The New Rebel

“Who says you can’t come home? This is like a homecoming for me. It’s been quite some time since I’ve stepped foot in this facility, and it conjures up a lot of good memories. I think of successful Ole Miss basketball from Carlos Clark to Elston Turner to Sean Tuohy to John Stroud to Gerald Glass. I know that there have been a lot of great players and a lot of great moments in here, and it is my charge, my duty to bring that back. I assure you that will happen.”

Those were the words of Andy Kennedy while standing at centercourt of C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum on March 24, 2006, when he was introduced as the 20th head men’s basketball coach in the history of the University of Mississippi.

His step from University of Cincinnati interim head coach to Rebel mentor transgressed over a matter of hours, but his journey from a high school star in Louisville, Miss., to sitting at the head of the Ole Miss basketball world was a long and winding road.

KENNEDY, THE PLAYER

Kennedy’s prowess on the hardwood was evident early in his prep career. As a ninth-grader, he pumped in 28 points in a victorious state championship game.

Three years later, the Louisville High School senior was the state’s top talent, receiving Parade All-America and 1986 Mississippi Player of the Year honors. Ole Miss pursued this native Blue Chiper for its own, but Kennedy’s eyes were focused on a different place, much further away than the 100-mile drive north to Oxford.

“Growing up in Louisville, I spent the majority of my time trying to find a way out of small-town Mississippi, and I’ve spent even more time as an adult trying to get back,” he said. “As a young player, I fell into the grass is always greener’ mentality, and for me that meant the ACC and North Carolina State.”

Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack was a mere three years removed from its thrilling national championship season, and as a freshman, Kennedy helped the team claim the 1987 ACC Tournament title.

After a year of playing for and learning from the legendary Valvano, the 6-foot-7 forward made another unexpected decision, transferring from N.C. State to the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

The move took Kennedy from one highly successful coach in Valvano to another in Gene Bartow, whose teams had twice advanced to the Final Four. The move also took Kennedy’s game to an even higher level.

In just three seasons at UAB, he became the school’s second all-time leading scorer with 1,787 points and an 18.8 career scoring average. The two-time all-conference performer still holds or shares 20 Blazer records, including most 3-point field goals (318), highest career 3-point percentage (.437), most 20-point games (43), most 30-point games (7) and the single game scoring mark of 41 points.

Kennedy, who completed his B.A. in history at UAB in 1991, continued his playing career after college, returning to Carolina to suit up for the NBA Charlotte Hornets. He later began a three-year professional stint abroad, playing in Greece, Holland, Spain and Puerto Rico.

KENNEDY, THE ASSISTANT

With his background under Valvano and Bartow, Kennedy seemed destined to enter the coaching ranks after his playing days were over. That end happened sooner than expected, as he sustained his second ACL tear and subsequent fifth and final knee operation in Puerto Rico.

With the 1994-95 collegiate season, he began his climb up the coaching ladder at the University of South Alabama. After a year, Kennedy took a shot in the commercial real estate business, but quickly realized coaching was his calling and returned to the place he had experienced so much success as a player.

Prior to the 1996-97 campaign, UAB brought back one of its all-time favorites to join the staff of Gene Bartow’s son Murry in his first year at the helm. Kennedy helped the Blazers compile a 90-66 record and make three postseason tournament appearances in his five seasons on the UAB bench. The highlight of that tenure came in 1998-99 when the Blazers tied for the Conference USA regular-season crown and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

In 2001, Kennedy took another major leap in his professional life, joining a tradition-rich and established winning program in Cincinnati. Under the leadership of C-USA Coach of the Decade Bob Huggins, the Bearcats had been among the nation’s elite during the 1990s and were riding a streak of 10-straight NCAA Tournament appearances with three Elite Eights and a 1992 Final Four berth.

As an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator, Kennedy had the duty to help maintain this spectacular run of success and keep the UC talent pool stocked. In his first season, the Bearcats recorded the most wins in school history with a 31-4 mark and the program’s first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The squad also experienced success off the court by winning the C-USA Men’s Basketball Team GPA Award.

Overall, Kennedy’s four seasons as an assistant on the Cincinnati bench resulted in four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, two Conference USA regular-season championships and two C-USA Tournament titles. He was promoted to associate head coach in 2004.

“Andy has the total package from recruiting to game preparation to PR he’s one of the great young guys in the business,” said Huggins upon Kennedy’s promotion. “Years from now, people will see him on TV and remember he was once here.”

According to Kennedy, that “total package” is a direct result of his experience alongside Huggins. 

“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for Coach Huggins and the University of Cincinnati,” said Kennedy. “To be able to sit to the right hand of one of the best coaches in all of college basketball and see first-hand the inner-workings of a top-20 program has been very educational.

“Huggs is my friend and mentor from whom I have learned many valuable lessons in leadership.”

In his decade as an assistant, Kennedy proved himself both as an astute strategist and a top-notch recruiter, being named one of the nation’s top-10 assistant coaches by Athlon in 2004 as well as being rated among the top-20 college basketball recruiters by Rivals.com.

During Kennedy’s first three years as the Bearcats’ recruiting coordinator, Cincinnati attracted three consecutive Top-10 recruiting classes with the class of 2002 rated fifth in the nation by Bob Gibbons of All Star Sports, the 2003 group finishing seventh by both PrepStars and FutureStars, and the 2004 class receiving 10th by All Star Sports.

