Practice officially starts for Kennedy regime

Andy Kennedy will roll a basketball out on the Oxford High School court tonight around 7 o'clock, and official preseason practice will be underway for the 2006-07 Ole Miss Rebels.

I think back to other head coaches the Rebels have had in the sport of basketball, and I don't know if I can recall one with so many things going for him in the plus column as Andy Kennedy.

There are some limitations for Ole Miss hoops. Always been that way. Some of that is because rarely have UM administrators focused on the round, orange object with any form of passion. And many times that spelled doom for head coaches even before they started.

I remember Ed Murphy, the Rebs' personable and charismatic head coach from 1987-92 saying at his resignation after the Rebels lost in the SEC Tournament in Birmingham, and I paraphrase from memory with quote marks anyway: "It's tough to win at Ole Miss in basketball. It was for the coaches before me and it will be for the coaches after me."

There's some truth in that. I think most who were around the program then didn't feel Murphy was quite up to the challenge of winning at the D-I level. He was successful at D-II Delta State, came to Ole Miss and had a couple of NIT seasons, then won again at West Georgia, another D-II school.

But I see more commitment this time around. I really do.

I see improvements coming in facilities, and that's a huge part of all this as we all know. We should hear more about those improvements in the weeks ahead.

I see salaries in line with other SEC schools in the sport of hoops. I'm seeing a commitment from the top down, and while maybe not as strong as I'd truly like in basketball, better than perhaps ever.

Mostly I'm seeing a head coach who has become a national figure, one who has been there, through the wars of NC State and UAB hoops as a player, as an assistant at South Alabama and UAB and Cincinnati, coaching the Bearcats in their first season of Big East hoops just last year.

I'm seeing a guy who is connected throughout the country, who understands what it takes, who believes he can get it done and likely will.

Even at Ole Miss. Where it's hard, according to Murphy and other past head coaches who might not have been so vocal.

And as Kennedy embarks on his first permanent head coaching position in Division I, there's another past to consider. While Murphy and Rod Barnes and Lee Hunt didn't win enough to stay, Bob Weltlich and Rob Evans did. But they chose to leave.

While at Ole Miss, Weltlich tried to get the job at Iowa State. He was a finalist for the Duke job when Mike Krzyzewski got it. The intense and vocal Weltlich, an assistant at Indiana on the undefeated national championship team in 1975-76 before coming to Ole Miss, landed the Texas job in 1982.

After that didn't pan out, it was rumored he said that maybe if he had to do it all over again, he'd have just stayed in Oxford. Certainly he had it going here like no hoops coach before him.

Evans won't be coaching Arizona State this season. After leaving Ole Miss in 1998 to coach the Sun Devils, things didn't work out there; in other words he didn't win enough games. And a change was made in Tempe just this past spring.

Point? There are several. Basketball at Ole Miss can be a winner. Three SEC West titles and five NCAA appearances in six years from 1997-2002 prove that. The Sweet Sixteen run in 2001 was further proof.

It can be fun for the fans. The program can bring in talented players who will fight for championships. Tad Smith Coliseum can again be one of the toughest courts for visiting teams in the entire country. It has been before.

Andy Kennedy is the right man at the right time for this job. The Rebels should get national pub just because he's here. If they win at all this season, Kennedy and Ole Miss will be heard from the studio mouths of guys like Vitale and Phelps and Katz.

As fans, this is a coach and a program you can sink your teeth into and run with, get behind and really support, if you so choose. I've seen that for six-plus months.

Every night won't be pleasant. Every game won't be a win. There might be an upset loss or two and some games when the Rebels won't perform as well as they should. Who knows what might happen against UConn up there in the early part of the season?

But think of the possibilities if the Rebels happen to make some noise, play well, or even win at UConn or at Memphis or when Kentucky comes to Oxford to open the SEC season in early January on TV.

Mark that one on your calendar now. The Rebs and Wildcats will fall under the heading of "games not to miss" on Saturday night, Jan. 6.

Enjoy this work in progress, this building of a program, as official practice begins tonight at the OHS gym. Andy deferred to Carol Ross' seniority and told the women's team they could have Tad Smith Coliseum at 7 tonight, which is by NCAA rule the official start time for hoops practices around the country this year.

It appears to me, even before the first jump ball of the Andy Kennedy era, that a lot of folks from around the country will be watching that progress as well.

That seems to be where we are with Ole Miss men's basketball today. All things considered, it's not a bad place to be. Not bad at all.

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