Friendship of Steve Lavin and his mentor, Gene Keady, drives St. John's
Some Maker's mark, Cuban cigars, and a driver -- that's all it took to lure Gene Keady out of retirement and onto St. John's campus. Well, that, plus the opportunity to once again mentor one of his star protégés.
Keady, of course, is a college basketball icon. He left Purdue after 25 years in 2005 as the program's all-time winningest coach, and he is second in the history of the Big Ten in wins, behind only Bob Knight. He is a seven-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and won six National Coach of the Year awards from various outlets, including Sports Illustrated. Keady's Purdue teams claimed six Big Ten regular season championships. And his coaching tree is one of the farthest-reaching in the sport -- 10 of his former assistants and players now have head coaching positions, including seven in Division I. It was one of those coaches who brought the 77-year-old Keady back to basketball.
When Keady first met Steve Lavin in 1988, Purdue was preparing to play defending national champion and bitter rival Indiana. The 22-year-old Lavin came into a film review session to apply for a graduate assistant job. Despite all Keady was busy with that week, he was impressed with the way the aspiring coach conducted himself and gave him the job.
Lavin initially was relegated to typical grad assistant grunt jobs, like driving around Keady's wife Pat and running the team study hall. But his hard work eventually caught the head coach's eye. "I think mostly he had ambition and wanted to learn and be loyal," Keady remembers. "He wanted to become a head coach some day. I always felt like if you were loyal and wanted to be a head coach one day, you'd get that chance."
Although Lavin's career was underway, he picked a somewhat inopportune time to join Keady's staff -- his first full season was Keady's first losing season as a college head coach. This led to a crisis of confidence from the new assistant. "He had a lot of assistants," Lavin says. "Some made it, some didn't. So I'm thinking I'm in trouble. I remember I asked him, 'Coach am I OK? Can I come back next year?' and he said, 'What? You're the least of my worries. You're fine.'"
With his job security confirmed, Lavin -- and this is a bit of a theme with him -- chose to look at the positives. "I think it was better for me to come into Purdue and experience his first losing season as a head coach because I think with the great coaches, you learn more when they're struggling and when they're challenged and when they're dealing with failure than when they're on top of the mountain" he says. "I had the opportunity to see him when he didn't have a great season, which set a good example for me when I had my only losing season in coaching."
Lavin soaked up as much as he could from Keady before joining UCLA as an assistant in 1991. Before the 1996 season, he replaced the fired Jim Harrick as the Bruins' head coach and experienced immediate success; Lavin's UCLA teams won at least 20 games in each of his first six seasons, and five teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. But success is fleeting in college basketball, and Lavin was fired in 2003 after UCLA's first losing season in 52 years.
He then carved out a successful career as a broadcaster with ESPN and ABC, one Keady supported whole-heartedly from the outset. In fact, when Lavin started the process of feeling out a return to coaching, Keady recommended he stick with his TV gig. "We had talked a lot about St. John's. Coach Keady, my mother, my father, a handful of my friends knew that if St. John's ever opened, that would be a job I would have interest in," Lavin says. "Like my parents, he naturally encouraged me to stay in broadcasting. 'Why would you ever leave broadcasting? You're undefeated, you're never going to lose a game, you've got nothing to prove.'"
But Lavin had the itch to get back into coaching, and in 2010 he took the job, though he still had work to do. He had to convince Keady, his old mentor who considered himself retired, to join him in New York. Lavin called Keady from the car on the way to his introductory press conference to try and lure his old boss out of retirement. Keady said he'd think about it.
"When I called him back [the next day] I said, 'What's it going to take?'" Lavin recalls. "He had a certain financial amount he asked for and then a supply of Maker's Mark, good Cuban cigars and a driver and help with housing. He goes, 'If you can do that, I'm in.'"
Keady says it took him just two hours to decide. "It was just the fact that I could get back into coaching, and I could work for him," he says. "It was pretty easy, really. I knew [Hall of Fame St. John's coach] Lou Carnesecca -- we took a trip to Spain once to do a clinic -- so I knew something about St. John's. I always liked New York City."
Keady dispels the notion that there would be any culture shock for the lifelong Midwesterner who moved into a Battery Park City apartment with his third wife, Kathleen. "It's great here. It's exciting. I think it depends on who you are. It was exciting for me in Kansas, and that's hard to do."
Not surprisingly, one of the things Keady is least fond of in New York is the traffic, though Lavin manages to see even that as a positive. Every day the two coaches talk shop on the ride into work with graduate assistant Jason Tilton, a commute that Lavin, a Catholic, refers to as "basketball mass."
According to NCAA rules, basketball programs can have three assistant coaches in addition to the head coach who are allowed to interact with players on the court. Keady is not one of those coaches. Instead, his official title is Special Assistant/Advisor, and he is at St. John's to "Coach the coaches," in his own words.
