The walls of Ole Miss’ basketball practice facility are littered with images of the success of his nine seasons leading the Rebels. A picture of the team’s celebration following their SEC tournament win in 2013. Fatheads of current and former Rebels alike, from the SEC’s leading returning scorer in Stefan Moody to Terrico White, Marshall Henderson and Murphy Holloway. The words “Earn The Right” plastered overhead, a reminder of the consistent message Kennedy has preached to all who’ve come and gone through his program.
He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to. Freshman guard J.T. Escobar hung on every word, but a few feet from him. Moody was on the outside looking in, a white muscle shirt draped over him, basketball shorts too long for his 5-foot-9 frame and casually tossing a basketball in the air. He’d heard such speeches before and bought in well over a year ago when Kennedy discovered him as a relatively obscure junior college prospect out of Kilgore College.
“I was his first option,” Moody said. “I was the guy he wanted and he believed in, you know? A lot has happened here, and I appreciate everything he’s done for me.”
Kennedy held their attention by issuing a subtle, albeit firm, challenge. He was going to push them, and he was going to be honest; brutal as that honesty might be. Because Kennedy - despite the noise and fuss around him, the sometimes uneven nature of his fanbase and an unrelenting call to win at a program that, for the longest, didn’t know how - has made his living on harsh truth.
“I never, ever want you guys to operate out of fear because you’re scared of what I have to say,” Kennedy said.
There was a time when such words would never come from Kennedy. Or, if they did, they’d have been spoken much more forcefully and with colorful language sprinkled in. He’s from the Bob Huggins coaching tree of hard love, loud talk and unapologetic brashness. His way is his way, and, for the longest, he never deviated. But coaching is about adapting. To adapt is to survive, and Kennedy is not only surviving, but thriving in a profession typically short on time.
“If I was as hard on them as I was on the first group, they couldn’t survive it,” he said.
He’s uniquely himself, the misfit of Ole Miss coaches who wins in spite of the factors against him.
“You don’t want to play for anybody else, man,” former Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway said. “The honesty, it’s tough to hear sometimes, but it’s real. It helps you in the long run. He’s more than just a coach to me. He helped me through more than things that happen on the basketball court, real-life problems. The brutal honesty helps. Some people can’t handle it. Some people can’t take it. But he’s a cool guy. He has to coach. He has to yell and fuss. But after that, he’s probably one of the coolest dudes you’ll hang out with.
“He told me straight up (during my recruitment) what I had to do. I had to get my grades, and he told me he was going to wait on me throughout the summer. He shook my hand like a black man would, and I was like, ‘He’s cool as hell.’ I’m 16, 17 and he’s one of the coolest guys I’d met. I wanted to play for him.”
A STRANGE PAIRING
Tad Smith Coliseum has stood, or held on, just outside the heart of the Ole Miss campus since 1966. But it is more homeless man’s box than basketball arena now - cramped and fragile and susceptible to rain, its faded-blue roof barely able to keep natural elements from finding its hardwood floor.
The power shorts out regularly, and it’s heated by a system that requires a chimney. Once, an Ole Miss women’s basketball game (against Tennessee in 2011) was stopped, and ultimately called, because the roof leaked, and managers literally had to towel off the court. Still, warts and all, Ole Miss has won 81 percent of its games there dating back to 1995-96.
Some 200 yards away - across a parking lot, a tennis court, construction space and a football practice field - lights for “The Pavilion at Ole Miss” shine. Never has Ole Miss basketball’s past and future seemed so in conflict; what has been and what could be pushing against each other until one eventually gives way.
There was a time when it was fair to wonder if Kennedy, the winningest basketball coach in school history, would ever see The Pavilion. No coach, percentage-wise, has accomplished more at Ole Miss, but despite his numbers, he remains divisive amongst his fanbase. There are the loyalists who defiantly defend him, as well as those detractors who feel as if he has taken a program with no real history to speak of as far as it can go. And there appears to be no in between.
“I’ve never been one to think everyone’s got to be in the Andy Kennedy fan club,” he said. “I think sometimes people have this opinion of me because the only time they see me is in these snippets on the sideline where I’ve got this scowl on my face which, honestly, I’m always going to have coaching basketball. People that know me know I’m a pretty laid-back dude. I like to have fun, and I don’t take myself too seriously. But I also understand I have a difficult job.
“Look at the numbers and be fair with them, and then judge us appropriately.”
