Who Is Kevin Keatts?
He's arguably the hottest mid-major coach in the country, and a man who has had to earn everything he's accomplished in the profession.
Keatts grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia where he played football and basketball at Heritage High School. His exploits on the hardwood led to an opportunity to play basketball at Ferrum College, a small private school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Keatts played four years at Ferrum, where he helped lead coach Bill Pullen's Panthers to DIAC regular season titles in 1992, 1993 and 1995.
It was at Ferrum where developed his passion for coaching.
"Ferrum helped lay the groundwork for me to break into coaching," Keatts previously stated. "I learned so much from Coach Bill Pullen about how to work with players and a lot from a coaching perspective. I'll always be grateful for what Coach Pullen and Ferrum did for me."
After his senior year he jumped right into coaching, accepting a position at Southwest Michigan College in 1996. He spent one year at the junior college before leaving for Hargrave Military Academy. Just an assistant at Hargrave, this is where Keatts would first truly start to build his reputation as a coach.
As an assistant, Keatts played a role in building Hargrave, a postgrad school that must build a new roster, literally every season. The first blue-chip recruit ever at Hargrave was signed by Keatts, as Wichita (KS) star Korleone Young headed to Chatham, Virginia to play for the Tigers. Young was named a McDonald's All-American in 1998, the first ever at Hargrave. Up to that point, the school mainly inked local, regional prospects.
Keatts, just a young assistant at the time, a couple of years out of college, impressed Marshall head coach Greg White right away.
"The first person I met when I arrived at Hargrave was Kevin Keatts," says White. "His personality... it's unique. Right away, I knew he was special... he's just such a warm person who can instantly connect with anyone."
Keatts served as an assistant at Hargrave for two seasons before being promoted to head coach in 1999, and he started winning big, right away while bringing in stellar talent. He only stayed as head coach for two years though because White came calling when he had an opening.
"In 2001 one of my assistants, Steve Snell, took a position at Tulane," said White. "I asked him to take a day and think about it, but write down three names who he thought I should consider for his replacement. The next morning he came in and said, 'No. 1 would be Kevin Keatts. If you can't get him, the No. 2 guy should be Kevin Keatts. He added that Kevin Keatts should be the third choice as well.'
"I took a chance on him, but I knew how special he was. I knew in my heart that he had everything you want in an assistant coach. In our two years together he was a great representative of our program and just such a positive light for our program. I'm telling you, Kevin Keatts is a superstar. He's second-to-none."
Keatts returned to Hargrave as head coach in 2003 and he would hold that position until 2011, turning the Tigers into the premier prep program in the country. As head coach, he led Tigers to national prep championships in 2004 and 2008, and national runner-up finishes in 2005, 2006 and 2009. He finished his career at the school with an astounding record of 263-17.... winning nearly 94% of his games.
"When he got there it wasn't the top prep school in the country," White added on Keatts. "Kevin had that job and took it to new heights... new places. My former point guard at Marshall, A.W. Hamilton, is the head coach now and his mentor is Kevin.
"It's not an easy job. Think about this. You have to load that roster with 15 new players every year, and do it year after year after year. He was recruiting a new roster every year and winning 38 or 40 games a year while keeping all 15 players happy... kids who never before had to get up at 6 am to lift weights or run... it's a military school. He did a phenomenal job there."
In 2011, Keatts accepted an assistant coaching position at Louisville where he worked under legendary head coach Rick Pitino as the team's top recruiter. He played a role in the Cardinals landing all-league players Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, and Luke Hancock, among others, and was on the staff when Louisville won the national title in 2013.
He accepted his first college head coaching job in 2014 when UNC Wilmington lured him away from Louisville to rebuild their program. In the eight years before Keatts took over, the Seahawks had six seasons with 20 losses or more and seven seasons with sub-.500 records. The previous year UNC Wilmington won just nine total games.
Right away, Keatts started doing what he does. Win.
The Seahawks won 12 league games and finished tied for first in the league his very first year. He's spent three years at UNC Wilmington, and he's won three regular season titles and two tournament titles. He's amassed a 72-27 overall record and has won 76% of his league games.
This week he'll be coaching his team in the NCAA Tournament against ACC power Virginia and some believe the Seahawks have a chance to pull off the upset.
What Makes Him A Viable Candidate?
Kevin Keatts is a viable candidate for a variety of reasons.
