Former Purdue Coach Gene Keady Still a Great Storyteller
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Gene Keady slid into a booth at the Westside Diner, his go-to place for breakfast every time the former Purdue basketball coach is in town. After working the room with a bunch of hellos and other pleasantries, he was off an running telling one great story after another.
About to be 84 years old in May, the long-time Purdue coach from 1980 to 2005 is still as sharp as a tack and loving retirement. During basketball season, he gets back to West Lafayette often from his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to spend time with Matt Painter, his former player in the early 1990s, and Painter's current Boilermakers team. There are also dozens of friends to see in town and plenty to do.
It's the same in Myrtle Beach, too, where he plays of lot of golf — he even shot his age for the first time last year — and watches a lot of minor-league baseball during the summer with a great collection of friends.
Life is good. Very, very good.
"I have zero complaints,'' Keady said as he poured cream into his coffee. "I feel great, and I stay really busy. I love popping back up here, and I still talk with a lot of my former players all the time. There's been a lot going on this year, so it's been fun to see a lot of people.
"To me, there's nothing better than that, having such great relationships with my former players, both here at Purdue and going all the way back to high school. They'll always be MY players.''
And Gene Keady will ALWAYS be their coach.
Two coaches in 40 years at Purdue
Current Purdue coach Matt Painter talks often about continuing Keady's program at Purdue, and it shows. Keady coached there for 25 years, and Painter has been there another 15 years now.
"That still shocks me to hear that, that Matt's been there for 15 years,'' Keady said. "Time flies. It really does.''
Painter and Keady have a great relationship, and when Keady is in town, Painter loves having him around. Keady has seen about a half dozen games in person, and traveled with the team for road games at Iowa City and Bloomington. He will always be part of this Purdue program.
"I stop by practice and watch, but I don't say much. I never say anything to the players from a coaching standpoint. They've got plenty of great coaches here already. They act like they like having me around,'' Keady said with a laugh. "I even got into a Tommy Luce video, and people loved that. I had forgotten I had even done that, so I really got a laugh out of it when I saw it.
"I really enjoy being around that group of kids. There's not a jerk in the bunch, and they're great kids to be around.''
Keady always loves telling Matt Painter stories, too. After all, they've been together for more than 30 years, first as player and coach, then assistant and head coach and now coach and mentor.
"Matt's dad tells a great story about his freshman year with us, He was with us about three weeks or so and he went home to Muncie and told his dad, 'I really don't think Coach Keady knows what he's doing,' '' Keady said, unable to hold back his laughter. "His dad was like, 'Why would you say that, just because he's not playing the worst player on his team?'
"He learned pretty quick that I had this game figured out pretty well. Matt's a good listener and he sticks with what works. Heck, I was at practice the other day and I was looking at the practice sheet and it was identical to what I used, everything in the same exact places. So I guess he did listen along the way.''
Painter also understood at an early age what was supposed to work and what wasn't. The coaching gene was part of his player DNA, too. Especially by his senior year, Painter hated when his teammates made mistakes.
"When he was playing for me, he was very smart,'' Keady said. "One time when he was playing, we went down to Georgia and they were like No. 3 in the country. They started three guys 6-(foot)-8 or better and they were really good. But we went down there and beat them in Athens, when Hugh Durham was the coach. After the game, Matt says to me, 'Hey Coach, I think we finally found a team dumber than us.' He always knew how to play the game.''
Enjoying his time with Bob Knight these days
During his 25 years at Purdue, Keady had epic battles with Indiana coach Bob Knight every year. There was always a great level of mutual respect there, but now, in retirement, they've become great friends. They spent time together here and there, "and we talk on the phone every week or two,'' Keady said. He had a 21-20 record vs, Knight in their 25 years of competing.
"He's a good friend,'' Keady said. "We did an event here with the Purdue Ag people and that was fun. We're great friends now and we have some great talks. We talk politics now and then, and he brings it up usually, but nobody cares what we think about that.
"We're both on the same team there. Mr. Trump, we've actually talked to him, and one time Mr. Trump said to us, 'I can't believe you guys are buddies. I've seen the videos. I though out guys hated each other.' ''
That admiration, even in a heated rivalry, was there from the beginning, Keady said.
"I always respected Coach Knight a lot because his kids played hard and they graduated, and those are two things that really matter to me,'' said Keady, who had 92 percent of his players graduate, a statistic he is very proud of. "We really had some battles a lot of years, and there were a lot of years when my team and his team were the best teams in the league. So those games were huge.
"The fans made it tougher on us than we did. The fans hated each other, and our fans loved beating Indiana. So did I, but for different reasons. I loved those Indiana games, because they were so intense. Beating them was really special, but mostly it was special because you just hated losing to them, too. I hated losing to anybody.''
Keady and Knight have spent some time together lately. Knight returned to Assembly Hall in Bloomington for the first time in 20 years on Feb. 8, the day Indiana was playing Purdue. Keady was there, and he enjoyed every minute of seeing Knight be adored by thousands of Indiana fans and being surrounded by more than 50 former players.
"I was there in Bloomington, and that was really special for him. It was neat,'' Keady said. "I was really happy for him, seeing him there with all of his players. I never left my seat watching all of that. He really loves all those former players, and that day meant the world to him.''