It is fair to characterize Keady's role as an ambassador. In late November, he made an appearance at the 2013 Lapchick Character Awards ceremony in the prestigious New York Athletic Club. (He won the award himself in 2010.) A couple minutes after arriving, Keady parked himself in a chair in the corner, flanked by athletic department staff. He was in his element. He seemed to know everybody, and there was no shortage of star power on hand. Jim Calhoun, the longtime UConn head coach was present, and he gave Keady a hello as the two passed each other in the lobby. Tiny Archibald was there to remember his coach Don "Bear" Haskins, who was posthumously honored. Former Washington State, Iowa and Southern Cal head coach and current Nike titan George Raveling received the award, as did longtime Rutgers and Illinois coach Theresa Grentz. In the well-heeled crowd, Keady stood out, even though he was not being honored. Old friends and well-wishers constantly approached his table to shake hands. This type of thing -- golf tournaments, charity events, representing the school -- is all part of Keady's role as a St. John's representative.
But basketball-wise, what specifically does Keady do at St. John's? "In our meetings and our scouting, I make suggestions," he says. "I talk to [the coaches] about what I think would help us. I just throw it out there. It doesn't mean we have to do it. Stuff like how to play without the ball on offense. On defense, how to play defense before your man catches the ball. Just basic stuff that a lot of people don't talk about." Keady's role can include anything from drawing up inbounds plays to helping with community service to academic advising. It's a position somewhat removed from the minute details of day-to-day coaching, one that focus on big picture ideas.
Though most of the St. John's players are too young to remember Keady's glory days at Purdue -- heck, they weren't even alive for the first half of his tenure -- it's clear that he still carries a certain gravitas. As Keady arrives on campus, junior guard Jamal Branch holds the door for him, while gleefully shouting, "Hall of Fame! Hall of Fame!" -- a reference to Keady's recent induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Before practice, sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson, the Red Storm's best NBA prospect, agrees that Keady carries a weighty influence: "Whenever he talks, everybody listens, even Coach Lav. With Coach Lav, I feel like he's still learning from him. It'd be foolish not to listen to what he's got to say."
It's clear that Lavin agrees with Sampson's assessment. Get him started talking about Keady, and it's tough to get him to stop. He speaks in reverential terms about what his mentor and former boss brings to the program. "I think there's a value in having someone of his generation in our program," he says. "I think that's a great thing for our players to have access to. But I think also it's perspective. He brings a perspective that's unparalleled in the history of basketball. High school, junior college, D1 assistant, D1 coach. NBA assistant. Time in broadcasting. International play. And now St. John's."
Lavin didn't just bring Keady into the mix because of the two coaches' strong personal bond, either. In assembling his staff, Lavin intentionally put together the most diverse group possible. Keady is the Red Storm's elder statesman at 77, assistant Jim Whitesell is in his 50s, Lavin and assistants Tony Chiles and Darrick Martin are in their 40s, Rico Hines is in his 30s, and they have several grad assistants in their 20s. "What I love is we have such good chemistry," he says. "Everyone is different. I call it like a great toolbox. It's like a great toolbox or a jukebox. You got the oldies but the goodies, but I can also go with hard rock, R&B, rap."
It happens regularly, but it's still jarring to hear Lavin compare Keady to John Wooden. Despite his prolonged success, Keady never made a Final Four. Plus John Wooden is, you know, John Wooden.
But that doesn't stop Lavin, who also counted Wooden as an inspiration. ""I've said it publicly forever. To me, he's as good as anybody that's coached this game when you look at his body of work," Lavin says of Keady, who is sitting right next to him. " [Wooden] won 10 [championships] out of 12, seven in a row, four undefeated seasons. 88 straight wins. So in that 12-year window, he was great. But if you take [Keady's] numbers over his entire career of high school and junior college, the assistant years, the head coaching years now the pro and coming back in the senior advisor role with us -- to me, it's more impressive than Coach Wooden."
Lavin is not the only one to hold Keady in such high regard -- he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in November. Matt Painter, another Keady assistant, who succeeded his old boss in 2005 to become just Purdue's second coach since 1980, agrees. "I think he's one of the best ever," Painter says. "You have to look at the guys he had at Purdue and what he got out of them. A lot of times, people will say, 'Oh, how many championships did this guy win, or what's his record in the NCAA tournament?' Everybody doesn't get the same talent. I thought he ranks as one of the best coaches to ever coach the game for what he got out of his players and what he got out of his teams."
Keady stoically brushes off the praise from his former disciples. He's just enjoying coaching again after being retired twice.
And Lavin? He's once again the head coach at a nationally relevant program. In his first year he got St. John's to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002 and he brought in a top 10 recruiting class. But to hear him tell it, the biggest reward of returning to coaching was simply working with Keady again. "Working with him has made coming to St. John's worth it," he says.
The dynamic of their friendship is on display after a win over Monmouth in November, as the two retreated to Lavin's office and split a bottle of wine, reminiscing well into the night. While Lavin recounts his days at Purdue, Keady pores over the game's box score, periodically interrupting his pupil to remark on a particularly noteworthy stat. The two banter and tease each other, the mark of a true friendship. Lavin jokingly refers to Keady as Mr. Miyagi, a basketball Buddha and a wise old owl. When Keady shares one of his time-tested theories on winning basketball games -- if you score the first basket of the game, the last of the first half and the first of the second half, you're guaranteed to win -- Lavin laughs him off. But then he grows serious and remembers who he is talking to and who he is talking about: Keady, one of the all-time coaching greats.