The Shaping of Ernie Kent: Part II in series

AS A KID growing up in Rockford, Ill., Ernie Kent ran to Blackhawk Park almost every morning, hoping to be the first to shoot a basketball and “see the dew pop off that net.”

Not only was that a thrill, he says, but an inspiration he instinctively hoped would lead him upward from an impoverished life.

“Those mornings alone made me feel there was something destined for you, you need to follow the path in front of you.”

Dave Nicholas, a high school teammate and still a close friend today, said Kent was “always the best player out there,” but that his skills in everyday life were just as impressive.

“Ernie was comfortable in any setting — he had confidence beyond his years,” Nicholas remembers. “He was very engaging, he could talk with anybody, anytime, and make them feel like he had all the time in the world for you.

“A lot of that came from his mom.”

Kent was also “very smart and figured out early on” that success required not just hard work but a professionalism in how you carried yourself, Nicholas said. “He gravitated toward role models — at the Boys and Girls Club, where he spent a lot of time as a kid, and in school — who were highly intelligent and spoke their minds. He had mentors who were fantastic.”

In his youth, Kent gravitated toward role models who were intelligent and outspoken.

Nicholas and Kent came from complete opposite backgrounds. Nicholas’ dad was a bank president and a country club member. Rockford West High drew from both sides of the proverbial tracks, however, so the school was a melting pot of race, ethnicity and socio-economics.

While the school had a true esprit de corps that crossed all stereotypical boundaries, and race relations in Rockford had improved immensely by the time they entered high school, “it was highly unusual that a white kid and a black kid would be such good friends,” Nicholas said. “But neither one of us cared … My parents encouraged the friendship and his whole family viewed me as nothing but a good friend.”

Nicholas remembers drawing stares in high school when he brought Kent to the country club to play golf. He also chuckles recounting how a great athlete like Kent could be so bad at hitting a golf ball.

BASKETBALL, OF COURSE, WAS A DIFFERENT story. It was Kent’s inspiration. And his mother and father were his backboard, raising 10 children in a crowded two-bedroom house in Rockford, taking them to church almost every Sunday. The rest of the week, his parents both held factory jobs to support their family.

“He used to sleep with the ball right by him in the bedroom,” Kent’s 85-year-old mother, Josie Kent, told last month as she proudly talked about her son’s career that now puts him as the new basketball coach at Washington State.

“He went out and played in the rain and snow,” she recalls. “Basketball. That’s all he talked about.” Kent still does when he calls his Mom in Rockford almost every morning from his new home in Pullman. His father, Willie “WT” Kent, died in 2000.

Kent’s oldest brother, Willie Jr., 10 years Ernie’s senior, says their mother and father instilled a true work ethic in all the kids.

“We’re all hard workers. In high school, we all worked part-time jobs. We had to earn our keep … Our father and mother were very positive role models. They were hard workers,” says Willie, now a youth minister in Rockford.

There was also a glue that ran through the family.

“We had a strong family base — a solidarity and stability. Ernie is a reflection of that strong foundation,” says Willie, whose work as a community activist in the 1960s helped get the asphalt poured at Blackhawk Park for the basketball court where Ernie learned to play ball.

Despite his love for the game, Ernie had trouble hitting the backboard when he was in the seventh grade. But two years later he could beat any two players to the basket on his ninth-grade team.

At Rockford West High, he made the varsity as a freshman and was named All-American by Parade and Scholastic magazines as a senior.

“We used to call him ‘M & M’ -- you know, because he had a ‘million moves,’” said Grant Henry, a 72-year-old retired basketball coach and principal at Rockford High who never lost sight of Kent after he graduated. Henry and his wife, Deloris, also an educator, have followed Kent’s career, attended his games as a player and a coach and remained life-long friends.

As a high school senior, Kent was heavily recruited by two dozen colleges -- not only for basketball, but football and track, too. His first trip ever on an airplane was his recruiting visit to the University of Kansas. He also visited Illinois, Arizona State, Oregon and Wisconsin, fueling his interest in opportunities on the horizon.

“When I visited Oregon, I knew that was where I was going to go to school,” Kent says, recalling the “warm and fuzzy feeling” he got from then-Oregon coach Dick Harter, assistant coach Jim Haney and the team.

“I instantly connected,” Kent said of his visit to the Eugene campus. “Boy, that felt good, because it touched my heart, what you felt in that environment, just the closeness of it all and everything else.”

Kent played four seasons with the Ducks in the 1970s. In bottom photo, Kent is at far left with some of his Kamikaze Kids teammates. Also in the photo are Greg Graham (holding future pro golfer Casey Martin), Greg Ballard, Stu Jackson and high school prospect Bob Bender.

That was when Kent put other pending recruiting visits on hold. “It didn’t stop the recruiting. I just didn’t take any more visits, but the recruiting continued.”

