Purdue ICONS #6: Gene Keady

Last Saturday was a great day because I got to meet and interview the next ICON on the list. I headed back to Kokomo for the Howard County Fair and I was able to pick up a quick story for the Tribune centered on the Pat Keady Memorial Golf Outing. The event raised scholarship money in the name of Gene's wife, who lost her battle with cancer a few years ago.

I forgot how awesome it was to have coach commanding a room. He is instantly one of those people that, as a long time Purdue fan, you reference him as coach instead of Gene or Mr. Keady. Just before I interviewed him, my high school coach, Basil Mawbey, spoke with him for a few moments. It was like seeing a summit of the two men that have influenced my basketball life the most. The two men have combined for nearly 1,200 career wins, and both are legends at their respective levels of the game.I only got to speak to him for a few minutes, but it was like speaking to a larger than life character.

The only real difference between the two is championships. Coach Mawbey has won two state championships, is (to my knowledge) the only coach in Indiana to win state championships at both the Class and non-class levels, and appeared in four State Finals with three different schools. Coach Keady, as much as we love him, has the unfortunate moniker of being the best coach in college basketball that never made a Final Four. To us, it doesn't matter. We still love him, as evidenced by the 518 votes he received as the #6 Purdue ICON.

Early Life

Lloyd Eugene Keady (really? His first name is Lloyd?) was born May 21, 1936 in Larned, Kansas. In his younger days coach Keady was an all-around athlete. He was a four sport star at Garden City Junior College in Kansas, including earning All-American honors as a quarterback. He continued his career at Kansas State, where he earned letters in football, baseball, and track. In 1958 he graduated from KSU with a degree in biological sciences and physical education.

Unfortunately, Kansas State was in the middle of about a four decade streak of really sucking at football while coach Keady played there. In his final two seasons they were 3-6-1, and 3-7. That didn't lead to a pro playing career, so coach Keady started in the high school ranks. From 1959 to 1965 he took a position at Beloit high school in Kansas as a teacher and a coach, but the only coaching position open was the basketball team. So, Keady became a basketball coach. His hard-nosed football roots carried over from the beginning, as he began teaching his defense first philosophy from the beginning. It was successful too, as he went 147-42 as a high school coach. He also earned his master's degree from Kansas State in 1964.

College Career

Eventually, coach Keady started getting noticed by the collegiate ranks. In 1965 he took over as the basketball coach at Hutchinson Junior College, where he would spend the next 10 years of his career. He was an assistant in his first year, but took over as head coach in his second season. The accolades continued at that level, as he won six league titles and was named as his region's Coach of the Year three times. In 1974, when Purdue won its only NIT title, coach Keady led Hutchinson to a 29-4 record and a runner-up finish in the national JuCo tournament. His Hutchinson teams went 187-48 in his time there.

Eventually, coach Keady wanted to move to the Division I level. Eddie Sutton, who has over 800 wins f his owned, asked him to join the staff at Arkansas in 1975. The Razorbacks made the NCAA Tournament in 1977 for the first time in 19 years, and the next season they made the Final Four. This would be the only time that coach Keady would reach the pinnacle of college basketball. He was primarily a recruiter for coach Sutton, bringing in players like Sidney Moncrief.

Like now, one team's success lead to other schools looking to hire their assistants. Western Kentucky was the team that came calling after the 1978 Final Four. The Hilltoppers offered coach Keady their head coaching position, and he took it with some guy named Bruce Weber as his assistant. Keady would stay at Western Kentucky for two seasons, going 17-11 in 1979 and 21-8 in 1980. The Hilltoppers also made the 1980 NCAA Tournament but lost to Virginia Tech in overtime 89-85. Had Western Kentucky beaten Virginia Tech they would have faced Indiana in round 2 and Purdue in round 3.

Coming to Purdue

After the 1980 season Purdue saw the legendary Joe Barry Carroll head off to the NBA as the #1 overall pick and Lee Rose leave after taking us to the Final Four. We signed him on April 11, 1980 and wouldn't have to worry about finding a basketball coach for the next quarter century.

The numbers are impressive: 512 wins (second only to Bobby Knight in Big Ten history), Seven Big Ten Coach of the Year Awards, six Big Ten Championships, and six National Coach of the Year Awards in a 16 year span. He turned the Indiana-Purdue basketball rivalry into the biggest rivalry in the country as I was growing up. I remember going through elementary school where classes would literally choose sides if Indiana and Purdue were playing that night. Most kids chose the IU side, but I was always the first to choose Purdue. In Indiana, each game against IU was like a war. The teams were often so evenly matched that a split was acceptable. Purdue would win in West Lafayette, while the Hoosiers would win in Bloomington. The final tally stood in Gene's favor, as he was 21-20 against Knight from 1981-2000.

Unfortunately, the biggest number that most people (especially Indiana fans) remember him for is zero. He had zero NCAA championships and zero Final Fours. In fact, coach Keady's best teams had a nasty habit of greatly underachieving in the NCAA Tournament. His 1987 was a #3 seed, but lost to Florida in the second round of the NCAA Touranment before they would have played national runner-up Syracuse. His 1988 team was probably his best, but they lost as a #1 seed to Kansas State (painful as Keady's alma mater) in the Sweet 16 after beating them by nearly 30 in the regular season.

