the school janitor could have led us to the title as a point guard!

JT: In 2004 you served as the president of the NABC. Why did you take the job, and how did you like it?

PK: The NABC helps shape NCAA legislation and I really enjoyed the exchange of ideas and getting to be around great colleagues. When you have one occupation your entire life it is great to be able to give something back.

JT: Before resigning last year you were one of a very few active coaches who spent at least 30 straight years as a Division I coach (along with legends such as Jim Calhoun, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim). What is the key to sticking around so long, and what do you hope to do in the future?

PK: The other three guys are already in the Hall of Fame. I might be the only one who does not end up there! I was always the youngest of my group but we all have an incredible passion for basketball and are pretty good guys, which helps make the difference. We are honest with our administration, develop a good power base, etc. Norm Stewart at Missouri might have been the greatest of all. I feel pretty good and think I could coach for another ten years or so.

JT: You were previously recognized by the Special Olympics as its Volunteer Man of the Year. When did you 1st start working with the Special Olympics, and what did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?

PK: I met my wife of 32 years (Jean) through the Special Olympics; it was her passion. We are involved and our team was as well.

JT: You were one of the owners of one of Ireland's first professional basketball teams (the Burger Land Team of Cork). How did you get involved in Irish pro basketball, and how has the sport progressed in the Emerald Isle during your lifetime?

PK: I just got involved with too many Irishmen from NYC! Walter Kennedy was the NBA commissioner at the time and a lot of guys were pulled together to help start a team over there. They were actually known as the Blue Demons so I was able to send them some stuff once I got to DePaul! Connecticut assistant coach George Blaney was extremely instrumental in building gyms and sending equipment.

JT: Your son Joe was a guard for Northwestern and was team captain during his senior year. How proud are you of his success?

PK: I never coached him but got to watch him play all throughout high school. As a junior he was an intern for then-Senator Barack Obama, was later hired to be part of the transition team, and then worked at the White House under Valerie Jarrett. However, he was dying to get back into coaching someday, so he became director of operations at his alma mater.

Kennedy is also on Jon's list of best coaches in MAAC history.

Canisius: John Beilein (1992-1997) 89-62, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Fairfield: George Bisacca (1958-1968) 151-85, 3 NCAA tourneys
Iona: Pat Kennedy (1980-1986) 124-60, 2 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Loyola (MD): Emil "Lefty" Reitz (1937-1944, 1945-1961) 349-227
Manhattan: Ken Norton (1946-1968) 300-205, 2 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles
Marist: Dave Magarity (1986-2004) 253-259, 1 NCAA tourney, 3 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Niagara: John "Taps" Gallagher (1931-1943, 1946-1965) 465-261, 6 conference titles
Rider: Kevin Bannon (1989-1997) 131-103, 2 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Siena: Fran McCaffery (2005-2010) 112-51, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
St. Peter's: Don Kennedy (1950-1972) 323-195