Imagine being 23, fresh out of college in 1981, and your adult life begins by sitting on the sideline next to Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kurt Rambis and Michael Cooper after Commissioner Larry O’Brian announced your name as the 19thoverall draft pick by the legendary Los Angeles Lakers. Sounds like a dream, right? That’s how Ducks assistant men’s basketball coach Kevin McKenna began his young adult life.
A young McKenna would be meeting his new NBA head coach Paul Westhead for the first time. That name sound familiar? It should. Westhead and McKenna are currently co-workers in the Ducks athletics department. Westhead being the head coach of the Ducks women’s team, and McKenna is Dana Altman’s right hand man with the men.
Funny how things can come full circle in the world of athletics, no?
So not only was he coached by his current colleague, but he was learning X’s and O’s from a young, 37/38-year old Pat Riley. That is probably the best coaching staff and teammates a 23-year old rookie in the NBA can have. In his first season in the NBA, McKenna won an NBA Championship and not too many basketball legends can say they’ve done that but McKenna can. After the ’82 season he went on to play for Indiana, New Jersey and Washington during a six-year NBA career.
Before McKenna graced the NBA and coaching circuit with his rich basketball knowledge and experience, he had a notable career as a college player. His pre-professional basketball career began at Creighton of all places, where he was a guard from 1977-1981. McKenna led the Bluejays to a Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship, two MVC Tournament titles and a pair of NCAA Tournaments. He was an All-MVC pick and team MVP in each of his final two seasons. As a guard, it is crucial to put your teammates before yourself. McKenna understood that immediately and it’s what has made in him a great player and teacher of the game.
McKenna stepped out onto the hardwood as a coach for the first time in 1989 as an assistant for the La Crosse Catbirds (Wisconsin). After a season of soaking up all the coaching notes humanly possible, McKenna took his one-years’ worth of coaching talents to the NBA D-League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce where he coached from 1990-1993. Then came a phone call from a familiar 402 area code in 1994. It was the new coach of the Creighton Bluejays basketball team, Dana Altman and he needed an assistant. With the basketball genius of Altman and McKenna Part I, the Bluejays went to four NCAA Tournaments as well as two National Invitation Tournaments.
As a result of being a top assistant from 1989-2001, THE phone call finally arrived. The University of Nebraska-Omaha, which is only four miles from Creighton, had a head coaching vacancy and they were calling to see if the candidate at the top of their list wanted the job, McKenna graciously accepted.
McKenna had finally reached his “dream job” as a head coach and did not wait long to hunker down and get to work. In four years across town as head coach at Nebraska-Omaha (Division III), he guided the Mavericks to four consecutive 20-win seasons, two North Central Conference titles and three appearances in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
The hard work of teaching and studying was finally paying off. McKenna was named the NCC Coach of the Year in both 2004 and 2005 as well as North Central Regional Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2005. He finished with an 89-33 mark in his tenure at UNO which included a conference mark of 40-20.
He finally made it.
Now all that was left for him to do was wait by the phone and let the Division I vacancy calls pour in. He didn’t have to wait long. His old friend Dana Altman rang and said he required his tremendous knowledge of the game and teaching skills…again. For the second time in his young, promising coaching career, McKenna put his own dreams and aspirations on hold to lend a hand to a friend.
What makes McKenna remarkable is that a coach with the knowledge, teaching skills, and a winning head coaching record would have laughed at Altman, asked “have you seen what I’ve done as a head coach?” and hung up the phone. Not Kevin McKenna. He saw a coach, more importantly, he saw his friend, who gave him his first big coaching opportunity, asking for his help. McKenna’s answer began Altman and McKenna Part II from 2005-2007.
Just when McKenna began to wonder if he had missed his window to become a Division I head coach as a result of answering his long-time friend’s cry for help, McKenna finally received his reward for being humble and patient.
In the summer of 2007, Division I program Indiana State called and offered him the head coaching position. He took what he thought could be his final opportunity to be a Division I head coach and headed to Terre Haute to build his dream program and to prove to himself and the critics that he was anything but finished.
At ISU, McKenna mentored Harry Marshall to Second Team All-MVC and MVC’s All-Defensive Team recognition. He also helped Jay Tunnell to All-MVC Honorable Mention and MVC Most Improved Team honors. In addition, Jordan Printy and Aaron Carter were tabbed as MVC All-Scholar Athletes under McKenna’s tutelage.