KENNEDY, THE INTERIM HEAD COACH

 Kennedy’s accomplishments as an assistant stood alone, and his experiences with Valvano, Bartow and Huggins had him prepared for his next major career move, a head coaching position. In 2005, he would be granted that opportunity under less than ideal circumstances.

A year-long struggle between Huggins and the University of Cincinnati ended on August 24, 2005, when the four-time National Coach of the Year honoree resigned his post.

Two days later, Kennedy was tapped with the challenge of steadying a program that had two national championships in its past and a streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. The Bearcats were also less than three months away from their first season of competition in arguably the nation’s strongest conference, the BIG EAST.

Kennedy’s already daunting task became even more difficult with the departure of one incoming recruit, two returning veterans and two promising freshmen, plus the loss of a key three-year starter to a mid-season injury, not to mention playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

Despite all the adversity, Kennedy’s Bearcats jumped out to a 13-2 start with road wins over Vanderbilt, Marquette, Dayton and eventual Final Four club LSU. While playing only eight scholarships players, Cincinnati cracked the AP Top-25 ranking, and Kennedy was named Mid-Season National Coach of the Year by CBS Sportsline.

The winning continued in conference play. The Bearcats stunned Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orangemen in the Carrier Dome 82-65, knocked off Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals 74-68 and upset 14th-ranked West Virginia 78-75.

Perhaps more significant than the victories, Kennedy reignited the fire and belief in Cincinnati basketball. The early-season home crowds of half-capacity were once again selling out Fifth Third Arena and chanting and waving signs of “Hire Andy”.

That flame also burned within the players, who shared the sentiment of the UC faithful.

“I love him,” said Bearcat guard Devan Downey of Kennedy. “Before the (Syracuse win), I just looked in his eyes and saw that he believed in me. That motivated me knowing that my coach is still right there with me.”

Senior James White expressed, “We follow him. He’s our leader. He gives us confidence every day.”

That confidence inspired Cincinnati to the cusp of an NCAA Tournament appearance. Kennedy’s club finished the regular season with an 8-8 league mark and squared off with Syracuse in the opening round of the BIG EAST Tournament.

The Bearcats erased a 14-point deficit and took a two-point lead with 6.2 seconds left. Orangeman All-America Gerry McNamara took the ensuing inbounds and heaved in a controversial running three-pointer as time expired for the 74-73 SU win.

Whether McNamara had traveled or not, Cincinnati’s bubble had been burst, and Kennedy’s Cats eventually found themselves in the National Invitational Tournament instead. Despite disappointingly being left home from the Dance, they competed with the same passion they had the entire season and reached the NIT quarterfinals.

When the dust finally settled on Cincinnati’s 2005-06 campaign, Kennedy had directed the Bearcats to a 21-13 final record, defeated 12 foes ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI, including four in the Top 50, and played a schedule rated fifth-toughest in college hoops.

National media praised what Kennedy had achieved under such difficult circumstances. The New York Post labeled him the BIG EAST Coach of the Year, and at least one media outlet Minnesota-based GopherHole.com even named him their National Coach of the Year.

“Given the coaching change under very controversial circumstances, there was every reason for those kids not to stay together ... It’s a credit to their new leader, Andy Kennedy, that Bearcat basketball continues to thrive,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas.

Mike DeCourcey of the Sporting News wrote, “Andy Kennedy is doing a phenomenal job. They are too small and too few to be winning BIG EAST games, and yet, they still do ... amazing.”

KENNEDY, THE REBEL

Despite all of Kennedy’s notoriety, Cincinnati administration remained unsure of its future coaching plans and kept the interim tag on his title. As the season drew to a close, Ole Miss’ head job became vacant, and Chancellor Robert Khayat and Athletics Director Pete Boone quickly looked north to the budding coaching star from Mississippi.

With the permission of the UC brass, Kennedy spoke with Boone mere moments before setting foot on the court for the Bearcats’ NIT quarterfinal bout with South Carolina at Fifth Third Arena. Cincinnati had only a handful of scholarship players available and fell to the Gamecocks 65-62 with chants of “Thank you Andy” echoing through the Bearcat crowd as the final seconds ticked off the clock. A thousand fans remained in the coliseum to continue the chant during the postgame radio show.

Meanwhile, Kennedy graciously accepted the opportunity to be head coach at the University of Mississippi shortly after the game, and in a whirlwind, he was flown to Oxford the following morning for a noon press conference.

Kennedy’s life has come full circle, and now sits before him the chance to build a program, using the same successful principles that paid dividends for the coaches he has stood alongside as a player and an assistant and in his one amazing season as Cincinnati head coach.

At 38 years old, Kennedy and his family wife Kimber and daughters Meagan and Kaitlyn return to the state where he was born, in the conference he loved as a youth, with a plan to take the Rebels to new heights.

“Our goal is put this program in its rightful place atop the SEC, while doing so in a manner which the Ole Miss faithful will be proud,” said Kennedy. “Ultimately, I want to put young men in a position to be successful on and off the floor. We have a motto: pain is inevitable; pain of discipline or pain of regret. We want the kids to experience the pain of discipline on and off the floor, so they don’t experience the pain of regret.

“It’s a great time to be at Ole Miss, with all the improvements that have been made at the University. And we feel like it is our challenge to bring Ole Miss men’s basketball up to the standard of the University of Mississippi.”


 

 

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