Kennedy, a Louisville, Miss., native, arrived at Ole Miss in 2006 following a three-day whirlwind for school officials, who interviewed four candidates in two days before hiring Kennedy to replace Rod Barnes, a former national coach of the year. Kennedy was fresh off a 21-13 record and an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament in his only season as interim head coach at Cincinnati, who passed over Kennedy to hire Mick Cronin.
Barnes led Ole Miss to the NCAA Tournament in three of his first four seasons, but had four straight losing seasons after that, including a 14-16 finish in his final year. The difference from Barnes to Kennedy couldn’t have been more dramatic. Barnes preached an offensive style concentrated on passing and moving with no real direction, while Kennedy ushered in an up-tempo style with more freedom offensively, especially for his guards.
The Rebels reached the NIT with a 21-13 record in Kennedy’s debut season, and in his tenure as head coach, Ole Miss has averaged more points per game than any SEC school. But his style has faced its share of criticism from those who don’t like him. “Street ball” is bandied about, inferring there’s no real plan, just instruction for his players to virtually shoot at will.
“I think people that say that really don’t have a (freaking) clue,” former Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, who holds the SEC record with 138 3s made in a season and the NCAA record with 394 attempts, said. Henderson is now playing for the Reno Bighorns, the D-League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings.
“They’re not coaching in the SEC at the highest level. Whenever we were going through plays, he’d go through the first option, and then he’d talk about how out of this option you can do this, this and this. He goes through every option that you can go through. He’s got incredible attention to detail and focus. That’s what it takes to be successful, and he’s big on that stuff. Some people think he’s like a wild man and just goes out there and lets us play the game. It’s not like that at all.”
“A.K.’s a mastermind offensively,” Todd Abernethy, the point guard in Kennedy’s first season and now an assistant on his staff, said. “He gave us freedom to play and to shoot the ball. If you’re a casual basketball fan, you don’t understand how brilliant A.K. is. He’s like an offensive coordinator. He gives a lot of freedom, but at the same time, he controls a lot of things.”
His philosophy wasn’t the only change from Barnes. Barnes portrayed himself as a buttoned-up, clean-spoken type. He was intentionally understated publicly, even if he was actually a tough, maybe even cold coach. He fit in Oxford, though, because he said the right things and he dressed the right way. Of course, the winning helped, too.
Kennedy was different, and he’s never changed. His preferred dress is a practice shirt, gym shorts and Jordan sneakers. He’s worn a Hawaiian-style shirt and loose khakis to alumni functions, cracking jokes and playing to the crowd with his quick wit and sarcasm. He’s never been one to glad-hand with boosters. He drives a black Cadillac with tinted windows, wears pin-striped suits during games and the brutal honesty he shares with his players can spill over into games for all to hear.
“He shook my hand like a black man would, and I was like, ‘He’s cool as hell.’”
Former Ole Miss guard Bam Doyne, now a graduate assistant for the team, and Abernethy were stretching before practice one day during the 2006-07 season. Kennedy came up to Abernethy to check in on him, to see how he was feeling. The season was grueling, and Kennedy demands a lot from his point guards.
“I thought he was kind of letting his guard down,” Abernethy said. “So I said, ‘Oh, man, coach. I’m a little tired.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Suck it up, coward’ and walked off. Bam and I busted out laughing. He keeps you on your toes, for sure.”
“We’re in the locker room, and this is my sophomore year when Terrico White was on the team,” Holloway said. “We were a good team, but we had just started losing. He was going around, telling everybody ‘You’re not this good, you’re not as good. Chris Warren, you’re good. But you’re out right now, and you’re a little short. Murph, all you want to do is go to the Library and hang out with the girls.’ He went around like that to most of the team. He told us most of us were going to be over in Poland eating chicken sandwiches taping our own ankles.
“So I’ll never go to Poland. Never.”
Ole Miss is renowned for its extravagance.
Fans deck out in their Sunday best on football Saturdays, the men wearing suits and ties and the women cocktail dresses. Chandeliers hang from tents with the air of whiskey in the Grove, a true celebration of college football and the South’s passion for it. Ole Miss baseball sees thousands of students crowd right field game-in and game-out. Beer showers signify a home run. Swayze Field capacity is around 11,000. On the perfect day, the stands overflow with bodies.
But it’s not that way in basketball. It’s the bridge sport between football and baseball for a number of fans, yet there’s an incredible demand to win, even if the attention paid only arrives when it’s convenient.
There’s also a football mentality that is brought to basketball - one where each loss is magnified more than it should be during a 30-plus game season. Ole Miss won a school-record-tying 27 games in 2013. Kennedy was named SEC Coach of the Year. But a loss at Mississippi State, then a sub-100 RPI team and the Rebels’ in-state rival, earlier in the season brought questions about his job security. A loss to South Carolina, another RPI hit, didn’t help matters.
