Kent overcomes job, personal issues to triumph
LOS ANGELES -- Sit behind Oregon coach Ernie Kent and watch him work a game. He'll grimace at a bad shot or what he perceives as a poor call, slap his hands, wave his arms, and he doesn't hesitate to pound his chest after a big 3-pointer.
He's doing all this with a torn left rotator cuff.
"He has a high threshold for pain," said new Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny, sitting one row behind the Oregon bench in the stands Saturday as the Ducks claimed the Pac-10 title with as dominating a performance as you've seen this year in any major conference title game -- a 81-57 win over USC behind a perfect game from junior guard Bryce Taylor (11-for-11 from the field, 7-for-7 on 3s, 3-for-3 at the line for 32 points in 31 minutes).
"In a lot of ways, he does [have a high threshold]," Kilkenny said at halftime, with the Ducks already up by 13. "What's not to like right now?"
Kilkenny smiled when he said this. He was referencing a lot more than Kent's shoulder, though, when he mentioned pain. Kent has gone through plenty in Eugene, some of it self-inflicted, and to the outside world, it seemed like it was going to cost him his job -- and maybe a lot more personally.
A year ago, the Ducks missed the postseason for the second straight season, prompting then-athletic director Bill Moos to issue a statement that Kent would return. But in that same statement, issued days after the season, Moos didn't extend Kent's contract beyond 2010.
Fast forward to July. The school issued another press release after it had quietly announced a contract extension a month earlier. In this release, Kent said, "On a personal note, my family and I have gone through some difficult times that we continue to work through. I ask for respect from the community, all Oregon basketball news media to allow my family to work through these matters privately."
There were local media requests for travel and cell phone records. There were plenty of rumors and speculation about Kent's personal life. It could have been really ugly if it had spilled into the mainstream media in detail, rather than staying on message boards.
Now cut to Saturday. Kent is taking a family photo with two of his three children -- his handsome son Jordan, a former Oregon basketball, track and football player who has NFL aspirations, and his striking daughter, McKenzie, a member of the Oregon dance team -- along and his wife, Dianna, who according to Oregon's public relations staff doesn't like to be shown on TV and would prefer to keep a low profile. A few feet to their right, the joyous Ducks were taking turns cutting down the Staples Center net.
This is a family that has come a long way in a short amount of time. And if the Ducks continue to play the way they did this week in L.A., behind Taylor, 5-foot-6 freshman Tajuan Porter (the tourney MVP), senior guard Aaron Brooks and sharp-shooting forward Maarty Leunen, then another net-cutting ceremony in a regional final isn't a complete reach.
"It was tough, real tough to deal with that stuff off the court when some of the worst things in the world are being said [about your father]," Jordan Kent said. "But it was like our locker room against the world. Everyone else didn't think he was the man for the job and look at them now."
Kent coached the Luke and Luke show (Ridnour and Jackson) to the Elite Eight in 2002, a year removed from a 14-14 season when, as Jordan Kent said, "There were rumors of [the Lukes] transferring."
"Like a team, our family stayed together," McKenzie Kent said. "There was always stuff out there and yet they stuck with my dad and I'm really proud of him and the team."
Ernie Kent said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't have mentioned his personal life in that press release. He said he's hoping that the way he handled the adversity will be a lesson for them all.
"I knew so many personally in [Eugene]," said Kent, an Oregon alumnus. "And the attacks and the rumors were flying all over the place. My pastor told me that I should say nothing, do nothing, take the hits and focus on my team. I learned a lot from [the situation], lost some friends and gained a couple more."
There was more heat when Kent wasn't able to sign two of the highest-profile players ever to come out of Oregon. Kevin Love, whose father Stan played at Oregon, signed at rival UCLA, and Kyle Singler signed at Duke. Kent said losing players to UCLA and Duke shouldn't be an issue, and in watching Oregon, you can tell that the Ducks are good at finding hidden gems like Porter rather than just relying on the marquee names.
"There are two kids at North Carolina from California, and I don't hear anyone complaining that UCLA didn't get them," Kent said of Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson. "Look, here's Tajuan Porter and Joevan Catron on our team, and no one recruited them. They said TP is 5-6, too small, but he's perfect for who we are in Eugene. We lost two great players [in the state], but we're getting it done."
Catron, a (literally) well-rounded 6-6, 225-pound freshman forward, played a significant role off the bench for the Ducks, scoring four points, grabbing four boards and picking up two steals. When Catron spun to the hoop with a power dribble, Kent, who never stops moving and talking during the game, said aloud, "That big fella ain't got that in his game!"
"Coach has done a great job being loyal to his players," said Taylor, who then admitted he considered transferring a year ago. "When everyone was scrutinizing him for his personal issues, he did a good job sticking with us and making sure he kept good players around him."
Brooks said he felt like the team actually let Kent down by saying they wanted to play up-tempo but not conditioning for it. So this summer, once it was clear Kent was safe, the players did condition themselves to play fast, and turned it on during a trip to the Bahamas in August.
The Ducks ended up being one of the nation's last three undefeated teams this season. While they did slump during a four-game road swing, losing three and falling flat for a stretch of five out of six games, they got healthy (Porter and Malik Hairston were banged up) and got on a roll, winning three at home to close the season and then sweeping through the Pac-10 tournament to possibly earn a No. 4 seed in Spokane next week.
"They made a smart decision to leave him there," Brooks said of Kent. "We made the corrections. We were walking the ball up [last year] and that didn't suit anybody's game."
It certainly didn't work for Leunen; now he couldn't be more pleased with his role as a shooting forward. His mother, Margie, was in the stands with her family wearing yellow "Leunen" shirts. She wasn't shy about getting on message boards this past offseason.
She wouldn't comment on whether she thought Kent would be the coach this season. But that doesn't matter since "my differences have nothing to do with Maarty. He enjoys it, we supported him and he loves Ernie and the players."
In describing Kent, the word that kept coming up during the postgame celebration was resilient. Pressure wasn't one of them, though.
"I worked seven years in Saudi Arabia coaching [1981-87] and my paycheck was on one side of the table and my passport on the other, and they said to me, 'You can't leave and you won't get paid if you don't win,"' said Kent, 52. "I think I've handled pressure. I would go to the games and there would be a young Saudi with a submachine gun outside the game. That's pressure. This, this is just basketball."
Now he's still coaching at Oregon, the place he calls home, and he clearly was given a second chance to prove himself to the Ducks' faithful. Cutting down the net Saturday was a clear statement that he has delivered on his promise to refocus his entire energy on repairing the program, and apparently his personal life.
Does he want to stay for a long time?
"I think so," said a beaming Jordan Kent. "He loves Oregon. He has such a passion for it."
The feeling may be mutual now that the Ducks are storming into the NCAA Tournament again.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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