NC State

Long grind leads Kevin Keatts all the way to NC State

There are two “A’s” in Dowagiac, a small town that sits in the lower pinky of Michigan between Kalamazoo and the Indiana border.

That’s where Kevin Keatts’ coaching career started 21 years ago. There is no real easy way to get there from southwest Virginia, where Keatts had spent the first 24 years of his life.

In 1996 B.G. (before Google) such a road trip required an actual map and some faith. Keatts had an abundance of the latter when he left Ferrum College for his first coaching gig, as an assistant, at Southwestern Michigan Junior College.

Keatts didn’t know where his career would take him, but he knew he was willing to work every step of the way. From a Division III point guard to Dowagiac to Wilmington, Keatts has created his own path to become N.C. State’s 20th basketball coach.

“His story is amazing,” said Lorenzo Brown, a former N.C. State guard who played for Keatts at Hargrave Military Academy.

Keatts took an unconventional route and there were no shortcuts in two decades.

“No one has ever handed Kevin anything,” said Dave Telep, his friend and the director of scouting for the San Antonio Spurs. “He started as an apprentice and has worked every job, every step of the way.”

And it’s not just that Keatts understands all the different roles that go into building a winning basketball program, Telep said, he actually enjoys the details of the work.

“There is a part of Kevin that relishes the grind,” Telep said. “It takes a truly special person to relish the grind.”

After a total of nine ACC wins the past two seasons, Keatts will have to grind to rebuild the Wolfpack. That’s a challenge after successfully turning around the UNC-Wilmington program – which had suffered six consecutive losing seasons before he won 72 games in three years – Keatts is eager to accept.

“This is an unbelievable opportunity for me,” Keatts, 44, said. “It’s something that I don’t take for granted. I’m going to work every day like this is my last day.”

‘Humble, selfless’

There is more to coaching than hard work. Keatts’ first job included as much babysitting as coaching. He managed a dorm at Southwestern Michigan (nicknamed the Roadrunners, for the record, and they no longer field a varsity basketball team) and taught a weight-lifting class.

Keatts’ own college coach, Bill Pullen, had him pegged for a future in coaching before his first basketball game at Ferrum in 1991.

There was something about his personality that impressed Pullen, who remains close with Keatts and N.C. State assistant James Johnson (who also played at Ferrum).

“He’s just a real smooth operator,” Pullen said of Keatts.

Or to put it another way, N.C. State assistant coach Takayo Siddle described his boss as “easy to get along with.”

“He’s a humble, selfless dude,” said Siddle, who played for Keatts at Hargrave and then worked as an assistant for him at UNCW and now at N.C. State. “Off the floor, he’s going to joke around, and everything is fun.”

But there is a switch Keatts can flip.

“When you step between the lines, it’s time to work,” Siddle said. “He has a mission at hand, and he’s going to get that accomplished. He demands nothing less than maximum effort.”

That’s how Keatts was as a player. A standout point guard on the basketball team at Heritage High in Lynchburg, Va., he was also the star quarterback on the football team.

The only son of Linda and Fred, a masonry instructor at the high school, was slightly spoiled.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Keatts said of being an only child. “I got everything I wanted.”

Keatts chose Ferrum, a small, Division III program about 1 hour and 40 minutes southwest of Lynchburg, for a simple reason.

“When you can’t play, those are the schools that recruit you,” Keatts joked.

The Panthers won the Dixie Conference title and played in the NCAA tournament his freshman season (1991-1992). They won the conference regular-season title three times in his four seasons, including his senior season (1994-95). He averaged 6.7 points per game for his Ferrum career.

“I was a good, complementary player,” Keatts said. “I thought I had a decent career.”

What Pullen, who worked at Ferrum for 17 years, remembers is how Keatts was willing to do whatever the coach asked.

“That’s why we were good,” Pullen said. “Everybody had their role and knew what to do. Kevin had the ability to score, and he could have done more in a different situation, but he was able to put his ego aside and do what was best for the team.”

And what Keatts did best was lead, even when he was the newcomer to the team. Johnson, a year ahead of Keatts at Ferrum, remembers when he first played pickup with Keatts in college.

“Kevin came in and you could tell he had natural leadership skills,” Johnson said.

He also had some ups. Keatts, who’s 5-11, could catch the ball off a high bounce and dunk it with two hands. But that wasn’t what made Keatts popular with his teammates.

There’s an ingrained positivity to Keatts, to see the best in every situation, Johnson said.

“You’re never going to see him down,” said Johnson, who was Virginia Tech’s coach from 2012 to ’14. “He’s always in a good mood and that’s infectious. He can go into a room and light it up.”

Play fast and press

A positive attitude and a strong work ethic have served Keatts well. After one year at Southwestern Michigan, he began his first stint at Hargrave, back in his home state in Chatham – about an hour south of where he grew up.