First of all, look at his success rate. He won nearly 94% of his games as a head coach at Hargrave Military Academy, and he's winning 73% of his games at UNC Wilmington. He's been at UNCW three years and each season he's won more total and league games. The program keeps getting stronger and stronger and unlike several other candidates, he didn't inherit a winning program and keep it rolling. He took over a team that hadn't done much of anything.
Buzz Peterson, who had stints as head coach at Tennessee, App State, Tulsa, and Coastal Carolina before being hired at UNC Wilmington, went 42-80 overall and 20-50 his four years at UNC Wilmington prior to Keatts.
That program is what it is today all because of Kevin Keatts.
Also, Keatts is a coach who is lauded as an elite recruiter. He built quality rosters every year at Hargrave where he developed relationships with various high school and AAU coaches, ties that continues to pay off for him even today at UNC Wilmington. He's extremely connected in the coaching world, and he has a reputation for not only landing elite talent but also finding under-the-radar players capable of contributing.
It helps that he's so familiar with the region.
Keatts grew up in Virginia, played college basketball in Virginia, coached at Hargrave, which is in Virginia, then took over at Louisville before taking his first college head coaching job in North Carolina. Again, his familiarity with the area has to be appealing to NC State because he knows the state and has already built-in relationships to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail.
To win at NC State you will need to be able to recruit, and Keatts might be the best pure "recruiter" on NC State's coaching board.
"As a recruiter, it's probably not close," one source told us regarding potential NC State candidates. "Kevin Keatts gets it done on the recruiting trail. He's so connected and seems to know everyone, and then he's so engaging, personal, and caring. He's an elite recruiter."
"He would be a home run for NC State," another source stated. "He's going to be a successful high-major coach very, very soon."
Another plus is his age. At 44, Keatts is still "young" for a college basketball coach but not too young. He has experience on the high-major level as an assistant, and his age certainly gives him an upside that can be appealing to college athletics directors.
Keatts is also financially attainable.
He's currently making $500,000 with a small buyout. For a high-major head coach, $500,000 is a low figure, and NC State would be able to pay him much, much more than UNC Wilmington, a school that doesn't have a large budget, could afford to pay. Money certainly isn't everything, but when you can double or triple your current salary... well very, very few people can turn that down.
We also believe there will be some support from Wolfpack fans for the hiring. Keatts coaches in Wilmington, North Carolina, one of the areas in the state known for having a large NC State fanbase. His success down there is well-known, and that carries some weight. We also have heard that NC State booster Wendell Murphy, who lives outside of Wilmington in Rose Hill, North Carolina, is a fan of Keatts.
Murphy is on the search committee at NC State that is chaired by athletics director Debbie Yow.
Finally, Keatts plays an exciting brand of basketball that would be appealing to fans, current players, and future players. The Seahawks use a four-out, one-in system built around playmaking guards and wings who push the ball every single possession and look to either attack the rim or shoot three-pointers.
Defensively, Keatts has always been aggressive with his approach. His teams use multiple pressure packages and defensive schemes that speed up the opposition while making them uncomfortable. He wants to take you out of your rhythm while blitzing you with points offensively.
Style of play is definitely a positive for Keatts, and in terms of positives related to the job, he may have more than any potential candidate.
What Makes Him A Longshot?
Some believe that while Keatts has been successful, he may need to do so on a higher level first before earning an ACC coaching job.
While his meteoric rise at UNC Wilmington has been impressive, the Colonial Athletic Conference is considered by some to be more low-major than mid-major right now, especially after losing programs like VCU, George Mason, ODU, and Georgia State in recent years. Is Keatts ready for the challenge of coaching at NC State in the Atlantic Coast Conference? Does he need more experience?
Also, there is some concern with his defensive metrics at UNC Wilmington. The Seahawks are currently No. 189 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, and while some believe he'd do better defensively on the high-major level it has to be a potential concern given the defensive issues NC State fans have had to endure in recent years.
Finally, is he experienced enough? He's only been a college head coach for three seasons and it was at a small school in a low-major conference. Is that enough experience?
There are some questions still about Kevin Keatts, but in our opinion, the positives far outweigh the negatives and we don't think he's a longshot at all for NC State. If NC State doesn't hire him, some high-major school is going to do so really soon.
Pack Pride's Take
Overall, Keatts checks off a lot of boxes. He's a proven winner and impressive recruiter who is financially attainable and likely eager to embrace the challenge of coaching at NC State.
We've talked to several sources about Keatts and there has not been a negative statement related to anything. Nothing. Everyone seems to love him and genuinely believe he is a potential superstar coach on the high-major level.
For more of our take on Kevin Keatts, click here.