Ole Miss ended up in the NCAA Tournament, the first for the program since 2002. The Rebels have made it two out of the last three years. In total, Kennedy has a 194-114 record, an SEC tournament championship, two SEC West championships, seven 20-win campaigns and seven postseason berths. Ole Miss had all of seven 20-win seasons and nine postseason victories in its nearly 100 years of existence prior to his arrival. He’s averaged more than 21 wins per season.
“I know a lot of people in Oxford that are not big fans of A.K., quite frankly,” Henderson said. “People call for his head. That first year I got there, we lost to Mississippi State and people called for his head. People were calling for it before that. Even this past year, people started calling for it, then they get back to the NCAA Tournament. A lot of people don’t know what goes on on a day-to-day basis with players and whatnot.”
Ole Miss finished .500 or better in the SEC 17 times from 1932-2006, good for 23 percent. The Rebels have six such finishes under Kennedy (67 percent), and Kennedy is the only head coach in Ole Miss history to have .500 or better record against nine of the SEC’s 13 teams.
“He’s very under-appreciated,” Holloway said. “We’re a football school, and basketball will never be a focal point. And the way he lets his guards play, some people hate it. When Moody has a great game shooting 20 shots, oh, it’s OK. When Moody’s having a bad game missing 20 shots, A.K. has no control over his team. That’s the thing. He believes he’s going to get players that are better than your players, put them in space and let them play.”
STARS, STARS, STARS
Recruiting services have always used some semblance of a star system when ranking prospects. However, in the last 10 years or so, there’s been an added emphasis on accuracy and perfecting a system that is inherently flawed.
Ole Miss has never finished in the top-half of the SEC in team recruiting rankings under Kennedy. The Rebels signed five players in the early signing period this month, but only two signees earned stars - Lancaster, Texas, forward Nate Morris and Metuchen, N.J., guard Breein Tyree. Both were three-star recruits.
Rankings work better in football. First and foremost, recruiting services commit more man power and scouting hours to the hundreds and hundreds of players who pass through in a given year. Basketball, though, can reach further - all the way to Latvia, as Ole Miss did for 2015 signee Karlis Silins, for example - for prospects. Few analysts (think one or two at most) have actually seen a player first hand. Outside of the coaches themselves, little or nothing is known of a prospect until he’s made a commitment, and more often than not, even after he signs there isn’t much to go on - no film, unreliable stats, etc.
In the end, a coach has to rely, and trust, on his own scouting and development. He can’t simply look at the Scout 300 and weigh who should get an offer and who shouldn’t.
“Are we winning? Is he producing? Are we going to the NCAA Tournament? That needs to be the focus,” Kennedy said. “It comes down to production between the lines. That’s how I should be judged.”
Kennedy pushes back against the narrative he’s always in scramble mode in recruiting. He has a plan, though it can be hard to see to the untrained eye. He’s been knocked for the lack of stars signed in classes, or unfounded claims he doesn’t have strong AAU ties. Meanwhile, in contrast to five-star recruits and highly-ranked classes, the successful evaluation and development of players like Moody, Henderson or Holloway don’t move the needle. None were highly-ranked. All produced. Little credit was given.
“I don’t know why more top-of-the-line recruits don’t go to Ole Miss,” Henderson, who ranks third in Ole Miss history in 3-pointers (267), second in 3-point attempts (771) and sixth in scoring average (19.6 points per game) said. “Coach Kennedy let me break the NCAA record for most 3s attempted. He’ll let somebody do that. If somebody comes in there, works hard and earns that right, he’s one of the most offensively free coaches there is in the whole country. I don’t understand why more guys don’t want to go play for a coach like that.”
Ole Miss’ 2016 class is ranked No. 12 in the SEC by Scout.com. Mississippi State, by comparison, has the No. 5 class in the nation. Criticism follows, as expected, because on average, 12th isn’t far off of where Ole Miss usually ends up each recruiting season. But Kennedy boasts the fifth-most productive program in the SEC over his nine years.
“I think that’s more of an accomplishment because we’re finding guys that you aren’t just picking apples off trees,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to do your due-diligence, and you’ve got to make sure the guys you’re bringing in fit what you’re trying to get accomplished.”