He was an assistant at Hargrave, a military prep school with a post-graduate program, for two years and then the became the head coach, from 1999 until 2001.

Keatts learned a lot those first two years (while going 50-5).

“It was an opportunity actually for me to make my own mistakes,” Keatts said.

He started to formulate his own style of play. He liked to play fast and press. He wasn’t afraid to embrace the 3-pointer, either.

Loose and free with a lot of space, is the way Siddle put it. But there was a caveat to all the freedom on offense.

“As long as you give unbelievable effort on defense,” Siddle said. “You have to play as hard as you can defensively.”

Keatts briefly left Hargrave in 2001 for his first Division I coaching job, an assistant at Marshall under Greg White, for two seasons.

He returned to Hargrave in ’03 and won his first prep national title that year. He won another in ’08. In eight seasons, from ’03 to ’11, his teams lost a total of 12 games.

Impressive when you consider he had to turn over the roster every year. Even more impressive when you consider the target on Hargrave’s back.

“It’s like being the coach at the Duke of prep schools,” said ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, a friend of Keatts’. “You’re the biggest game on everyone’s schedule every night.”

Keatts recruited talent to Hargrave. He coached 103 Division I players in 10 seasons. But that’s not the only reason the Tigers won.

“It was difficult being there,” said Brown who played for Keatts at Hargrave for the 2009-10 season before his three-year career with the Wolfpack. “You had to work and coach Keatts pushed you.”

Keatts thought he was going to be a lifer at Hargrave. He married his wife, Georgette, during his first stint there and the couple had their sons, K.J. (13) and Kaden (8), during his second.

His thought process changed before the 2011-12 season. He had a chance to go to Florida, Virginia Tech or Louisville as an assistant.

“When the call came from Louisville, that was tough to say no to,” Keatts said. “One of the things that stood out to me in the interview was Rick (Pitino) said to me, ‘I don’t hire assistant coaches, I hire future head coaches.’ 

Pitino would be right but there was work to be done at Louisville first. Louisville had lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament two years in a row before Keatts joined Pitino’s staff.

In the eternal in-state race between Louisville and Kentucky, the Cards had fallen behind John Calipari’s NBA juggernaut. Keatts helped Pitino catch back up.

The Cards went to the Final Four in 2012 (and lost to Kentucky in the semifinals), but won it all the next year, with former Hargrave wing Luke Hancock winning the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Louisville, which didn’t join the ACC until the year after Keatts left for UNCW, won an average of 32 games in Keatts’ three seasons.

Pitino, whose coaching tree produced Herb Sendek for N.C. State 20 years ago, isn’t prone to hyperbole. He said Keatts is adept at recruiting, scouting and in-game strategy.

“He doesn’t have a weakness as a coach,” Pitino said.

Success at UNCW

Pitino was right again. When Keatts left for UNCW before the 2014-15 season, the Seahawks were coming off a 9-23 season and went 13-39 in conference play (Colonial Athletic Association) the three years before he was hired.

Keatts, with a mashup of his own playing style and some new tweaks he picked up from Pitino, went 18-14 his first season and 12-6 in the CAA, good enough for a first-place tie.

His second UNCW team took another step up to 25-8 and 14-4. The Seahawks won the CAA regular season and the conference tournament and put the Seahawks back in the NCAAs for the first time since 2006.

His third team, this past season, went 29-6 and 15-3. In three years in the CAA, the Seahawks made a 28-win improvement under Keatts.

UNCW repeated as double champions and returned to the NCAA tournament. They lost 76-71 to Virginia in the first round.

“There’s not a team in the ACC that’s like that,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said after the game.

On to the ACC

Still there are doubts about Keatts.

N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow’s decision to hire Keatts has been met with near universal approval, but there is one, $2.2 million question (his annual salary for the next six years):

Will his success at UNCW translate to the ACC?

Road trips to Charleston, Towson and Hofstra aren’t exactly on par with North Carolina, Duke and Louisville.

Jimmy Bass, Keatts’ boss at UNCW, understands this skepticism. But UNCW’s athletic director believes Keatts will quickly convert any hesitant fans.

“Tell you what, there won’t be any doubts once he gets going,” Bass said.

Bass, perhaps more than anyone else, is qualified to provide an answer about Keatts’ future. Bass, a 1978 N.C. State graduate, worked for his alma mater, or the Wolfpack Club, in two separate stints in the early 1980s and then from 1994 until 2005.

It isn’t a question of if, Bass said, rather when.

“He’s the consummate recruiter,” Bass said. “He’s a champion at player development. He can make adjustments during the game. The guy can just coach.”

That’s a common thread you’ll hear from everyone who knows Keatts.

“He’s a good coach,” Brown said. “And if you’re a good coach, you’re a good coach, no matter where you are.”

Or no matter how you got here.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio