BTN Icon: Gene Keady

Since I was at the game on Saturday, I didn't have the chance to watch the Gene Keady-focused "Icons" show following the debacle in Mackey...so I watched it last night, looking to be uplifted a bit.

For me, it didn't happen. While I loved watching Keady's teams tear through the Big Ten season, the most difficult, and memorable losses for me as a fan came in the month of March with Keady at the helm. This show, while great to watch really reminded me of some of those games.

I don't remember Gene Keady's hiring...I was five.  So for me, it was simple-Keady was just Purdue's coach.  Plus, I grew up the son of a big Purdue fan who graduated in 1970.  Like my son, I was taken to games and watched (and listened to) a lot of Purdue basketball while growing up.

My son's first game was when he was four...he's probably already forgotten it.  I believe my first Purdue game was in 1985- Reid, Hall, Gaddis, Rowinski and co. were on that squad. By '85, Keady had established his way- hard-nosed, never-back-down basketball utilizing some players that no one else in the Big Ten really wanted.  In fact, one of the first players that help Keady define who he was as a coach was Jim Rowinski.

He was a football player in shorts- He was between 6'7" and 6'8" matching up against 6'10" (and taller) guys...and he didn't have long arms.  But he was gritty...and strong as an ox.  His career started off slowly (or poorly) depending on your perspective.  But in his Senior year, he became more than just a guy who set crushing picks and started scoring buckets too.  He was an enforcer who used brute force to try to level the playing field against IU, Michigan, MSU and the elite of the conference...and it worked.

If you're too young to remember Rowinski, think of Wisconsin's goons...but without the burr haircuts and height, but with more braun.

Keady's point guards were regularly not as quick as the rest of the league (especially early in his time at Purdue)...and his bigs were not quite as skilled as many they competed against. But they all understood that if they didn't play together and play hard, they simply couldn't compete.  So they did, each and every game.

That paradigm yielded dramatic victories versus the national power houses...and Purdue, like its former football player coach, began defying critics, winning conference championships and pissing off fans from opposing schools around the Midwest and beyond- all while defining what we know about Purdue basketball today.


Keady's teams got better and more skilled as they hovered near the top of the conference.  My favorite team, which was recently honored at Mackey by its best scorer, Troy Lewis, was defined by Lewis and his fellow Senior teammates from 1998.  In middle school, my life revolved around Purdue sports.  I went to Purdue basketball camp and got to meet Steve Scheffler, Troy Lewis, Everett Stevens and Todd Mitchell.  Pretty much every piece of clothing that I didn't wear to school had purdue printed on it.  I was thoroughly brainwashed; and loved it.  In spite of Purdue getting knocked out year after year in the first or second round of the tournament, I tended to focus on what happened during the regular season...it probably kept me sane.

The most memorable Purdue game I attended during this era, and probably in my life, for that matter, was when Purdue clinched the BT title with the 3 Amigos leading the way.  Days before the game, a crippling ice storm had gone through the Indianapolis area.  My family lived down near 38th street in Indianapolis.  Since all the power lines are above ground down there, we lost power for days. We were pretty much huddling around the fire place for light and heat for a few days...so when the Michigan game fell on the tail end of the power outage, my Dad, brothers and I were ready to get to Mackey and witness something special.  We did.

Troy Lewis, Gene Keady, Todd Mitchell and Everett Stephens, 1988

It was about 90 degrees in Mackey that afternoon as the original Big 3 raised the big ten trophy after beating the team that won the national title about a month later.  Mackey was fitted with new lights prior to the game that brightened up the once-dark arena...and it was well-past its capacity.  And get this, even the old fans stood regularly in this contest (something that we don't see too much anymore).  It was a special day.

Purdue got the number one seed in the NCAA tournament shortly after.  They beat Farleigh Dickinson, whipped Memphis...then ran into Mitch Richmond and Kansas State. Purdue was knocked out by the lower seeded Wildcats...and I was crushed.

The next year, Purdue went to the NIT after one of its best basketball classes ever left campus.  That year, I watched Purdue's season end in person at Market Square Arena versus Florida.  I think typically, an NIT loss has no where near the sting as an NCAA tourney loss, but this was different. There was more to the one since the same Florida team had knocked Purdue out of the dance just two years prior in the second round.