During that recruiting trip -- Kent’s first visit to the Pacific Northwest -- his hosts took him to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time and to the McKenzie River, a 90-mile pristine waterway east of Eugene. Kent remembers a river guide scooping up the river water and saying, “Here, drink this.”

“That did it,” Kent recalls. “I remember calling my Dad and saying, ‘Hey, they drink the river water out here.’”

Thus began his love affair with the mountains, ocean, trees, rivers and the clean air of the Northwest. “There was just something about it that you knew was going to be connected to your soul, your spirit from here on out.”

“When I committed to Oregon, they were 0 and 16 in the Pac-8 ... didn’t win a single game that season,” Kent says.

But Harter was about to turn that record around by recruiting Kent and other high school All-Americans, Stu Jackson, Greg Ballard and Ohio standout Greg Graham, who is now one of Kent’s assistants at WSU. The new recruits joined fellow Ducks Ron Lee, Mark Barwig, Bruce Coldren, Mike Drummond and Gerald Willett -- a group nicknamed the “Kamikaze Kids” because of their aggressive style of play.

“That might have been the most-incredible recruiting class in the history of the University of Oregon,” recalls Eugene businessman Mike Schwartz, a long-time fan of both the Ducks and Kent.

Kent and future wife Diana in college days with the daughter of good friend Mike Schwartz.

“I think Washington State and the general area over there have no idea what they’re in for with Ernie Kent,” Schwartz says, predicting the new coach “will bring excitement, confidence and energy back into that basketball program.”

AS A FRESHMAN AT OREGON -- Harter’s fourth year as coach -- Kent was part of the Ducks team that toppled legendary John Wooden’s UCLA squad with its star center Bill Walton. Kent played four years of injury-filled varsity ball at Oregon (1974-77), averaging 7.1 points and 1.8 rebounds. With his balky knees, a pro career wasn’t a consideration.

He couldn’t stand the thought of being away from basketball, so Kent took a broadcasting job at KEZI-TV, providing color for Oregon games. He also got a part-time job coaching Oregon’s junior varsity and volunteered as a coach at O’Hara Catholic School in Eugene.

When Harter left Oregon and Haney became the coach, Kent was hired as a part-time assistant before the position was eliminated by NCAA rule-changes.

“When I lost that job ... in 1980, all of sudden you’re out of coaching and, what do you do? I wanted to coach. I remember calling athletic directors, trying to get involved in a couple of jobs and I kept hearing, ‘You do not have that head-coach experience.’”

About that time one of Kent’s friends introduced him to a businessman from Saudi Arabia who wanted Kent to see if Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsey or WSU coach George Raveling would be interested in coaching a basketball “club team” in Saudi Arabia.

Kent said he didn’t think any amount of money would lure either Ramsey or Raveling to Saudi Arabia. “But I told them I’m available, and I’ll give it a try.”

He got the offer from Mohammad Ahmatrood, president of the al-Khaleej Club in Sayhat, six weeks before the country’s basketball season was to begin. In just three days, even though he was newly engaged, Kent flew from Eugene, to New York City to Dhahran.

He coached the all-Saudi team for three years, making playoff appearances every year.

“You could be in a ball game where there’s 7,000, maybe 8,000 men,” Kent recalled of his time with the al-Khaleej Club. “Then prayer time hits and everyone leaves the arena. You come back in and start the second half and finish the game.”

It was, to say the least, “fascinating being the only American” -- a Baptist raised in Rockford -- in a largely Shiite Muslim community, Kent says.

“For the first two months, it was a big challenge because your average temperature is 100-plus degrees,” Kent said. He also couldn’t speak Arabic, only a few of his players spoke English and it was an adjustment eating Middle Eastern food (that he now loves). But he stuck with it -- part of what he now calls “the grind of life.”

On one trip with his Saudi team, Kent met one of the vice presidents of Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) and soon was hired as one of the recreation advisors in Dhahran, helping draft contracts, manage people, and organize concerts and a kingdom-wide basketball tournament for the company’s 60,000 employees.

After seven years in Saudi Arabia, Kent wanted to get back to the United States, back to coaching college-level basketball. He sent out more than 60 letters, looking for possibilities and seeking advice. He was surprised by the large number of responses he received.

“The responses generally said, ‘Get back to the States. Get to the Final Four, work summer camps and clinics, get to know people and make yourself visible again.’”

Without a job offer, Kent and his now ex-wife Dianna and their three kids decided to move back to Eugene.

Once stateside, Kent contacted Boyd Grant, who had just taken the coaching job at Colorado State. “I called Boyd for a month straight ... Finally I took a flight to Denver, rented a car and drove down to Fort Collins and walked into his office.

“I remember him looking at me saying, ‘Ernie, if you recruit like you recruited me, I don’t even know you, but I want you on this staff.’”

Behind the scenes, Kent later learned that Harter, his former Oregon coach and mentor, had called Grant, lobbying for Kent who was hired in 1987 as an assistant at CSU.

Kent helped recruit nine strong players and the program prospered.