The mid-90's were incredibly painful. In 1994, 95, and 96 Purdue entered the tournament as the Big Ten champion. 1994 in particular had us as a #1 seed with the best player in the country in Glenn Robinson. We breezed through three rounds, but came up short against Duke in the Elite Eight. The next year we were a #3 seed and lost to Memphis in the second round. In 1996 we were a fairly weak #1 seed, but still a #1 seed. Instead of taking advantage of that gift, we had probably the weakest performance of any #1 seed ever. We survived against #16 seed Western Carolina (winning by two as they missed two 3-pointers in the final 10 seconds) before losing in the next round to Georgia. The other three #1 seeds won by 22, 38, and nine, but we barely survived against a team we should have blown out.

Strangely, if his teams had a lower seed they had more success than suspected. This helped him finally retire with a winning record of 20-19 in NCAA Tournament play. With Brad Miller and Brian Cardinal we reached the Sweet 16 in 1998 as a #2 seed, but lost to Stanford. That would be the last time a Keady coached team would earn a top five seed. He would make three more tournaments, each time doing better than expected.

By the 1998-99 season I was on campus and a member of the student section. We struggled to a losing record in Big Ten play, but were shockingly awarded and NCAA bid as a #10 seed. Most of the pundits (including me) felt we didn't deserve a bid, but once there we upset Texas and a damn good Miami team to reach the Sweet 16 before losing to Temple. The next year, with five seniors, we only earned a 6 seed, but it would be the team that came the closest to taking Keady to a Final Four. Cardinal, Jaraan Cornell, Mike Robinson, and one of the McQuay brothers (I forget which) caught fire in the tournament. We also had the perfect broken bracket with the top three seeds in our region failing to make it to the Sweet 16.

We had a one point win over Dayton and an upset over #3 seed Oklahoma to reach the Sweet 16. We then faced an experienced Gonzaga team in the Sweet 16 and beat them to reach Keady's second Elite Eight. As a student, I was ecstatic. We were playing Wisconsin, but we were the higher seed. We had seen the Badgers three times, so we knew them in and out. Best of all, the Final Four was in Indianapolis, and I would get to go as a member of the student section. I remember going to fan war for that game.

Looking back, I hate that game more than any sporting event ever. I thought sure we were finally going to break through. Even better, we had played the other three teams in the Final Four, and we beat both Florida and Michigan State who played for the title. F***ing Wisconsin, who hadn't been to a Final Four since the Roosevelt Administration, won 64-60. I was so pissed off I think it took about four days for me to calm down.

That was really the end of the Keady era, as we started recruiting too many guys like John Allison (a.k.a., the only 6'11" guy I could outrebound). The next year injuries forced us into the NIT. By my senior year we created the Gene Pool and I had killer seats in the fifth row, but it was Keady's first losing season at Purdue. Worse yet, I had to watch IU go to the National title game with (allegedly) the totally incompetent Mike Davis. It was also the first year the Big Ten decided to have IU and Purdue only play once, and it was in Bloomington, so I didn't even get a home IU game as a senior.

Keady had one more tournament team in 2003 and the 2003-04 team stared well when we upset #2 Duke in the Great Alaska Shootout, but once Chris Booker decided going to class wasn't important we were done. We lost to Notre Dame in the NIT that year with a team that looked like a Final Four contender with Booker.

Things bottomed out during Gene's farewell tour in 2004-05. We were an embarrassing 7-21 and only 3-13 in the Big Ten. The day of my wedding, January 15, 2005 looked like there would be one last bit of Keady magic. We played IU in Mackey Arena and the Hoosiers were a pretty good team. I kept running back and forth from breakfast to the sports book (we were in Vegas) watching a tight ballgame that went to double overtime before we lost.

Despite the bad record there was hope that somehow there would be a fairy tale run in the Big Ten Tournament, but Iowa crushed us 71-52 in Gene's final game. I admit, it was a little dusty as I watched Gene wave to the crowd as he walked off the floor.

Post-retirement

The best gift Gene gave Purdue was choosing Matt Painter to take over after he left. We've seen coach Keady work with the Toronto Raptors, as a basketball analyst for the Big Ten Network, and now with Steve Lavin in St. John's (where he lives in New York six months out of the year, and that seems wrong somehow). He also won a gold medal at the Olympics as an assistant with Dream Team 3 in 2000. He also has the obligatory Godfather shot of him watching in the stands at every Purdue game he attends as coach Painter revived the program.

Finally, we have the epic Keady Court, which will probably be named Painter and Keady court some day when coach Painter retires with more wins than Gene and a few national titles. I think it is especially appropriate that the playing floor is named after Keady. His teams were famous for doing more with less talent by getting on that floor and doing all the dirty work. Miller, Cardinal, and Carl Landry all earned their way to surprising NBA careers through hard work, and that was instilled by coach Keady.

There is no denying that coach Keady is a Purdue ICON. In a way, he still defines Purdue basketball because many of Painter's techniques are similar to Keady's. Even the famous combover has its own legend at this point.

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