If Gene Keady had his druthers, more people would know that
Purdue has won two straight Big Ten titles and at the end of
last week was tied for first place, with a 4-1 record, as it
sought its third in a row. If the choice were his, parents of
Indiana's best high school players wouldn't tell him again and
again that they wouldn't think of sending their boy to play at
Indiana for "that man," Bob Knight, only to send their boy off
to "that man" just the same. If it were up to him, the NCAA
wouldn't have assigned him over the years to such tournament
sites as Memphis to play Memphis or Louisiana to play LSU. But
when you coach basketball for a school Keady says
non-Midwesterners mistake for "a poultry company," and you do it
in the shadow of Knight, the druthers, alas, are often others'.
Keady is resigned to all that. But if he could change anything,
it would be his life over the last two weeks.
Wednesday, Jan. 10. Forty minutes before Purdue is scheduled to
play Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Keady is fetched from the
Boilermakers' locker room to take an emergency call. His
daughter Lisa, 30, has slipped in the kitchen of her home in
Alpine, N.J., struck her head on the floor and lapsed into a
coma. Doctors are performing brain surgery and are unsure of her
chances for survival. A team manager drives Keady's wife, Pat,
to O'Hare Airport for a flight to New Jersey, where she'll join
their son-in-law, Glenn Sands, in the intensive-care unit at
Hackensack University Medical Center. Only after coaching Purdue
to its 67-51 victory does Keady tell the team of Lisa's
condition. His players give him a hug and say a prayer before
the drive back to West Lafayette, Ind.
As a high school sophomore in Larned, Kans., Keady was once
struck in the head by a throw from a shot-putter during track
practice. He actually kept on walking and didn't collapse until
he got home. Keady has made light of the episode over the
years--he says it proves he's literally a hardheaded Irishman--but
he was rushed to a hospital and went into convulsions for three
hours. A priest was brought in to perform last rites. "I've
never been through what Lisa's going through, but that was close
enough," he says. "There was no permanent effect, other than my
being less cocky than I had been. You know how kids are: 'I'm
gonna live forever.'"
Thursday, Jan. 11. Keady catches a morning flight to New Jersey
to join Pat, Glenn and Lisa, who is still in critical condition.
Shortly after Keady arrives, his sister, Norma Raffety, calls to
tell him that their father, Lloyd, 85, has died of respiratory
failure in a Fair Oaks, Calif., convalescent home. The
59-year-old Keady comes as close as he ever has during his 18
years as a head coach to missing a game. But after thinking for
a while about taking a plane to California, he spends the night
in Jersey and on Friday afternoon heads to Newark Airport and
boards a flight to Minneapolis. Because of a winter storm
socking in the East Coast, it takes him 10 hours to reach his
destination. Keady spends the wee hours going over scouting
reports on Minnesota, the Boilermakers' opponent the next
Order up the ideal Purdue basketball coach, and the lab would
deliver this: A gruff exterior, so as not to be taken as a cream
puff by the state's red-clad majority, but a soft heart, the
better to play off the archrival's tyrannical leader. He would
be a hellacious competitor--he would have to be to survive--but
not so egomaniacal or insecure that he would let Knight or
Indiana University-mania get under his skin. Most of all, he
would have to be resourceful, because other than the occasional
Kohoutek-like arrival of a Glenn Robinson, he would be left with
the scraps that the Hoosiers pass on.
Keady is all that, and he has forged for himself an identity all
his own: that of the basketball mentor as football coach. The
Boilermakers were into weights long before it became trendy, and
they thrived with bruisers like Jim Rowinski (class of '84) and
Steve Scheffler ('90). They're always huddling up, then breaking
on cue. Why, Keady calls his team's initial possession "the
first play from scrimmage." Even his single professional
failin--Purdue has never advanced beyond the Elite Eight of the
NCAAs since he arrived there in 1980--may find an explanation of
sorts in football, where coaches have always had an irrational
aversion to a postseason playoff. Watching the Boilermakers make
sacraments of defense and rebounding, and pounding the ball
inside on their muscular way to the free throw line, you can't
help but strain to hear the appropriate commentary--not from Dick
Vitale but from John Madden.
In fact, Keady was a halfback at Kansas State and was drafted in
the 19th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958. Cut by the
Steelers too late that year to find a job coaching high school
football, he took a position coaching basketball at Beloit
(Kans.) High. From there he stopped over at Hutchinson (Kans.)
Junior College (where, he points out, he wore a red sweater on
the sidelines long before it became fashionable elsewhere),
Arkansas (where his boss, Eddie Sutton, so respected him that
Sutton calls Keady "the only assistant I let get technicals")
and Western Kentucky (where he served as head coach for two
seasons until the Boilermakers hired him).
If Indiana University's higher profile really bothered him,
Keady says, "I'd leave--I could have left lots of times."
Numerous schools, and even the Indiana Pacers, all sniffed
around him, yet always he chose to stay, reasoning that, deep
down, he's happy. And he really is, notwithstanding his TV image
as a snarler, with his eyes narrow and his arms folded so
tightly across his chest that he seems to be giving himself the
Heimlich maneuver. According to Keady, Mike Ditka once told him,
"You got me off the hook, because I could always tell my wife,
'See, there's a guy worse than I am!'"
"I don't know if I'll ever change the image of looking mean,"
says Keady. "I don't feel mean."
Keady reaches his players with a message that's similarly
upbeat. "He's of the you're-too-good-to-be-that-bad school of
motivation," says Mark Montieth, a writer whose book Passion
Play is for Boilermakers what A Season on the Brink was
for Hoosiers. "His players all say he can chew your ass and make
you like it."
