Career assistant finally finds perfect fit
After 22 years in the college game, Kearney lands his first head-coaching gig
Mike Brey said he felt the pressure to deliver not just any job for Sean Kearney, but one similar to Notre Dame, a gig in which he could succeed rather quickly, one that would fit his personality and his commitment to a higher-end student-athlete.
Brey wanted Kearney, his trusted assistant for 14 years -- an equal in age and experience in the biz -- to push harder for the opening at Bucknell a year ago.
But Kearney didn't.
Known throughout coaching circles as a true professional and liked by just about everyone who comes into contact with him, Kearney was often passive in his 22 years as an assistant, refusing to take part in any self-promotion. So when openings occurred in the more traditional time frame of early spring, like at Penn and Bucknell in recent years, Kearney said he was so exhausted from the drain of the long season that he didn't have the energy to push for the job.
"I appreciate some of the things that were said and written about me," Kearney said, "but in some ways it was exaggerated, like, 'Here's a guy who had been doing this a long time.' As if I'd tried to get 20 head coaching jobs."
"He hasn't interviewed as much as you would think,'' Brey said. "He was mentioned, but Sean's wanted to go where he would fit, and we really only talked about possible openings in the Ivy or the Patriot League. He was realistic about where he was a good fit and what he could get. He never came in to me and said, 'If this Pac-10 job opened or that high-major job opened.' He knew he wanted to work with the academic kids in the Northeast.''
So in mid-June, when Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard left a comfortable position at arguably the top school in the Patriot League to become a top assistant to his good friend Rick Pitino at Louisville, the 49-year-old Kearney finally saw an opening that was perfect.
Holy Cross and Notre Dame are similar, Catholic institutions. Sure, one plays at a high level in the Big East and has a football factory as a money-driver, but the players the two schools recruit are comparable in terms of academic success. And the timing of a summer search meant Kearney had the energy to make a run.
For an Irish Catholic from Springfield, Pa., going to Notre Dame was a career-achieving type of job. He wanted to maximize the experience. If Brey had left for another gig -- and there were times when Brey could have made a run for other jobs, including as late as last spring when Georgia opened -- Kearney wouldn't have automatically left.
"When Mike took the Notre Dame job, there were so many tugs at me," Kearney said. "On top of working with him, there was the whole Irish Catholic thing going, and even though I might have the opportunity in those first few years to leave, I felt like I hadn't experienced the whole Notre Dame thing yet.
"There were times when Mike was pushy about it and told me I've got to look at some of these jobs. But I liked my job. I liked being there.''
He spent all nine seasons with Brey at Notre Dame and had spent the previous five with him at Delaware -- and four prior to that under former Blue Hens coach Steve Steinwedel.
All in all, Kearney logged more than two decades as a college assistant, beginning as a volunteer coach on Pitino's 1987 Final Four team at Providence. It was a job he took after several years working as a research analyst at Cigna and an assistant high school basketball coach at his alma mater.
As for Brey, he said the best hire he ever made was keeping Kearney on the staff at Delaware. The two watched their children grow up over the past 14 years. They shared the joy of parenthood together and the sorrow of loss when Kearney's father passed away. Their wives are just as tight, heading up a Coaches vs. Cancer benefit every year in South Bend.
"I didn't want to let him down,'' Brey said. "I wanted him to get a good opportunity. He had been so loyal to me. I was excited for him. I knew he deserved it.''
Kearney got the job despite Holy Cross athletic director Dick Regan's saying initially that he wanted someone with head coaching experience. That turned out to be idle chatter that didn't carry much weight. For when Regan looked deeper at Kearney's tenure, he discovered that he was much more than an assistant coach. Brey and Kearney were inseparable. Kearney handled everything Brey didn't have to, and whenever Brey wasn't around, Kearney was a de facto head coach.
"Whenever I wasn't there he would make decisions and save me plenty of time,'' Brey said. "He took the initiative. I told him when I saw him in Orlando [last month] that I hoped he found as good an assistant as he was for me.''
The coaching business has had its share of longtime partnerships: Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge at UNC and Jim Boeheim and Bernie Fine at Syracuse are two of the longest. Brey and Kearney's 14-year run together is testament to two personalities that seem to mesh so well. The relationship was so tight that while Brey was pushing Kearney for the job he said, "God, what am I going to do if he does leave. There is such a comfort level with him. I don't want to lose him."
Of course, Brey moved on and bumped up Martin Ingelsby, a former player and Kearney disciple. Meanwhile, Kearney kept two members of Willard's staff in Guillermo Sanchez and Mark Daigneault.
Willard gave Kearney his support, which carried immense weight, since he was, and remains, popular on campus.
"Ralph talked to me about what a great group we have here, and I know this situation is really rare,'' Kearney said. "But this is what I dealt with the last nine years at Notre Dame, and in my years at Delaware too. So this transition should be easy for me."
Kearney's selectivity isn't rare. Plenty of coaches want a specific type of school, but few can be as picky. He was fortunate to get Holy Cross. What made it even more tantalizing was the state of the program. Willard had led the Crusaders to the NCAA tournament in 2001, '02, '03 and '07. And just last March, the Crusaders played at American for the Patriot League tournament title, falling just short of the league's automatic bid.
This season, the Crusaders return four of their top five scorers and should be the pick to win the Patriot. So with school starting soon, Kearney is preparing for the long haul -- and, to some extent, the pressure of ensuring that the program doesn't fall flat in what is supposed to be a championship season.
The Crusaders play in a glorified high school gym. There may be renovations in the future, but the reality is that Holy Cross isn't going to change too much. It is and will remain a solid academic institution with a rich basketball history that isn't expected ever to wane, even if the program never returns to the glory days of the 1940s and '50s, an era that included Bob Cousy and a 1947 NCAA title.
"With this core group we have the next two seasons, the expectations shouldn't be lower,'' Kearney said. "The older guys were crushed to lose to American last year. They've come back with a chip on their shoulder.''
Kearney will take that edge from the players, but there's no such chip on his shoulder. Just three months shy of his 50th birthday, the longtime assistant seems perfectly content with how it all worked out.
"It's hard enough to get a head coaching job, but to get a very, very good one like this is rare," he said. "The opportunity isn't lost on me.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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