“Really, it’s all about recruiting,” Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said. “You’ve got to have players. You’ve got to be able to recruit. In today’s world with the fifth-year transfer and the junior-college-type kid, that’s attractive here because Andy allows these kids to play and have freedom of shot selection. That’s attractive to people. Look at who we’ve got. We’ve got Marshall, we’ve got Stefan. This young man, Deandre (Burnett) from Miami, he’s a scorer. We have a nucleus. In terms of relating to players in the modern era, I think Andy Kennedy relates as well as anybody.”
Jerry Mullens is considered in college basketball circles to be the “grandfather” of junior college basketball recruiting. He’s a legend, having, for more than 25 years, provided colleges the most-complete information on the nation’s top junior college players through his service, Mullen Sports.
Each year, Mullens ranks the top-100 players in junior college, capped by a two-day weekend showcase in July. The showcase is the end-all, be-all for college coaches who recruit JUCOs, and Ole Miss is there every year. Mullens invites around 25 additional players to try to play their way into the top-100 the Friday before each showcase. He typically leaves six or seven slots open to see if a player has what it takes to play his way in.
Stefan Moody attempted to make his case in 2013. Despite being a decorated player at Florida Atlantic in 2012-13, when he was named the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year, he wasn’t receiving much attention outside of Ole Miss.
Moody didn’t play well enough, failing to earn a spot in the top-100. Yet Ole Miss kept pursuing him, and after he signed with the Rebels, Moody had the greatest impact of any JUCO player in a Power Five conference, earning first-team All-SEC honors last season after leading the Rebels and ranking fourth in the SEC in scoring (16.6 points per game). His 18.6 points per game in league play tied for the conference lead.
“His style is more free and lets you play,” Moody said. “I’m a player that kind of thrives in that area, that realm. I like to play freely and kind of do the things I do. He allows me and the rest of my teammates to do that. But A.K.’s definitely not going to just let somebody come out and jack shots. If you’re not making shots throughout practice, he’s not going to allow you to shoot them in a game. In practice, you’ve got to earn that green light.”
By the Numbers
It took seven seasons for Kennedy to reach the NCAA Tournament. In college athletics, seven years is an eternity.
When he made finally made it, in the 2012-13 season, the Rebels were a No. 12 seed facing off against No. 5 Wisconsin in the first round. They won, but a third-round loss to La Salle kept them from reaching the Sweet 16. Had they held on, they would have advanced to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2001, their lone appearance.
Two NCAA Tournament appearances in three seasons, for some, isn’t enough. Not with seven years of waiting; never mind that had the Rebels finished off La Salle, they would have equaled the greatest accomplishment in Ole Miss basketball history.
“I sit there and think about Terrico White leaving early for the NBA,” Henderson said. White opted for the NBA Draft over his remaining two years of college. He was the 36th overall pick to the Detroit Pistons in 2010, but has never played in an NBA regular season game. Currently, White is one of four Ole Miss players in the NBA’s D-League. All four played under Kennedy.
“Had he not left early, we would have been a team in the NCAA Tournament four out of five years or whatever.”
In the late-90s and on into the early 2000s, there was a clearer path to the NCAA Tournament from a major conference, especially in the SEC. Ole Miss was 20-11, including a 9-7 mark in SEC games, in 2001-02. The Rebels reached the Round of 64 as a nine-seed, and the lowest-major school of the at-large bids was Fresno State.
Kennedy’s teams, however, were left out in three seasons in which they won at least 20 games and finished .500 in the SEC. Ole Miss, like other high-major teams, is dealing with an expanded field which now includes rising mid-majors like Gonzaga and Butler - teams that weren’t around snatching up bids 15 years ago. The tournament has expanded to an additional four teams, bringing the total to 68. NCAA Division-I basketball consists of 351 schools in 32 conferences. Nineteen percent of teams get to the Big Dance in a given year.
College football, by comparison, hands out bowl bids to a whopping 62 percent (80 of 128) of its teams each year. If football followed the basketball model of percentages, that would equate to just 24 teams earning a bowl berth.
“A.K.’s the best coach outside of my dad that I’ve ever had. As far as being able to connect with him as a player and as a person, he gives us a lot of freedom. He really make us become men on our own,” Henderson said. “He’s there to help us, but you can’t become a man from people babying you the whole way, and he understands that. He tries to make us understand that. He’s there for us when we need help, but we’ve got to figure this out on our own. He told us that all the time, how he was a successful person because he figured it out on his own. He told us we needed to follow the same way because that’s how it is.”
Results are everything. Excuses ring hallow, and Kennedy has no time for them.
