March 17, 2012

McCready: UM needs to commit to Kennedy

UAB fired Mike Davis Friday. One of the first names that popped up as a potential replacement was Ole Miss' Andy Kennedy.

It's far too early to say the speculation is warranted that Kennedy would leave Oxford for his alma mater is warranted, but it's absurd to rule it out, either.

Kennedy, after six seasons, has no assurances that Ole Miss is ready to extend its commitment to him. He doesn't know who is boss is, who it will, when he will be named or how he will feel about Kennedy's status going forward. Will Kennedy be given a one-year ultimatum or will the new boss provide some assurances and security moving forward. All of these things are unknowns.

That might be good news for a segment of the Ole Miss fan base that only looks at one line on Kennedy's resume: Six seasons, zero NCAA tournament appearances. My word of caution to those who have been overcome with a certain degree of, for lack of a better term, bloodlust: Be careful what you wish for.

In six seasons at Ole Miss, Kennedy has accumulated a 125-79 record. Only Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State have amassed a better winning percentage. In the same time period, Ole Miss is tied with Alabama for sixth in overall Southeastern Conference wins (46).

That's just part of the story, of course. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Ole Miss was 12th in the SEC in men's basketball budget, spending $3.306 million (statistics accumulated during the 2009-10 season). The Rebels pulled in, according to the same study, some $6.821 million in the same year, yielding a profilt of $3.515 million, good for eighth in the SEC.

No, Kennedy hasn't led Ole Miss to the NCAA tournament. He's been remarkably close in at least four of his six seasons, sure, but he'll be the first to tell you close doesn't count. That failure to earn an invitation to college basketball's penultimate tournament has become quite an albatross, and again, no one knows that better than Kennedy.

But it's important _ no, it's absolutely critical _ to acknowledge that Ole Miss, beyond any shade of a doubt, is the toughest job in the SEC. The program has three NCAA tournament wins in its history. The program has virtually no NBA presence at all. Its all-century team is a who's who of Who? It plays in an arena that looks as if it could lift off the ground and return to the mother ship at any time. History shows recruiting top-flight basketball players to Ole Miss is remarkably difficult. Maintaining success has proven to be near impossible.

Yet Kennedy has consistently recruited talent and had Ole Miss in the NCAA bubble discussion in early- to mid-March. In the history of the program, no Ole Miss coach other than Kennedy has amassed 125 wins over six years.

Beginning next season, the SEC will add Missouri and Texas A&M to the fold, two programs that have been far more committed historically to basketball than Ole Miss. In other words, the job will only get tougher. Kennedy knows that. So does every other college basketball coach in the country.

A couple of weeks ago, someone on the message board began comparing his first six seasons to those of one of his peers, Florida's Billy Donovan. The comparison was meant to be favorable to Kennedy, and the numbers were interesting. However, the comparison was comical. Think pineapples to pine cones. First, Ole Miss isn't Florida; just take a look at financial and natural resources. Any objective comparison should go further than that, however. At Florida, Donovan has worked for and with Jeremy Foley, one of the best A.D.s in collegiate athletics. Kennedy has worked for Pete Boone. Do I have to go further? Donovan tells Foley what he needs to win, and Foley gets it done. Kennedy has to make sure he turns the lights off when he leaves the office. Those electric bills can be a booger bear.

Ole Miss has every right to do what it wants to do. If it wants to go in a different direction, it has that prerogative. However, the powers that be _ whoever they are these days _ need to address Kennedy's situation quickly.

From talking to people close to Kennedy, I get the impression he wants to remain at Ole Miss and finish what he's started. The Rebels return seven of their top eight players next season. They're adding a strong recruiting class, one with a mix of youth and experience that should make for a deep roster.

That said, Kennedy's no fool. Without some assurances that he's got time (no coach with options hangs around in a win-next-year-or-else scenario), Kennedy would be crazy not to kick the tires at UAB. Several prominent Blazer boosters want to bring Kennedy back to his alma mater, feeling that would excite a lagging fan base. They look at the job Kennedy has done in Oxford and believe he's overachieved. Once Memphis leaves Conference USA, UAB will have a clear path to league titles. They believe Kennedy would excel on flat ground.

Kennedy's coaching legacy will be defined by NCAA tournament trips. As Syracuse's Jim Boeheim said recently, that's all that matters in college basketball anymore. Eventually, he has to get there or he won't be a head coach. He knows that. However, I believe Ole Miss is making a mistake not locking Kennedy up in Oxford for a few more years.

A coaching search in the current environment, while sure to provide comedic relief for those of us who would be following it, could be disastrous for a program that seems oh so close to breaking through. A recruiting class would be lost. Momentum would be, too.

Ole Miss, in my opinion, can't afford that right now. Building a program from the absolute depths of the SEC is a painstaking chore. Kennedy has taken rock-bottom SEC resources and made the Rebels a middle-of-the-pack program. Instead of putting itself in a situation where it's searching for Kennedy's replacement, Ole Miss should strongly consider enhancing its commitment to basketball, expediting the building of a new arena and give Kennedy an athletic director more like Foley and less like Boone.

There's no guarantee the next guy would do better. In fact, there's more than 100 years of history indicating that he'd probably do much, much worse. Ole Miss has to decide whether it's willing to take that chance, and in my opinion, it might have to make that decision very soon.

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