WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – In a few days, former Purdue coach Gene Keady will head back to his home in South Carolina after a month-long visit here. He saw a couple of games, spent a little bit of time with Matt Painter, visited with his long list of friends and even got a little golf in.
But before he left, I wanted to have breakfast with him and let him tell stories, because there's nothing I enjoy more. He was a great coach, and one of the best guys in the business, but he's an even better storyteller. I could listen to him all day. He's an all-time favorite.
We settled for an hour instead of all day, at the Westside Diner, and the stories flowed and flowed.
We had a lot to talk about, of course. I hadn't seen him since the diner last March when I wrote a big story on him for my Sports Illustrated site, and it was great to catch up.
I had a lot of questions for him, of course, mostly about how he's doing and his visit with Bob Knight over the weekend, but he had a lot of questions for me, too, following the Archie Miller firing and Indiana's latest coaching search.
It was funny that every time I brought up a name involved in Indiana's coaching search, like Brad Stevens or Mike Woodson or Keith Smart, he had a story to tell.
And when we talked about his visit with Knight, his rival for 20 years, he had endless stories there, too.
Let's start there.
On visiting with Knight in Bloomington
Keady and his wife Kathleen drove down to Bloomington on Saturday and spent a couple of hours with the Knights, Bob and Karen, at their home a few miles east of the Indiana campus.
Keady said it was a wonderful day.
"We had a good visit, and he has a great wife,'' Keady said. "People ask me all the time, 'how's Bobby?' I always say, 'What do you mean? He's fine.' We're both nuts, how would I know? But no, seriously, he's doing great, he really is. He's got a nice home, and we had a nice time.
"We just talked about general stuff, like friends or family would. We didn't get into basketball much. We talked family, talked about how he was doing. Karen takes care of him, just like Kathleen takes care of me. Bob and I are lucky that way. It's nice that he's back in Bloomington, so his players can come see him. Bob told me he really likes that, when they come by for a visit. It means a lot to him.''
Keady and Knight have had a unique relationship through the years. They were intense rivals, but they've been great friends now for years, too.
"Bobby and I always got along great except for when we played,'' Keady said. "He grabbed my arm one time and said 'I don't like the way you shook my hand,' and I looked at him and said 'I don't give a rat's ass what you think. You can kiss by butt' or something like that. After I walked away, I thought 'Why did I do that? That was stupid to act that way.' I always liked Bob. His players graduated and they always played hard. I always respected him for that.
"Here's what's funny. Right after that, we were down in Orlando for the Big Ten meetings, that's what (Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany did for us every year. I get there and Bob treated me like I was a long lost brother because I chewed him out the last time I saw him. He must have liked being treated like he treated other people. He could give it out, but he could take it, too. He was a great coach, and I always liked being around him.''
On names from the past
We got to talking about the Indiana opening, and he had a great story to tell about Keith Smart, the Indiana hero who hit the game-winning shot when Indiana won the national championship in 1987. Purdue had a great team that year – maybe even better, some would say – but while the Hoosiers celebrated their last title, Purdue Nation sulked, including Keady.
Purdue, if you remember, had a great team that season. They were ranked between No. 2 and No. 7 in the nation all year, and they were 23-3 at one point, with their losses to No. 4 North Carolina, No. 1 Iowa and and No. 4 Indiana.
But then everything went sideways.
Purdue had a chance to win the Big Ten outright, but lost at Michigan 104-68 on national television on the final day of the regular to finish tied with Indiana. The Hoosiers got a No. 1 seed instead, and Purdue a No. 3 seed. But in the second round, as a big favorite over Florida, the Boilers got blown out again, losing 85-66 to end their dream season.
Keady often went to Las Vegas after the season to decompress. He did in 1987, too, because he was really down about how the season ended.
"Keith Smart, he made the shot heard around the world,'' Keady said. "I remember when he hit that shot, I had flown to Las Vegas, which I liked to do at the end of a season. I was feeling really down after way our season ended, but when he hit that shot, I actually hit a big Keno jackpot that day. They brought me a big bowl of hundred-dollar bills. That's my memory of Keith Smart's day, winning at Keno in Vegas.''
We talked about Brad Stevens, and coaching with the Boston Celtics in the NBA, especially when things are going bad: "Boston fans are hard. There aren't many Red Auerbachs. There aren't many Bill Russells either.''
We talked about Mike Woodson, too. "I remember him being a great player. I was still at Western Kentucky (in 1980) when they played that regional at Lexington (when Purdue beat Indiana in their only NCAA Tournament meeting) and I remember getting flown up to the Final Four in Indy that year with the owner of Wendy's.''
On how he's doing these days
Keady, who will be 85 in May, is thoroughly enjoying retirement. He and his wife Kathleen live in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He still plays a lot of golf, watches a lot of basketball and has a lot of friends.
"I love it down there. I've got great neighborhood and have great neighbors and I go watch some Coastal Carolina games,'' Keady said. "Cliff Ellis coaches there, and he is a friend and a great coach.''
He still plays golf, but there aren't as many golf buddies around West Lafayette as there used to be when Keady was a regular on the golf course.
"I played yesterday and had a 41 on the front nine, but then I quit. I'm not any good any more. When I went to New York to work with (Steve) Lavin (at St. John's), I quit playing, so I'm terrible now. I love to play, but I can't play like I used to.''
COVID has kept him away from crowds in the past year, and the Keadys have spent a lot of time at home. Even coming up to West Lafayette, he didn't fly. A friend flew down and drove them up in their own car. They'll do the same going home in a few days.
"We had our COVID tests before we left, and we didn't want to be on a crowded airplane, so we drove,'' Keady said. "It's just different. I couldn't be around the players here like I usually am. Matt's always great about that, and he's got a great group of kids. I really like his team.
Keady was able to go to the final two home games against Wisconsin and Indiana and the NCAA Tournament loss to North Texas at Lucas Oil Stadium.
He still thoroughly enjoys his visits to Lafayette. The bond will never break, he said.
"What I liked about coaching at Purdue was that everyone here all became great friends,'' Keady said. "That's why I loved it here. I had good guys around me. I knew better about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. I had offers to leave, but I loved it here too much to ever even consider it.''
His wife Kathleen, his rock these days, said she loved seeing Keady and Knight together.
"It was beautiful seeing them together. Very special,'' she said. "He's doing very well and Karen is a great lady. We had a wonderful time there and it was nice that we cold all be together. I really enjoyed it.''