Ole Miss moved on without White, again winning 20 games and making it to the NIT. Somewhat forgotten is Holloway left Ole Miss in 2010, too, transferring to South Carolina for personal reasons. He returned to Oxford a year later, citing Kennedy as the primary reason.
Kennedy was the one who believed in him first. The one who stood by him when he was told there was no way he’d make his grades out of high school. The one who believed he could be the next Jason Maxiell, another undersized post who blossomed under Huggins at Cincinnati while Kennedy was an assistant. The one who told Holloway he had to do what’s best for him as he sat crying in Kennedy’s office, detailing what was pulling him back to South Carolina.
Holloway is possibly the closest to Kennedy of any of his former players. They still talk regularly, Kennedy in Oxford and Holloway overseas playing professionally for team Cholet in France.
“I bought into it, man. I was who I was, and I tried to do my best,” Holloway said. “He told me I didn’t have to be great at everything, just one thing. There was one thing I was great at: hustle. Rebounds come with that. I stayed with that and it paid off.”
Bjork could have moved on from Kennedy when he was hired as athletics director in March of 2012. A change was maybe even expected. Only a few months earlier at Western Kentucky Bjork fired head basketball coach Ken McDonald mid-season, not to mention athletics directors usually like to have their own people in place. ADs and coaches work hand-in-hand, and Bjork had no ties to Kennedy.
Instead, Bjork stood behind him. Actually, he’s extended him twice.
“I did my homework, talking to a lot of people that know basketball, that really know college basketball,” he said. “Every piece of feedback is Andy Kennedy is a perfect fit for Ole Miss. Andy knows basketball. That was my filter going in. This guy knows basketball, look what he’s done with very limited resources. The BPF was just sort of coming online. I knew about the Tad Pad. Hadn’t seen it, but knew about it. To me, we had limited resources, but a guy who knows basketball. I wanted to give him a chance and see what he could do. We’ve gone to the NCAA Tournament two out of the last three years. We’re making strides with facilities now. So, to me, it was about a guy who knows basketball, and a guy who knows recruiting. In terms of relating to players in the modern era, I think Andy Kennedy relates as well as anybody.”
“He can relate to your guy in the hood, the richest black, white, hispanic person you know,” Holloway said. “The way he relates to all kinds of people and how he can interact with everybody is the best. Not all coaches can go to where I’m from and hear what black guys have to say and talk to their parents and have them feel what he’s saying. He can do that.”
Kennedy clapped as his team went through routine practice drills.
He chatted up Martavious Newby, an offensively-challenged guard who was working on his free throw shooting. He went over technique with junior college transfer guard Rasheed Brooks, before catching up with Bill Armstrong, his longest-tenured assistant and closest confidant, for a mid-court strategy session.
Kennedy was acting as he’s always acted. He was engaged and interested. Funny but stern. This is every-day Andy Kennedy, but not many get to see it.
Bjork said the “Randy Kennedy” marketing campaign was a collaborative effort to connect Kennedy to the fans. The videos have gone viral; appearing on ESPN, CBS and numerous other outlets. Of course, Kennedy dismisses the notion he did the campaign to increase his likability, but that doesn’t stop him from donning a black wig and mustache and mixing it up with Jay Bilas. Or doing the “Nae Nae.” Or playing video games while drinking a juice box.
“I think people just haven’t gotten to know Andy like maybe they should,” Bjork said. “Or maybe he hasn’t opened up enough. That’s why you see things like the Randy Kennedy deal. That was an idea that we all came up with together. Part of it was him, part of it was us saying ‘What can we do different to market and brand basketball earlier than we’ve ever done before and on a bigger stage and in a unique way?’ He’s been willing to do that as well. That’s part of it, too, people getting to know our program as much as anything, including our head coach.”
“As far as me trying to stir up likability, I guess, of Ole Miss to me? No, that’s not why I did it,” Kennedy said. “I did it because I thought it was funny. I just thought it was funny. I didn’t do it to try and become more popular. I thought it would get Ole Miss basketball some publicity and let everybody know.”
Really, no one will fully know Andy Kennedy. Not Holloway. Not Abernethy. A number of coaches across athletics arrive in the office first thing in the morning and are the last out of the door. The job consumes them, and the rest of life, purposefully or not, becomes secondary.
Kennedy? He goes home, an early-morning return a sleep away. He knows he has his critics. He knows he has his supporters, too. He doesn’t let it show. Because, in the end, winning is all that matters, and Kennedy has a job to do.
“If you’re appreciated, you’re appreciated,” he said. “If you’re not, you’re not. I’m going to get up the next day and go to work until I don’t, you know?”