MADISON – Gene Keady is not often coy. But Purdue’s coach of 25 seasons, who patrolled the sideline for his final regular season game Saturday, turned demure when a reporter asked him what gift he had received from the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coaching staff.
“It’s a golf trip and clubs,” Keady acknowledged. “The golf trip is the best.”
The reporter pried further. Where exactly was the golf trip?
“It’s up here at your favorite course,” he said. “The Straits. I’m not telling you everything. Somebody might show up, want to get my autograph. Autographs now are $100 each. Sick of doing stuff free.”
Keady, the retiring coaching icon, has lost many games this season. But he has not lost his sense of humor, or his passion for the game.
Earlier this week, prior to the Boilermakers’ school-record-setting 19th and 20th losses of this season, Keady said his final season, understandably, had been, “frustrating.”
“Why don’t guys you recruit nowadays get better like they used to here?” Keady lamented. “I blame me. That’s why I’m leaving. The magic is gone evidently. We’re changing because of that reason and recruiting was becoming a task. I love to recruit but it was getting to be where it was not favorable for Purdue to have me as the head coach.”
For most of his 25 years in West Lafayette, Ind., having Gene Keady as their coach was to the Boilermakers’ overwhelming benefit. Keady has won more than 500 games at Purdue, including 265 in Big Ten play. He won six conference titles and was named the league’s coach of the year a record seven times.
But somewhere along the line, as he said, the magic melted away. Aside from a third-place finish two seasons ago, Purdue finishes this season in seventh place or lower for the fourth time in the past five campaigns. The Boilermakers are in 10th place this year, with a 3-13 conference mark and a 7-20 overall record, after a regular-season ending 64-52 loss to Wisconsin at the Kohl Center here Saturday.
The Kohl Center was not kind to Keady. He never won here, but he refused to bemoan the arena after the game.
“I don’t have those kind of feelings about anything,” Keady said.
Keady, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said earlier this week, is simply a “professional.”
“He’s always taken time to talk to the young assistants, the older coaches, middle coaches, rookies,” Ryan said. “He’s a professional. That’s what you should do. Doesn’t put himself above other people….
“He’s always looked at the profession the way somebody with class would. He never has anything bad really to say about anybody. Just promotes the game, lives the game. Squeezes in a little golf.”
So perhaps it is Keady’s professionalism, his willingness to talk and help, despite his fiery, competitive demeanor, that led UW to ask him for advice.
“When they were down… they kept asking me what they should do to make this program better and I was dumb enough to answer it,” Keady said. “I said, ‘Build a [new] Field House and get a great coach.’ And they got a bunch of great coaches and the field house has brought recruits in and they’ve done a tremendous job.”
One of those great coaches, Dick Bennett, kept Keady and Purdue from reaching the Final Four in 2000, when the Badgers topped the Boilermakers in a Regional Championship game.
“My heart was broken,” Keady recalled. “And more for the players than anything because that team probably wanted to go to the Final Four more than any team I ever coached.”
Ryan, the Badgers’ current great coach, led his team to its second consecutive third-place finish Saturday, after leading UW to conference championships in his first two seasons at the helm. The Kohl Center, meanwhile, has been filled to the brim, bubbling with sold-out life, and clamoring with raucous applause as UW’s teams have lost just one Big Ten home game in the past four years.
Saturday, Ryan used the post game press conference to poke a little fun at Keady.
“He told me to try to keep my hair. He didn’t really say that but I couldn’t resist,” Ryan said, when asked what he and Keady said to each other after the game. “Just the normal coaches chatter. I told him he wouldn’t use the clubs because they were more decorative rather than functional.
“I go, ‘Whistling Straits now. That’s a pretty good deal. You’re going to enjoy that. I didn’t remind him that he dropped a hint to me that he wanted to play there. When he was asking me, I think it was [Big Ten] media day. He asked, ‘How’s that Whistling Straits, have you played it? I said, ‘Yeah Gene, I’ve played it. It’s really a nice course.’ He says, ‘Oh yeah, I saw it on TV for the PGA. That’s a nice course.’ I’m getting ready to say, ‘OK, I can take a hint.’”
Indeed, Ryan, UW assistant coaches Greg Gard and Gary Close and associate head coach Rob Jeter each gave Keady an engraved golf club – part of a set of woods – prior to Saturday’s game, along with a golf trip to Whistling Straits Golf Resort in Kohler, Wis. It was just the latest in a long line of gifts for Keady on his farewell tour.
He just has not received many wins along the way.
If life were a fairy tale, Keady would have won a Big Ten Championship this season. Instead, Purdue is suffering through one of the worst seasons in school history.
Still, there have been celebrations for Keady. The Big Ten has been fortunate to boast many storied coaches, but none has carried the torch quite like Keady, who used a question regarding Wisconsin Saturday to pump up his favorite league.
“I think they’re very good, they can go a long way. I hope the people on the committee understand that we got five or six teams in this league that should go to the NCAA [Tournament],” Keady said. “I get tired of hearing the commentators say the Big Ten’s down. All those guys that are commentators, [who] used to be coaches, are telling people that we’re not down. Iowa should be in, Minnesota should be, Wisconsin certainly will be, Michigan State certainly will be and I think Indiana should be in. Of course, Illinois, it’s not even a question, they’re a No. 1 seed. I get tired of people ripping the Big Ten. They never coached in this league. It’s a tremendous league. You’ve got great fans, great venues.”
Right down to the very end, Keady has remained ultra-competitive, if gregariously good natured off the court. Early in the first half Saturday, with UW ahead 13-4, Ryan got on a referee for a call he found fault with. Keady, planted in front of the Purdue bench, his patented in-game scowl adorning his face, turned toward Ryan and the official and bellowed, “Now we’re even!”
Monday, Keady half-joked that one time this season he regretted coming back for a final tumultuous year at Purdue before handing the reigns to former player and current associate head coach Matt Painter. Last offseason Keady turned down an offer to coach the University of San Francisco, which is 16-13 this season.
“I don’t regret anything,” Keady said. “The one day I regretted it was when I saw San Francisco beat Gonzaga [and] somebody kicked the crap out of us – that one day I had a regret. I thought, ‘I could have gone to San Francisco and beat Gonzaga.’ People would be all happy in San Francisco… and then at Purdue they might have won because I wasn’t there to screw them up. That one day I was sorry. That’s it.”
Keady took a moment after Saturday’s game to pay particular praise to UW senior forward Mike Wilkinson.
“[He said it has] just been a pleasure playing against me and he enjoys watching me play the game and enjoys the way I approach the game,” Wilkinson said.
“I told him that he is what college sports is all about,” Keady said. “He got better. Graduated on time. He’s what it’s all about.”
“I think he’d be great on an NBA team,” Keady added. “I’d love to have him. He’s like Brian Cardinal except he’s better on the inside.”
Cardinal was a senior on the Purdue team that lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. Now in his fifth season in the NBA, Cardinal is averaging 9.2 points and 22.5 minutes per game for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Keady’s words meant a lot to Wilkinson.
“He’s been around for a long time,” Wilkinson said. “He’s seen a lot of players in his time, come in, go out. And it’s just an honor to play against him or his teams for the last four years. The way they compete it’s just fun. To hear the things he said after the game, it’s just nice.”