Stanford won the NIT title in 1991 when Kent was on Mike Montgomery's staff.

After two years in Fort Collins, he accepted Mike Montgomery’s offer to be an assistant at Stanford. Two years later, he was contacted by Saint Mary’s and soon offered the head job.

His corporate experience in Saudi Arabia sealed the deal, he believes, with the St. Mary’s search committee. “I knew how to dress and how to make a presentation -- I learned how to help run a business outside of basketball and I know that’s why I was offered the job, because I was able to project the image they wanted the program to project.”

Montgomery, however, thought Kent could land at a better spot if he was patient.

For Kent, though, the offer was nothing less than magical.

His seven years in Saudi Arabia had put him way out of the coaching mainstream. And now, after just four years back in the U.S., he was being offered a Division I head job.

He had made an unprecedented rise from oblivion and wasn’t about to say no to the Gaels and took over the program in 1991.

DURING KENT’S FIRST YEAR AT Saint Mary’s, Oregon fired Don Monson as head coach, and Kent recalls sweating with anticipation over the idea of getting a shot to coach his alma mater. “I called Oregon, but they didn’t call me back.”

In 1997, Kent led Saint Mary’s to the West Coast Conference title, defeating Gonzaga and going to the NCAA Tournament.

Kent won two Pac-10 Tournament titles at Oregon, in 2003 (above) and 2007.

Driving home one day shortly after the season ended he heard on the radio that Oregon head coach Jerry Green was leaving for Tennessee.

“I told myself, ‘I’m not calling Oregon. They need to call me.’ And by the time I got home, the phone rings and its (Oregon athletic director) Bill Moos.”

Two decades had passed since Kent graduated, telling his teammates at the time, “I want to come back here. There’s something about this place. I want to come back and coach one day.”

“I tell that to young people (today) and they don’t understand ‘the grind’ that you have to go through ... They want our jobs now,” Kent says. “They don’t understand how long you have to work to get to where you want to go.”

Kent built a reputation at Oregon for speedy guards with a downtown stroke, like Tajuan Porter, here in 2007.

Kent spent 13 years at Oregon, posting the most wins in school history. Four of his players during those years became NBA first-round draft picks.

He led the Ducks to seven postseason appearances, including five NCAA tournaments and two Elite Eight finishes.

When Oregon ended the 2009-10 season at 16-16 and next-to-last in the conference, the ax fell. His friends say he took the high road.

Schwartz, the long-time Ducks booster, says he and others were “really disgusted” with the decision to fire Kent. “I don’t think they really knew what they had in Ernie Kent and now they’re finding out the hard way.”

Mickey Fearn, a college professor, friend and confidant of Kent’s said the coach easily could have portrayed “himself as a victim through all that,” but the notion of being defined that way is anathema to who he is at the core: a kid from a humble background who is pursuing a dream of a better life.

“He never let go of that dream,” Fearn says.

Kent is philosophical, almost, in describing his firing. “I tell people … the universities have been around for hundreds of years (and) are the only constants in athletics ... What changes is the president, the athletic director, the coaches, the players, the students. So you really have to look at it during your point in time — when you had the job, what did you do with it? I think I did a pretty good job.”

And not just in terms of wins and losses. He’s also proud his self-improvement program there became a prototype used by coaches elsewhere through the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). His players made their grades and all but a handful graduated.

Kent was a popular fixture on basketball broadcasts after leaving Oregon.

After leaving Oregon, Kent remained in Eugene and spent the last four years calling games for FOX Sports Net and the Pac-12 Networks, and serving as a board member with the NABC.

He has maintained a friendly relationship with his ex-wife and stays close with his three kids, who are all grown. All were supportive of his move back into coaching. His daughter helped him pick out and decorate his house in Pullman.

Kent returned to the Oregon campus this past summer, walking into the new Matthew Knight Arena to deliver a eulogy for Aaron Jones, a Eugene businessman and Ducks supporter. “I was thinking: The next time I’m in this arena, it will be with my Washington State team.”

“Will it be an emotional day? You bet, it will be an emotional day, but it also will be a proud day,” Kent says, reflecting on something his oldest son, Marcus, expressed to him one day when he said, ‘I thought life lessons were to be learned in the living room, but instead you taught it to me in the locker room.’”

Before the Oregon game in Eugene on Feb. 2, he’ll tell his new Cougar players they will be in an awesome environment. Kent will remind his Cougs that he now has “another wonderful opportunity, going right back to the place” where he helped build an Elite Eight program.

“That’s the beauty of all of this,” he says, “and that’s the message in it for these young people. Honestly I believe I’m in Pullman for a reason, it’s the path that has been set before me and I will follow this path and with the best of my ability I plan to help build Washington State a wonderful program also.”

In a way, he’s seeing the fresh dew on the nets again. He’s a long way from Blackhawk Park in Rockford, but his excitement for what the future holds has never burned hotter.

Ernie Kent and his big picture

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

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