Coaching talent finds roots in Kansas

03/13/2011 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:02 AM

Tonight at the New York Athletic Club, Gene Keady will do what he's done numerous Sunday evenings in March through the years.

Keady, 74, will congregate with coaches and players of a highly successful college basketball team, and discover what awaits them in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Tuesday.

"This is the carrot that we've dangled in front of the kids all year," said Keady, now serving as an adviser to St. John's University coach Steve Lavin, whom Keady hired 23 years ago when he was Purdue's coach. "I can't wait. I want to see the kids' eyes light up when St. John's is called."

The anticipation will be shared in Lawrence and Manhattan, where the Kansas Jayhawks and Kansas State Wildcats are expected to receive bids to the recently expanded 68-team tournament. In other regions of the country, Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon, UNLV's Lon Kruger and Georgia's Mark Fox will have similar gatherings with their teams to receive their postseason assignments.

Many in the basketball-crazed Sunflower State know there is more than the spectacle of March Madness that connects Keady, Turgeon, Kruger and Fox. All hail from Kansas — Keady from Larned, Turgeon from Topeka, Kruger from Silver Lake and Fox from Garden City — and are carrying on a legacy started by other native sons who helped establish the gold standard in college coaching.

"It's surprising how a small state like Kansas could produce so many outstanding coaches," said Eddie Sutton, a Bucklin native who retired from coaching in 2008 and is eighth among all Division I coaches with 804 victories.

"It's like when you say Oklahoma is a football state," added Sutton, a former player and coach at Oklahoma State. "I always thought basketball was more popular than football in Kansas, especially in the little towns. It may not be that way now. But when I was growing up, that's the way it was."

Incomparable lineage

Memorial Park Cemetery on the east side of Lawrence is the final resting place of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. In 1898, seven years after he introduced the game to students at Springfield (Mass.) College, the Canadian-born Naismith moved to Lawrence and joined the University of Kansas faculty as a physical education instructor and chaplain.

A year later, Naismith became KU's first basketball coach. The 55-60 record he compiled during his tenure remains the only losing record by a coach in the program's history.

Naismith's record drips with irony compared to a select number of those who have followed him, both at KU and across the state.

Of the top 10 winningest coaches in Division I men's basketball, three are from Kansas. Dean Smith, who was born in Emporia and graduated from Topeka High, won 879 games at North Carolina from 1961-97 and ranks third behind the retired Bob Knight and current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Halstead's Adolph Rupp, who attended KU during Naismith's years of service, won 876 games at Kentucky from 1930-72 and is fourth. Sutton, the first coach to lead four schools to the NCAA Tournament, finished his career with 804 victories and is eighth.

The basketball facilities at North Carolina and Kentucky are named after Smith and Rupp. The court at Oklahoma State's Gallagher-Iba Arena bears the name of Sutton, an OSU alum who won 368 games as the Cowboys' coach from 1990- 2006.

"I was blessed to have a lot of very good players," said Sutton, who will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in November. "And I never hired an assistant who I didn't think could someday head a Division I program. I had a lot of good coaches who certainly allowed me to win a lot of games."

Smith, a member of KU's first NCAA championship team in 1952, and Rupp, who played for legendary KU coach Phog Allen in the early 1920s, top the list of coaches who won all of their games at one school. Add in Smith's two NCAA titles and his gold-medal winning effort as the 1976 U.S. Olympic team coach, or Rupp's four NCAA championships, and Kansans have plenty to boast about.

"The most winning programs in college basketball have these connections to Kansas," said Harold Bechard, manager of the Kansas Sports Museum in Newton, where visitors watch a 12-minute video at the start of their tour that includes the state's rich coaching heritage. "I think that strikes people right off the bat.

"It makes some of those who may not realize what we've got say, 'Yeah, that is a pretty big deal.' "

But the tentacles of Kansans' coaching achievements extend much further. Parsons native Bill Guthridge, Smith's assistant at North Carolina for 30 years, took over as the Tar Heels' coach when Smith retired. He led North Carolina for just three seasons before retiring, but reached two Final Fours.

Chanute's Ralph Miller, another Allen disciple, won 674 games over a 38-year college career that included 220 victories at the University of Wichita from 1951-64. He later went on to coach at Iowa and Oregon State.

Keady, a Kansas State graduate, started his Division I coaching career as an assistant under Sutton at Arkansas. After serving two years as the coach at Western Kentucky, Keady went to Purdue, where he launched a 25-year run in which he won 512 games and made 18 NCAA Tournament appearances.

"I never thought I could accomplish something like that," Keady said. "In those days, from my time at Beloit (High School) to when I started at Purdue, you worked on a one-year contract.

"When we won the Big Ten in 1984, I got a three-year rollover, and I thought that was a pretty big deal. The dream came true. You were living the dream, and you didn't even know it."

Humble roots

Much of Sutton's knowledge of the game was instilled during his playing days at Oklahoma A&M under coach Henry Iba. But his inspiration for coaching came earlier, during his modest upbringing in Bucklin.

"Basketball was my true love," Sutton said during his 2009 induction into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. "We didn't have television, we didn't have electricity. I had a transistor radio, and you had four of the greatest coaches to ever coach the sport.

"You had Phog Allen at Kansas, Tex Winter at K-State, Ralph Miller at Wichita and Mr. Iba.... When you can't see it on television, your imagination takes over. I could visualize how those games were being played."

Keady, a letterman in football, baseball and track at K-State in the 1950s, was encouraged to get into coaching by Merwin Wilson, his football and track coach at Larned. When Keady was in high school, Wilson let him coach eighth-grade shot put and discus throwers.

"It started in Larned," Keady said. "When I was in eighth grade, Larned High School won the (Class A) state (basketball) tournament. It got in your blood. Sports were what you did."

Other small Kansas towns generated achievers and pioneers in college coaching. Kruger, a three-sport standout at Silver Lake, has joined Sutton on the list of coaches who've taken four schools to the NCAA Tournament. He did it with his alma mater, Kansas State, as well as Florida, Illinois and UNLV.

Hiawatha's John McLendon, who learned many of the principles of basketball from Naismith at KU, is recognized as the first African-American coach at a predominately white university, Cleveland State. He was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

In women's coaching, Westmoreland's Billie Moore became the first coach to lead teams from two schools to national championships. She guided Cal State Fullerton to the 1970 AIAW title and repeated the feat with UCLA in 1978. In between, she coached the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal in 1976 at Montreal, the first time women's basketball was played in the Olympics.

The seeds of such achievements can be sown in a small town, Sutton said.

"When you're at a small school, you're not only participating in athletics," he said. "I played football, basketball, ran track and played baseball in the summertime.

"But when you're at a school that size and there's only 18 of you in your graduating class, you're in the plays, you're in the music department, you're in student government, you're in debate squad. You do a little bit of everything, so you become a well-rounded person when you leave there."

Like Keady, Sutton started his coaching career at the high school level, then moved into the junior college ranks. In 1969, he took the job at Creighton, and eventually took the Bluejays, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament.

In 1975, Sutton and Keady joined forces at Arkansas. Together, they ended the Razorbacks' 19-year NCAA Tournament drought in 1977, then went to the Final Four a season later.

"We had more fun starting that program because it was low as a program could be," Sutton said. "Gene's become one of my dearest friends. I think he's having the time of his life at St. John's."

Keady certainly will tonight, when those NCAA Tournament brackets are filled in.

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