New coach a little more player-friendly
CINCINNATI -- Andy Kennedy's voice didn't cascade throughout the Shoemaker Center Saturday morning. But he was still audible, encouraging his players, correcting them when need be and weaving through drills to ensure they weren't creating bad habits.
Kennedy, 37, still has a youthful look about him. He keeps in washboard-like shape. He can wear the team's long, baggy red shorts and not look out of style. The long-sleeve Cincinnati warm-up shirt gives him the look of an NBA workout guru who is ready to go through the drills himself.
He seems in charge, but not in a demonstrative way. He is not Bob Huggins, never said he was, doesn't plan on being him.
"They broke the mold with him," Kennedy said on Saturday after his second practice as interim head coach. Kennedy, who was Huggins' assistant the past five years, replaced Huggins on Aug. 26. "At the end of the day, the message is still pretty clear, but the way in which it's delivered may be different. With Hugs, if you got through how he said it, and listened to what he said, he was always on point. He was about accountability and I'm trying to do the same thing and ensure these guys take ownership to figure it out and deal with adversity."
Kennedy won't say it publicly but he understands that, short of something like a Steve Fisher-type run to the national title, he likely has no shot to get the full-time gig.
"I have obligations to everybody here," Kennedy said. "Everybody came here to play for Bob Huggins. I came here to work for Bob Huggins, but now the circumstances have changed."
Practice started for the Bearcats on Friday night at Moeller High School; they worked for nearly three hours. They couldn't get into the Shoemaker Center because the facility was being used (you wonder if Huggins would have been blocked out), so they chose a private locale to begin this odyssey.
"I was warming up [Friday] and I kept looking around for him [Huggins] and seeing if he would walk into the gym," senior forward Eric Hicks said.
"Anytime something happens in practice, I keep expecting to hear coach's voice correcting us," said senior forward Armein Kirkland. "The older guys are almost trained to look over our shoulder. His presence will be missed."
Kirkland felt most of Huggins' "constructive" criticisms throughout the past three seasons.
"He yelled at me the most," Kirkland said. "We clashed because he thought I could contribute the most. I appreciate everything he did. At the same time, Coach Kennedy is doing a great job. He has a lot to prove. He might not be here next year, so there's a lot of weight on his shoulders and me and the rest of the guys understand that. I've got a career after this -- and the same with coach Kennedy."
And Kennedy's not shying away from being a bit more extroverted than Huggins with the public. At practice on Saturday, Kennedy had one of the managers get a microphone ready as soon as the open session ended.
A crowd estimated at around 300 was sitting patiently in the stands, watching the first Cincinnati practice in 16 years without Huggins pacing the Shoemaker Center court, save a few to open the 2002-03 season when Huggins had a heart attack. So, forgive them if they needed an introduction.
"I'm Andy Kennedy," Kennedy said and then paused, smirked and added, "for those of you who have been in a coma for a month or so."
Kennedy proceeded to have each player stand up and say their name, height and hometown, so that the fans "could put a name on a face." Kennedy then added, "This team will earn your support with their effort and enthusiasm."
If this snapshot is any indication, then the players and staff already have their backing without even playing a game.
The loyal fans, mostly kids with their fathers and mothers, clapped, seemingly to break the ice and put Kennedy at ease as he embarks on one of the most difficult transitions in his career. He's replacing his friend and mentor after a messy divorce between university president Nancy Zimpher and Huggins led to his forced resignation last month. Huggins took a $3 million buyout package after the school refused to extend a rollover provision on Huggins' contract and the two parties then clashed over the final two years remaining on his deal. Huggins is still in Cincinnati and is keeping a relatively low profile while being paid through Dec. 1, choosing not to comment any further on his ousting until then.
