Billy Kennedy's long road to Texas A&M
College basketball is a veritable forest of coaching family trees.
You have the Dean Smith family tree, which produced Roy Williams and scads of others. You have the Rick Pitino family tree, which counts national champions Billy Donovan and Tubby Smith among its many branches. You have the Tom Izzo family tree, which includes Tom Crean and Brian Gregory at prominent jobs and others at smaller programs.
Billy Kennedy, the new boss at Texas A&M, is pretty much a self-made sapling. He worked 12 different (and mostly modest) college jobs before getting this one, his big break in the profession. As an assistant coach, he had seven addresses from 1985-91.
Ask him about the biggest coaching influence in his life, and you don't hear about any big names from power programs. You hear about a 76-year-old man who coaches girls high school basketball and teaches Latin at a small Catholic school in New Orleans.
His name is Kevin Trower. He was something of a prep hoops coaching legend in the Crescent City, and he was Kennedy's coach at Holy Cross High School in the early 1980s.
He also is Kennedy's stepfather, marrying his mom, Dixie, after Billy graduated from Holy Cross. "We tried to keep [the relationship] secret from him," Trower said. "That was kind of crazy."
To this day, Trower likes to watch Kennedy's teams practice and give his input on what he sees. And to this day, Kennedy does not call him Dad, or Kevin. He calls him Coach.
He also calls him a vital part of his own coaching makeup.
"I credit him for our philosophy, defensively and offensively," Kennedy said in his soft New Orleans drawl.
Defense is the running theme in the relationship. Trower was a defensive fanatic who modeled his pressure man-to-man off what he learned hearing legendary coach Hank Iba speak. Now Kennedy is a defensive fanatic, applying many of the same principles handed down decades ago from Iba.
"I'm very proud of the fact that he's a defensive coach," Trower said.
At Holy Cross High, Kennedy was Trower's captain and most avid defender, almost always guarding the other team's top scorer. That fit his hard-nosed mentality. Kennedy was a boxer as a kid, learning the sweet science at Delta Playground in New Orleans, and he played basketball with something of a pugilistic mentality.
"Billy is a very tough man," Trower said. "A lot of the publicity since he got to Texas A&M says he's a player's coach, and he is, but it's not like he lets them do whatever they want. It's exactly the opposite. He's a quiet tough guy."
Kennedy's quiet personality might be what kept him beating the bushes of Division I for years longer than his winning percentage suggests he should have.
After 12 seasons as an assistant coach, Kennedy got his first head-coaching gig in 1997 at Centenary, which had the smallest enrollment in Division I at the time. If you can simply avoid being trampled there, you're probably pretty good. After Kennedy squeezed a 14-14 season out of the Gentlemen in his second year, he moved to Southeastern Louisiana.
His alma mater stood by him through four straight losing seasons and was rewarded in years five and six with consecutive 20-win seasons and a trip to the school's one and only NCAA tournament in 2005.
"I was able to make some mistakes in those other jobs to prepare me," Kennedy said. "Make a mistake at Centenary and nobody notices it."
The NCAA trip in '05 helped earn Kennedy a shot at one of the premier mid-major jobs, Murray State. But even that program was at a low ebb when he arrived. Players scattered after Mick Cronin left for Cincinnati, leaving Kennedy with three scholarship players. He pulled together a roster and went 16-14 his first year, sustaining the school's decades-long streak of winning seasons.
Athletic director Allen Ward still maintains that season was Kennedy's best coaching job at Murray. In his fourth season, the Racers went 31-5, reached the NCAA tournament and shocked fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in the first round. They lost by two points to eventual national runner-up Butler in the second round.
That looked like Kennedy's cue to do what so many had done before him at Murray: upgrade to a bigger job. There were some nibbles from bigger schools, but the coach says his heart wasn't fully into it.
"I was content that if that's what God had in store for me, I could have stayed at Murray for a long time," he said. "I wasn't trying to leave like some people. I was comparing the job to Centenary and Southeastern Louisiana, and it looked pretty good."
So did the team he had coming back for the 2010-11 season. Some people even had Murray pegged as a top-25 team.
But what followed was an inconsistent season, as the Racers struggled to deal with huge expectations. They pieced it together late and won the Ohio Valley Conference regular season, but then were upset in the OVC tournament semifinals by Tennessee Tech. What seemed like a sure return trip to the Big Dance ended in bitter disappointment.
If Kennedy wasn't leaving Murray after 2010, he certainly didn't appear upwardly mobile after '11. That is until the job at one of his stops as an assistant, Texas A&M, opened up late after Gary Williams suddenly retired at Maryland and Mark Turgeon left College Station for College Park.
"That's the funny thing about it," Kennedy said. "You never know in this profession."
Kennedy leaped at the opportunity, won over athletic director Bill Byrne and got the job. Now he's excited about coaching a veteran team that returns its top three scorers, thrilled by A&M's 68,000-square-foot practice facility and dazzled by the 400 boosters he met at a recent weekend outing in San Antonio.
"This is Murray on steroids," Kennedy said. "We wanted to make it a one-move situation to get to a destination job. This is a destination job for me."
At age 47 and in his fourth head-coaching position, he's not following the path of a Coaching Phenom.
But then again, he never has. Billy Kennedy didn't come to College Station on the coattails of a big name in college basketball. He got there largely by himself, with an assist from an old man teaching Latin at a little school in New Orleans.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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