11 questions for Energizer Bunny Ernie Kent

PULLMAN - Ernie Kent is 59 years old. At times, he looks like he’s 40 and moves like he’s 20. “I’ve still got more energy than my players!” Kent laughs. The Energizer Bunny is alive and well and coaching basketball at WSU. The Cougars’ new coach is naturally gregarious, a motivational speaker disguised in sweatpants and sneakers. When, that is, he’s not wearing one of his fashionable suits.

Just listening to Kent talk about the challenges he faced growing up in Rockford, Ill., one becomes so inspired that you wonder if – eventually – Ernie Kent might lead the Cougars to their first conference championship since (gulp!) World War II. After all, Oregon had not won a conference title since World War II before Kent led the Ducks to the top of the Pac-10 in 2001-02.

With WSU’s football team enjoying a bye week, Kent is this week’s guest for 11-on-1, Cougfan’s exclusive question-and-answer feature.

1. Cougfan: Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?

Kent: There’s 10 in my family – seven straight boys and three girls. I’m the sixth of seven boys. My parents had the equivalent of eighth-grade, ninth-grade educations. But coming out of the South, those are like third- and fourth-grade educations.

My mom worked in a factory for 25 years. My dad worked at Chrysler for 27 years. I used to look at my dad and thought, “Never in my wildest dreams could I work as hard as he worked, having to work three and four jobs in order to feed us. Yet you’re a workaholic just like he was.”

We were not dirt, dirt, dirt poor, but we’re a family that grew up on big pots of beans and cornbread because you just didn’t have enough money to do much of anything else. There were a couple times at Christmas where there were no presents. They (his parents) couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t do it. So it’s a hardship, but you knew you were loved and you knew the church played a huge role in keeping us all headed in the right direction. They did the best they could as parents.

2. Cougfan: You seem extremely proud of your three grown children and you stress the importance of creating a family atmosphere on your basketball team. What did players and coaches gain from the team’s preseason retreat in the Tri-Cities?

Kent: We have so much one-on-one time with them, personal time, to talk about some personal issues. It’s been invaluable to our program because it really gives you a sense of togetherness; that you understand them and they understand you. The underlying foundation of any success I’ve had with teams has been the relationships that have been built before we even get to the floor to start playing games. We’ve done that here. It’s been pretty impressive to me the way they’ve bought in and are coming together and their chemistry. Opening up and allowing us to open up to them.

3. Cougfan: Pac-12 coaches have picked the Cougars to repeat last season’s 11th-place finish. What kind of season record and conference finish do you foresee for your team?

Kent: (Smiles) If I could give you that, you and I shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. You just can’t (predict that). I don’t know my players yet. I don’t know how they’re going to respond to adversity. … I can tell you the things in my control. We will play hard, we will play with a lot of passion, we will play with a lot of confidence. If we can do those things, I think the winning will take care of itself. And we will go to school. We will stay on top of our academics.

4. Cougfan: The Cougars ranked last in the Pac-12 in attendance last season with an official average of 2,800. The actual number of fans in the arena was even less. What are you doing to try to revive interest in Cougars basketball?

Kent: I try to go everywhere people request me to be. It doesn’t matter how big or small the group is: Talk about your program. We’ve tried to do a lot to engage the students, everything from our PreFunk (the PREseason FUNKtion scrimmage and other activities) to going out to dinner with the team at sororities. I’ll be going out to dinner by myself at fraternities and sororities as well.

The biggest thing, ultimately, we’re going to be judged by to bring those people back is the product we put on the floor. … Don’t wait until we get to the level of a championship program – and we will get there. Come along for the process … if you just come in the door when we’re a championship team, you will miss the very essence of what it took to get there. That’s the message, that’s the joy in it all. That’s the learning that young people can learn from, the adversity this team went through to conquer what it needs to conquer to be a championship team.

5. Cougfan: Your players performed well on the court and in the classroom at Oregon, but you no longer have a financial “sugar daddy” like Phil Knight to support your program. What can we expect from the Cougars in, say, five years?

Kent: Oregon was not an easy job. Oregon was a very difficult job. Very difficult job. To sell, to keep afloat, to build, whatever you want to call it. This is a similar job here. … I would think in five years there will be a whole lot of excitement about Washington State basketball, (including) people graduating at a 100 percent rate.

6. Cougfan: What if players leave early for the NBA?

Kent: You might lose some of them, which is good also if they go early to the NBA, because that tells you the caliber of player you’re bringing in here. That’s not a negative, that’s a positive. People looking at your program from afar, they want to be a part of it. They want to be part of the system, that style of (uptempo) play, what we do off the floor with our players, that family environment. It all goes hand in hand.

7. Cougfan: Early in your coaching career, you spent seven years in Saudi Arabia, coaching and organizing sports and other recreational activities for foreigners in the oil industry. How did that experience impact you?

Kent: Wonderful people … experience of a lifetime … they had gold toilet fixtures in the (arena) bathrooms for the royalty … a very rewarding experience.

8. Cougfan: At 59, you’re returning to the sidelines after four years doing other work involving college basketball, including time as a television analyst. Some people retire at your age. You know that, right?

Kent: I’m not ready for it yet. When Oregon let me go (in 2010), I took a little bit of time off. I felt like my mind started deteriorating. I got stagnant. I said, “Wait a minute. There was too much in my personality, too much in my skill set, you need to be involved.”

9. What’s your initial impression of your first Cougars team as you prepare for Friday’s season opener at Texas-El Paso?

Kent: I see a team that is a lot more confident than what I saw doing Pac-12 TV. … We’ve gotten to the manhole cover. Now we have to get to the top of the skyscraper. … That requires the day-to-day grind of mental toughness. Know your job, do your job. Buying in every day. Getting into the gym on your own. Solitary time. All of those things that make great teams great.

10. Cougfan: It certainly didn’t hurt when DaVonte Lacy, your best player, returned for his senior year. After you were hired, DaVonte told me that he might have turned pro if he didn’t approve of the new coach. How do you like having Lacy stay in Pullman?

Kent: In a point and time in our society when young people have entitlement issues. … Three years ago, 400 transfers (in NCAA Division I men’s basketball). Two years ago, 500 transfers. Last year, 600 transfers. He (Lacy) stayed true to his school. He stayed true to his state.

That tells me something about his character. That is tremendous character. … He’s taken it upon himself to change the (direction) of this program. I have a lot of respect for him for hanging in there and doing that. If anybody deserves to have success in this program this year, it’s DaVonte Lacy.

11. Cougfan: You’ve reunited in Pullman with athletic director Bill Moos and deputy AD Mike Marlow, both of whom worked with you at Oregon. How excited are you to be back in coaching?

Kent: When you match up your dynamics, personality – the right job, right place, right time – it’s amazing. Obviously, coaching and my dynamics really match up. To do it in a program that needs to be re-established; to do it in this great community and with these nice people that are here; Bill Moos and Mike Marlow, two good friends; everything just matches up. So every day is a good day. I’m really sincere about that. Regardless of where we go through the course of the season, every day is going to be a good day.

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