My Boilers got back to the tourney the following year...and as a gift, were put in the Hoosier Dome.  They squandered the opportunity, again in heart-breaking fashion, in front of the heavily-pro-Purdue crowd.  This time, the loss came at literally at the hands of Texas- as a last second lay-up was blocked to seal a one-point victory.

A few years later, after a couple more one-and-outs in the tourney, Glenn Robinson was dominating the college basketball world.  Keady's methodical rock 'em, sock 'em style of defense was replaced with Robinson pushing the pace, Cuonzo and Waddell raining threes and Jennings and Dove dunking whenever possible. Role players like Darner and McNary reminded us all of what Purdue had been...but this year felt different.

Grant Hill v. Glenn Robinson, 1994

Robinson was the pre-season player of the year...and he lived up to the hype and more. Martin went from a guy who could barely shoot to a legitimate bomber and squad around them was rock-solid. Purdue beat elite teams, even in the NCAA tournament...but it stopped in Knoxville.  As Grant Hill, and and a bum back kept Glenn Robinson from doing what he had done over and over again that season, Purdue was knocked out. Yet again, Keady would not get to the final four.  Two of my best friends from Purdue and I, along with a bunch of our other pals, made the roadie to see this game in person. It's still tough for me to watch the Boilers lose; but this one, since I had class with some of the players and had met most of them, was worse.

Keady defied the odds after losing the nation's best player and coached Purdue up to another BT title the following year...and after the Boilers nearly lost to Dick Bennet's #15 seed WGB squad (49-48 win), the Boilers reverted to their old form of ducking out of the tournament in the second round.

Purdue lost not one, but two of the best shooters in the BT with Martin and Waddell graduating in 1995, but Keady rose to the challenge again by leading his team to their third-straight BT title in 1996.  This team, like the '88 and '94 teams earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They promptly played an awful game versus Western Carolina, and earned the closest victory ever between a #1 and #16 seed team in the NCAA tournament.  The rocky start to the tournament was completed when Purdue lost the next game to Georgia.

Rodney Smith, Gene Keady and Brian Cardinall, 2000

After a few more rock-solid regular seasons and a couple more two-and-outs in the tourney, Keady put together a string of three tournaments in which his teams made serious noise in the post-season.  The most-unexpected was when the #10 seed Boilers made it to the Sweet 16 after going through Boston...I was lucky enough to be living in the Boston area in 1999, and got to see them beat Miami in the Fleet Center. The apex of this three-year run came in 2000 when the Brian Cardinal-led Boilers were knocked out of the tournament in the Elite 8 by Dick Bennett's Wisconsin team.  This was the fourth time Purdue played the Badgers that season...three of them ending in defeat.  And most of the games were rock fights played in the 60s as both teams simply ground out victories in unconventional fashion.

There is no doubt Gene Keady is a Purdue legend and is fitting of being the topic of the Icons show on BTN. He squeezed more out of under-talented teams than any coach in the modern era...Bo Ryan comes as close as anyone...and like Keady has had limited success in the NCAA tournament.

One of the things discussed in the Icons show is that Matt Painter's era is kind of a continuation of Keady's time at Purdue.  I disagree with this idea.  Keady, in all of his years at Purdue, never had a class as highly-touted as Painter's '07 class.  In fact, I'd argue the classes from '08 to '11 closely-resemble Keady's classes.

Knight and Keady

Painter's teams haven't been as successful during the conference schedule as Keady's...but he has been able to get a round or two further than the average Keady team.  They both believe that defense creates offense and the only way to play the game is hard. But Painter is not close to as fiery...and Painter has never had such an obvious and clear antithesis as Keady did...for his entire time at Purdue in Bob Knight.

Perhaps Crean will become that, but I seriously doubt it for a myriad of reasons.

A friend of mine and I discussed why Keady's teams always faded in March, and we think we understand why.  Keady was able to get his teams to give everything they had, every time they stepped on the court where as so many coaches simply aren't able to get their teams to play at that level night-in, night-out...but in the tournament, everyone is hungry and more motivated than they've been all year.  And Purdue, in spite of playing great team basketball, simply didn't have the individual talent that the teams they faced in the post-season.

Being the national COY six times says a lot about a coach; I don't think any BT coach has ever matched that number, nor ever will.  But, Gene Keady is iconic because he became Purdue basketball due to the amount of time he spent at our alma mater, the passion he had for the game and the high level of success he had during his 25 years in West Lafayette.



*It was also Matt Painter's Freshman year at Purdue

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