Years ago, at a cystic fibrosis fund-raiser, Mike Ditka thanked Gene Keady for behaving like a lunatic. "My wife saw you on TV," said the gum-throwing former Bears coach, "and told me, 'You're finally off the hook. This guy is way more intense than you are.'"
Says Keady, who is coaching his final basketball season at Purdue, "I took it as a compliment."
In 25 years with the Boilermakers, Keady has launched more jackets than Hugo Boss. On Saturday, during a 68-57 loss to Michigan State, he flung his suitcoat onto the court after receiving a technical. "I used to have to chase the glasses, the money--whatever came flying out of those jackets," recalls Bruce Weber, Keady's assistant with the Boilermakers for 18 seasons and now coach of top-ranked and unbeaten Illinois.
You couldn't blame Keady for wanting to be rid of his blazers. They were often mustard-colored, so that he resembled a Century 21 Realtor. "I was a horrible dresser for a while," says Keady, whose wife, Pat, eventually straightened him out. "And my hair has always been a big topic in this league."
Keady's hair, the most famous cover-up since Watergate, caps one of sport's great game faces. Tark had the Towel, Keady has the Scowl. On the sideline he folds his arms as if in an invisible straitjacket. And you should see him when he's losing. Once, after a triple-overtime defeat at Ohio State, Keady was kicking a locker when his loafer flew off. Says Weber, "He wound up kicking the locker straight-on with his bare foot," which inflated like a detonated air bag. Keady coached the next night in tennis shoes.
So you'd assume Keady is clawing out his comb-over this season, the worst of his 46 years in coaching. The Boilermakers began Keady's final Big Ten season with six conference losses. (At week's end they were 3-9 and 7-16 overall.) A month ago, suffering from the flu, he missed the first game of his career. "I was too sick to watch it on TV," says Keady. "My hair hurt." But you would be wrong: These Boilermakers are not making Keady boil. "The kids have been very good to coach," he says. "We have no attitude problems." In every arena he visits for the final time, he gets a standing ovation and a lovely parting gift. When he stalks the sideline at home, he does so at Keady Court, the elevated floor at Mackey Arena on which he has literally left his imprint.
"You sit below the floor at Mackey," says Weber, "and I can't tell you how many times he broke a ring banging his fist on that floor. And the watches! I remember coming in all excited one time: 'Coach, I found all the parts to your Rolex!' He said, 'It's fake. I bought it in New York.'"
Keady's style is Timex, not Rolex. He's a different kind of Coach K, one without the elaborate electronic protection of Mike Krzyzewski's Duke compound. "You don't go through security to get to his office," Weber says of Keady. A native of Larned, Kans., Keady speaks in a rural idiom that his players puzzle over for years. A decade after graduating from Purdue, former Boilermakers guard Matt Painter asked Weber one day, out of the blue, "Have you ever actually seen a three-peckered goat?"
Painter, now Purdue's associate head coach, will take over next season for Keady. (Among active coaches, only Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Sacred Heart's Dave Bike have been at the same school longer than Keady.) He's won six Big Ten titles, seven conference coach of the year awards and six national coach of the year awards. Alas, Keady has never taken a team to the Final Four. "But the ultimate measure is what you did for people over the long course," says Weber. "Your legacy will be how you affected players' lives."
One of those players, Troy Lewis, who was among the contingent honoring Keady before the Michigan State game, told Weber last week, "Coach has handled this season the way he always told us to handle failure. He's doing all the stuff he has preached to us."
And anyway, Keady may yet go to the Final Four this season. With Illinois. After all, much of Weber's coaching philosophy with the Illini is WWKD: What Would Keady Do? "When we had problems here last year, I sat back and asked myself, How would he deal with it?" says Weber. "I've also learned from him what not to do, like don't talk back to hecklers."
"Yeah," says Keady with a sigh. "Sometimes I'll act like an ass and answer 'em back."
A former football player who was briefly a Pittsburgh Steeler, Keady--at 68--still looks as if he could snap you in half. More to the point, he looks as if he'd enjoy doing so. Strangers are often cowed upon meeting him, which reminds the coach of a story he likes to tell on the speaking circuit. And that is? "I'm not telling you," he says after a pause. "I'd have to charge you $20,000." After a still longer pause he says, "Actually I could tell you. But I'd have to kill you. And I really don't want to do that."
Of course, Keady isn't serious. Or is he? "He does have a sense of humor," says Weber. "It's just that when he tells a joke, people are afraid to laugh." ‚ñ†
• For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to si.com/writers.