Kennedy was the only reasonable option given the timing of Huggins' dismissal and, much like his mentor, he's trying to empower his upperclassmen -- many of whom remain loyal to Huggins. "I'm playing for AK and Hugs, yeah I'm still playing for Hugs regardless, that's my man, that's who I wanted to play for when I came and I'm sticking with it," Hicks said. A few days after Huggins was out and after Huggins told him it was OK to accept the job, Kennedy's first move was to meet with the Bearcats' four seniors -- Hicks, Kirkland, James White and Jihad Muhmmad. A fifth senior, Chadd Moore, hadn't yet decided that he would return after back injuries last season. He has since come back to the team. "I told those guys that I may be the CEO but you guys are my department heads, my councils," Kennedy said. "I told them they have to take ownership and have an interest in seeing us all have success. These guys have to turn their potential into production." Cincinnati started school later than most since it's on the quarter system. That left the Bearcats with only eight hours of individual workouts during a four-week period prior to Oct. 14. The NCAA allows teams two hours a week for instruction when class is in session, prior to the official start of practice.
Kennedy said a year ago he would have been on the road recruiting during September, making only a few hours of workouts. He didn't miss a single minute this year, sensing that his place had to be with this team -- for their and his own sake.
Kennedy, who was the recruiting coordinator for the Bearcats, has nearly stopped doing that part of his job. Assistants Frank Martin and Keith LeGree did go on the road but only to check out recruits, not to seriously get a commitment.
"It would be ridiculous for anyone to assume that we're going to sign anyone in the November signing period," Kennedy said. "I don't think that's in anybody's best interest. When November comes, we'll see who is on the board and who is off the board."
Cincinnati hosted Connecticut Saturday in a homecoming football game. Kennedy said in past years, the Bearcats would have had two official recruits in and possibly a few more unofficial recruits.
No recruits came Saturday, none have come and none are planned to arrive anytime soon.
Kennedy interviewed for two jobs in the past two years, Southern Miss and Louisiana-Monroe, hoping to get closer to the South. He played at NC State before transferring to UAB to finish his career. Throughout his career as a player and an assistant, Kennedy had an intense edge, but it came with a dose of wit, rather than with a biting tongue. His players say he's more laid back than Huggins, which is a gross understatement.
"Coach Kennedy is tough but they say Coach Huggins was a whole different level," freshman DeAndre Coleman said.
"I think the freshmen will respond better to AK's style," Kirkland said.
They'll have to on this squad because Kennedy needs every one of them. The Bearcats will lean on freshmen like Coleman and guards Domonic Tilford and Devan Downey off the bench in the hope that all three of them can make perimeter shots -- a potential blemish on this squad.
Inside, Xavier University of New Orleans transfer center Ronald Allen needs to play about 10 minutes a game to spell Hicks, according to Kennedy, and JC forward Cedric McGowan could end up playing roughly 20-25 per game, potentially as the fifth starter. Freshman center Abdul Herrera, who is sitting out until an NCAA Clearinghouse issue is resolved, might not be ready to contribute.
"He's definitely auditioning for a head coaching job, maybe not here but he's going to get a head coaching job," White said of Kennedy. "He's a great coach, a players' coach and he's going to give it his all. He played the game and played it well."
The Bearcats won't have an easy go prior to their first-year in the Big East. Cincinnati faces nonconference games against Dayton twice (one at home and once in Las Vegas as part of the Holiday Classic), LSU in Las Vegas, Ohio and Miami (Ohio), Memphis, at Vanderbilt and against Holy Cross.
Kennedy desperately wants to get this squad into the NCAA Tournament -- not just for him and the players, but for Huggins. He is loyal to him and said he would work for him again. He expects Huggins to coach again, maybe not next year but within three years, since Huggins would only be in his mid-50s.
Cincinnati is hiring a new athletic director to replace the retiring Bob Goin. That should be done come January. Kennedy will be evaluated by his successor, but that might be moot. He's on display for every AD in the country now.
"I'm sure when we're tipping it up at Freedom Hall (at Louisville) or the Carrier Dome (at Syracuse), I'll be looking for that shield," Kennedy said of Huggins. "Because of the magnitude of this job, we're on a platform where everyone will be watching."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.