Later that night, the two of them were honored by the Indiana Pacers as part of their "Basketball Day in Indiana'' day-long celebration.
"It was nice being with him for that,'' Keady said. "He was in the first row, and I was right behind him. We talked a lot during the first half, and then we did the halftime ceremony. It was nice to do that together with him.''
Enjoying every day of retirement
When Keady retired from coaching, he spent a brief time in Toronto and then worked for the Big Ten Network for three years. He then spent five years at St. John's with former Purdue assistant Steve Lavin.
Then he retired for good, and he and his wife Kathleen moved to Myrtle Beach. It's been a fun 15 years since he coached his last game at Purdue.
"I have absolutely loved my retirement,'' he said. "I spent three years at the Big Ten Network, and that was the greatest gig ever. I spent five years at St. John's with Steve Lavin, and I loved that, too. I loved my time at the Big Ten Network. There's a lot of great people there, Dave Revsine and Mike Hall, and everyone was great with showing me the ropes for doing TV.
"Then we got a place in Myrtle Beach, and we've love it down there. I play a lot of golf, and I'm still a huge baseball guy. Played myself till I was 43. The Cubs have a minor-league team down there, and I have season tickets right in the front row.''
Golf is his big thing, though.
"I still play a lot of golf, shoot about 88. I shot my age once last year, an 83, for the first time. That was great. I hope to do that more often a few times this year. It's tough getting old though, when I have to pull out my driver on some par-3s. But I still love golf, and it keeps me young.''
Even with that 84th birthday right around the corner on May 21, Keady doesn't like the idea of slowing down.
"I still have a bucket list, though. I'm not done,'' said Keady, who watches a lot of television, too. "I still want to meet David Feherty from the Golf Channel, meet Donnie (Wahlberg) from Blue Bloods, and I want to jump out of ain airplane, but my doctor probably won't let me.
"I really want to do that, though. We'll have to see how that discussion goes.''
Purdue will always be home to him
Keady still loves spending time in West Lafayette and watching Painter's teams play, win or lose. He dismisses any criticism of Painter, which comes out in a year like this where the Boilermakers are just 16-15, a year after being one shot away from reaching the Final Four last year, "something that's really hard to do, and I know,'' Keady said.
"He knows how to win. He plays good defense, he knows how to get the ball in the right people's hands, and he's a guy who really understands the game. He's very smart,'' Keady said.
"Matt is a great coach. He really is. Those chirpers, that's what I call those people on the Internet, they don't know anything. Getting to the Final Four, that's hard. Trust me, I know. I went when I was an assistant with Eddie Sutton (at Arkansas in 1978), but that's it. It was great fun, coaching for 55 years at all those different levels, so I think I know a little bit about coaching, and Matt is a very good coach.''
Keady loves still having great talks with many of former players. Many of them talk all the time, he says.
"There's nothing better through all these years than having that relationship with my former players, There' a lot of guys I still talk to every week or so,'' Keady said. "Even some of my high school players I still talk to, and they're in their 70s now. I love still having all those people around to talk to. I talk to Troy Lewis and Todd Mitchell a lot. I talk to people I highly respect, especially when they have time. Heck, some of those players are retired now, too.''
His self-deprecating humor is still firmly entrenched. When he was telling the story about Knight's return in Bloomington, he talked about current Purdue football coach Jeff Brohm sitting behind him at the game. Brohm came to Purdue from Western Kentucky, just like Keady did those 40 years ago.
"Jeff is a great guy,'' Keady said. "When he got hired at Purdue from Western Kentucky, I called the AD and I said 'I sure hope he's a lot smarter than the last guy you guys hired from Western. I can laugh at myself, too.''
What's great about Keady too is that he always seems to have a great story for just about any situation. When we were talking about some of his former players from Northwest Indiana like Glenn Robinson and Drake Morris, the subject came up that I was from Schererville.
He immediately brought up the 90-year-old Teibel's restaurant, a perch and fried chicken restaurant that draws customers from all over the Midwest.
Keady loves the place, and would schedule road trips around a stop at the legendary restaurant.
"When we used to take the bus to Northwestern or Wisconsin for games, we used to always stop at Teibel's in Schererville for their great perch and chicken,'' Keady said. "I love that place and it's one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. We tried to stop there whenever we could.
"If our kids didn't like that food, that perch and that chicken, you knew you had a bunch of duds. If you don't like Teibel's, you don't know what good food is.''
Keady doesn't miss breakfast at the Westside Diner either when he's in West Lafayette. He's such a regular that he practically knows everyone in the restaurant by name. He joked with a table of retired guys about all sitting at the "liar's table.'' He chatted up all the employees and talked baseball with some of the other guys at the counter.
"West Lafayette will also be home to me,'' Keady said. "I really couldn't have asked for a better spot to coach most of my career. There are so many good people in this town, and they'll do anything to help you.
"I'm serious, it still means a lot to me to be here. I love my trips back here.''
It means a lot to everyone in Lafayette to have him back, too. He will always be "Coach Keady,'' even in retirement — and no matter how many times he shoots his age.