Part I of II: Ernie Kent & his big picture

WHEN NEW COACH Ernie Kent enthusiastically leads Washington State onto the basketball court Friday for the first regular-season home game of the Cougars’ season, he will be a long way from the crowded two-bedroom house in Illinois where he grew up with nine brothers and sisters.

He’ll also be far removed from his time coaching Muslim basketball players in Saudi Arabia, and his successful stints with the Colorado State Rams, St. Mary’s Gaels, Stanford Cardinal and his alma mater Oregon Ducks.

Those experiences, and the last four seasons behind a broadcaster’s microphone, were all part of “the grind,” as the affable 59-year-old coach explains with a smile.

Now, he says, he’s ready to not only coach winning ways on the court to his young Pac-12 team, but life’s lessons they’ll need when the glitter and hype of basketball ends.

In many ways, the story of Kent’s life is storybook: Poor kid from Illinois to successful college coach -- a role model with an articulate style and personality that could put him in any corporate board room in America.

His supporters are legendary, his credentials sterling.

COMING TOMORROW: The shaping of Ernie Kent. His life, times and influences.

Those close to Washington State basketball say Kent -- with 19 years of college head coaching experience -- seems to be the perfect fit for a program that has struggled since Tony Bennett’s 2009 departure and hit bottom last season with a 10-21 overall record and the firing of fifth-year coach Ken Bone.

Kent says his four-year sabbatical from coaching served him well, and re-charged his batteries.

“I feel like a big bear that’s been in hibernation and now it’s time to come out and eat because you get to coach again,” Kent told Pac-12 sportswriters last month.

Earlier in the fall, Kent showed up for a one-on-one interview with Cougfan.com in an empty Beasley Coliseum -- the bright lights glistening on the polished hardwood. Bouncing a ball, Kent showcased his warm, friendly, loquacious style, but ducked when asked how he thinks the Cougs will do this year in conference play.

“We are in the early process of building a championship basketball program,” Kent says, explaining that he’s “laying the foundation and has a lot of work to do.”

“The guys are working hard. It’s a tough job to rebuild a team, especially building confidence.”

In Pac-12 conference play, Kent says he expects Arizona, Colorado and Utah will “separate themselves from the rest (of us) early” because they all have “returning starters, experience, talent, scoring and confidence.”

“When you build a program, you build to compete with the best,” Kent says of the Cougars. “We’ve got work to do.” 

Kent sees his role at Washington State as more than Xs and Os, winning and losing. He says he’s dedicated to building stronger student-athletes and helping develop life skills to assist them in life-after-basketball. “I call it a self-improvement program and I’ve already implemented it here at WSU,” Kent says.

He had a similar philosophy during his 13 years as Oregon’s coach and, before that, at St. Mary's.

“There are not a lot of coaches around the country who are as interested as Ernie Kent in developing citizens-after-basketball,” says Dr. Denny Collis, a retired Eugene orthopedic surgeon who first met Kent during the coach’s playing days at Oregon in the 1970s. The two have remained friends and Collis, who’s 77, says with a laugh, “I’m like his father.”


NOW AND THEN: Ernie Kent on Friel Court a few weeks ago and, below, at Oregon in 1999.

AS PART OF THE LIFE-SKILLS TRAINING effort, Kent says he will work to strip away a “sense of entitlement” that he believes infects many young people today and get them instead to focus on academic accomplishments.

For example, he says, members of this year’s team, including managers, will travel in coats and ties and be clean-shaven. They must be on time for all practices and team meetings. They must sit in the front three rows of each of their classes and develop a “personal relationship” with their professors. Each player works with a mentor through the WSU mentoring program.

The players and team student managers already have received classroom training from Kent and his staff on dealing with the media, eating etiquette, study skills, and dealing with personal relationships.

Kent's philosophy, he says, is as much of a message to other students and the campus community as it is for his basketball players. Kent hopes that building respect for the team will enhance and fire-up the fan-base.

“Every minute I’m with my players, they’re getting life skills,” Kent says. “I start practice with life skills. I talk about it in the middle of practice and I talk about it at the end of practice.”

Has there been blow-back? “No,” he says, “the reception has been overwhelming here.

“When you get on a plane," he adds, "look at who’s on the plane with you. That’s corporate America. Corporate America is what you’re going to be involved with (so) get comfortable with it now -- the suit, the tie, how to handle yourself, your brand, how to sell. Let me teach you how and let’s go to work.”

The coach says it’s his responsibility to get his players to understand and be prepared for life-after-basketball “as much as it is to win games.” It’s a message he repeats when recruiting and meeting the parents of student athletes.

“I honestly believe this: I didn’t let my own kids fail because they were my kids. If I didn’t let my own kids fail, why am I going to let your kids fail? That’s your son. So when they’re here, it’s coaching, but it’s with me -- it’s really parenting, wanting your kids to be successful.

“If you coach at this level ... and don’t have the ability to take someone’s son and put your arms around them and tap into their inner spirit and get them to move toward being successful, just like you would your own son, why are you in coaching? Why are you doing this? For the money? That’s not right."

As he attempts to wrap his arms around each of his players, Kent also says he will deal with the issue of “entitlement” that he believes is pervasive among college basketball players everywhere. Evidence of that, he says, is supported by the increasing number of transfers.

“If my memory is correct, there were 400 transfers three years ago, 500 two years ago and 600 last year... It’s all centering around playing time or, ‘Give me mine now, better enhance me for the NBA.' It’s me, me, me, me, me,” Kent says.

The entitlement culture isn’t limited to college athletes, he says.

“We’ve taught young people you can make excuses and go elsewhere and not get the job done,” he says. “Now all of a sudden you have them in this environment where we give them the gear, give them their meal money, give them a free education, give them the travel, they’re going to make one overseas trip during the four years, you give them the hype of TV. We give them all this.

“If you’re going to enhance their lives this much and don’t hold them accountable, you’re giving them a false sense of reality, because when the bright lights are over and they’re in the real world, it doesn’t work like that.”

Kent passes along an anecdote he uses to try and combat that entitlement mentality: pointing out students who are working two or three jobs or having their parents go in debt for their college education. Some students will be paying back student loans years after graduating, he reminds his scholarship players.

“You are receiving a free education from the university. Holding you accountable -- to be hard working, personable, respectful and on time -- is not too much to ask.”

Former Oregon head coach Jim Haney, Kent’s long-time friend and the current executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, says Kent’s seriousness with life-skills training makes him a strong coach. The fact he took two Oregon teams to the Elite Eight before the school's massive investment in basketball facilities makes him an impactful coach.

“I expect his teams will be highly successful in the conference,” Haney says. “His impact will go beyond the locker room. He’s caring, passionate and energetic. He will have an impact.”

COMING TOMORROW: The Shaping of Ernie Kent

About the author: Bill Morlin has been a journalist for more than 40 years in the Pacific Northwest, including five years with The Associated Press and 37 years as an investigative reporter with The Spokesman-Review. He currently does freelance investigative research and writing. He can be reached at bmorlin@gmail.com.


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