After two seasons of re-building the fundamentals and basketball IQ, the 2009-2010 Sycamores recorded the program’s first winning season since 2001. ISU also reached postseason play for the first time in nine years when it accepted a bid to the 2009-2010 College Basketball Invitational. The Sycamores’ success, despite being devastated by injury for the greater portion of the Missouri Valley Conference slate, led McKenna to being tabbed as the MVC Coach of the Year.
As a result, the Sycamores finished the 2009-10 season as the nation’s No. 2 free throw shooting team. ISU’s 76.9 percent mark at the line finished just behind NCAA Tournament qualifier BYU on the Division I list.
Important basketball eyes took notice on McKenna’s ability to build a program from the ground up and as a result, he was selected as the head coach of the Athletes In Action college basketball team during a tour of Poland and Germany. He led the team on an 11-day summer tour playing contests in Katowice, Poland as well as Berlin, Germany. The AIA team was comprised of NCAA Division I basketball players.
McKenna compiled a 43-52 overall record while posting a MVC mark of 24-30 in three seasons at Indiana State and just as he was hitting his stride as a Division I head coach and the 2010-2011 season was approaching, he received yet another phone call, only this one had a 541 area code attached.
It was none other than his old friend Dana Altman. Altman explained that he was taking on a new job as Oregon’s coach and he needed a right hand man that understood his brand of basketball and he could think of no one better than Kevin McKenna. For the third time in his coaching journey, he decided to put others needs before his own and informed Indiana State he would be leaving to take on an assistant coach position at Oregon.
Let Altman and McKenna Part III begin.
“We’re very excited that Kevin has chosen to join our program,” Altman said in a statement. “He brings a wide variety of experiences and I think he’s someone who can benefit our program in a number of areas.”
With the loss to the Huskies in the NIT last week, McKenna officially finished his 11th year as an assistant to Dana Altman. At the young age of 53, one thing McKenna enjoys doing in what little free time he has, is tweeting. He tweets often, providing athlete and program updates. He replies or re-tweets his followers on a consistent basis. Earlier this season when the Ducks were stranded and were not sure if they were going to make it to Denver because of the snow storm, McKenna tweeted up to the minute details to the point where writers for the Oregonian were referring people to his tweets for new information.
Even in his hobbies, McKenna is serving others before himself.
It is clear that Kevin McKenna has the experience, the passion and the play book to be a Division I head coach again. More than that, he deserves to be a head coach because he is a proven winner as a head coach. At the same time, when Altman and McKenna are together they prove that they are a lethal two-headed monster in college basketball.
Just ask Lorenzo Romar, the Washington Huskies head coach.
Sports fans tend to only notice the head coach of a team because they are generally seen more on a constant basis. The enormous amount of blood, sweat and tears that an assistant coach puts in to a team tends to go unnoticed. McKenna’s resume looks like what a typical basketball coach’s resume looks like. What you don’t see from the ink and paper is the impact that Kevin McKenna has left on his players. Remember; Marshall, Tunnell and Printy were irrelevant basketball players prior to McKenna’s teachings. More than that, Altman recognizes the value of an experienced journeyman like McKenna to the point where he has pleaded for his assistance on three different occasions.
To this point it is uncertain whether or not 53-year old Kevin McKenna will get another opportunity to run a Division I program and if he does, the question is whether or not he will accept it. For most coaches that decision is not an uncertainty, it is common sense. However, it is not for McKenna because he has shown that he would rather put other coach’s and player’s needs before his own.
That doesn’t make him a great coach. That makes him a great leader. Here is a recent example of why Coach McKenna is simply one-of-a-kind.
The Ducks lost last Tuesday in the NIT to their conference and I-5 rival Washington Huskies. The following day McKenna hopped on twitter and in less than 140 characters, showed why he is one of the best coaches in the country: “Not golf season. ‘Piling on’ last night’s disappointing game after watching film, very proud of effort.”
Instead of heading out for vacation, McKenna stayed in to watch film the day after the tough loss in the NIT, enough said.
With mentorship from Magic Johnson, Kareem, Paul Westhead and Pat Riley, who wouldn’t want this guy to run their program?
It’s time to thank Coach McKenna for all his selfless sacrifices, staying out of the coaching spotlight and sharing his wealth of knowledge and skill which helped the Ducks go 24-10 in their best season in recent memory.
Don’t worry coach, we know you’re there, we know you’ve made this program better than when you found it. For improving the team and putting player’s and coach’s needs before your own, we thank you for answering Altman’s phone call.