Saturday, Jan. 13. Before the Minnesota game, the Purdue players
inform the assistant coaches that they are dedicating their
effort to Keady. "We told the guys, 'Now don't go dedicating the
game and losing it,'" says assistant coach Bruce Weber. In the
locker room after Purdue's 76-62 win, Keady thanks everyone for
playing so hard and then breaks into tears.
The seeds of today's Boilermaker basketball were planted in the
Kansas greenhouse where Lloyd Keady worked for more than 50
years, growing and potting flowers that he sold to flower shops
to support his wife, Mary Helen, and their two kids. During
junior high Gene worked eight-hour Saturdays for his father,
helping out in the shop, making change and serving patrons. "I
learned early in life that the customer's always right," he
says. "You learn to listen."
Thus there's communication at Purdue that wouldn't take place at
Indiana. "Play till there's blood in your socks!" Keady likes to
tell his players. And one day in practice a Boilermaker actually
popped a blister and, scarcely believing his good fortune, came
running. "Hey, Coach, guess what? I got blood in my socks!"
Sunday, Jan. 14. Back in West Lafayette, Keady grabs a change of
clothes and catches a flight to Sacramento. Norma meets him
there, and they go over preparations for their father's funeral
the next day.
A Depression baby from the Kansas plains fits in snugly at
Purdue, a throwback of a school where over the years Mackey
Arena has echoed with that venerable pop standard, K-K-K-Katy,
in honor of the coach. This season Mackey is festooned with
signs reading 3-pete, a nod to both lantern-jawed school mascot
Boilermaker Pete and Purdue's chance to become the first school
to win three straight outright Big Ten titles since Ohio State
did it in the early '60s. Keady won National Coach of the Year
honors two years ago. He won them last season, too. Admit it:
You did not know that. K-K-K-Keady--the only c-c-c-coach that
Monday, Jan. 15. Keady looks after family matters in Sacramento
and then attends the funeral of the man who "taught me how to
work and not watch the clock. If you watch the clock, time goes
slow. If you work hard, time goes fast." He leaves Sacramento on
a red-eye to Chicago, where a team manager picks him up at
O'Hare after midnight for the 2 1/2 hour drive back to West
Lafayette. Indiana will be in town in a few hours.
In 1981, during Keady's first trip to Assembly Hall in
Bloomington, Knight shoved to the side a referee who had the
nerve to obscure his line of sight. When the officials failed to
call a technical, Keady erupted. "In Kansas, if you touch a
referee, they'll shoot you!" he screamed. In the process of
giving Keady a technical, an official told him he wasn't in
Kansas anymore. "If you have any guts, you'll throw his ass out
of here!" Keady yelled. While giving him another technical, the
official told Keady he didn't much care for his having ventured
onto the court to press his case.
Knight got a win that day, but he learned not to trifle with the
new coach at Purdue. Over the years Keady has had cordial
relations with his professional nemesis. Once, when Pat had to
go into the hospital for surgery, Knight sent her a bouquet--red
and white carnations arranged around a black one and a gold one.
And before one Indiana-Purdue game in West Lafayette, Pat, aware
of Knight's fondness for chocolate, gave him a batch of her
Purdue won that night, and there's a story that as the Hoosiers
made their way back to Bloomington, Knight ordered the team bus
to stop. He disembarked, took Pat's fudge and flung it
disgustedly into the Indiana night.
Tuesday, Jan. 16. Keady gets home at 4 a.m. and naps for two
hours. A Learjet is supposed to fly Pat back from New Jersey for
tonight's game and take Gene back to his daughter's bedside
after it. But after descending to within 200 feet of the runway
in West Lafayette, the pilot has to divert to Cincinnati because
of fog. Pat misses Purdue's 74-69 defeat of Indiana.
Typically, during a first-half run in which Purdue opened up a
lead it never relinquished, the 11th Boilermaker to get into the
game--a freshman guard named Alan Eldridge--scored seven points in
barely a minute. Typically, too, at week's end no one on Keady's
team was averaging more than guard Chad Austin's 11.6 points a
game. Purdue is so balanced that it had spread leading-scorer
honors among seven different players this season.
"I don't really think it's the players," says one of them, guard
Todd Foster. "It's the coaching staff. And their scouting
reports. What IU did tonight--that's what the coaches told us
they'd do. And if we'd have lost, it would've been our fault."
Wednesday, Jan. 17. Gene and Pat catch a 6 a.m. flight back to
New Jersey. By noon they're again with Lisa, who is still in a
coma. The doctors see "normal progress": She responds to muscle
stimulation, and her blood pressure rises with the sound of
voices around her. But even if she comes to, there will be a new
range of questions.
"You can see me in an intensive-care ward where there are comas,
can't you?" Keady says. "You know, Mr. Patience? So it was not
much fun this week."
Keady did make it back to Purdue for Saturday's 71-67 loss to
Illinois, which ended the Boilermakers' Big Ten winning streak
at 10 games and left their record at 14-3. But as of Sunday
night Lisa still hadn't regained full consciousness, and even
Gene understood the absurdity of getting indignant at the
trifling unfairnesses meted out by Big Ten referees. "Lisa has
brought us back to that point [Duke coach and former exhaustion
victim] Mike Krzyzewski talked about, of realizing what really
counts," he says.
Gene and Pat Keady and Glenn Sands do not stand vigil alone. In
Lisa's room there's a stack of cards and faxes and telegrams.
Flowers are everywhere. And after that game against Indiana,
Knight told Keady he would be sending a bouquet of his own. A
kind gesture, thinks Gene Keady, a man who knows what it takes
to grow a flower.