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Star-Telegram.com

New Texas A&M's new basketball coach will install faster pace

Posted Thursday, Jul. 07, 2011

By Jimmy Burch

jburch@star-telegram.com

COLLEGE STATION -- Texas A&M point guard Dash Harris has yet to play a game for the school's new men's basketball coach.

But he's seen enough, through various interactions at Reed Arena, to raise his personal level of expectations for Billy Kennedy and the Aggies' program to uncharted territory. As one of three veteran leaders returning from a 24-9 team, Harris suggested Kennedy could be the missing ingredient to lead the Aggies to a Big 12 title and lengthy NCAA Tournament run that never unfolded under predecessor Mark Turgeon, who left in May to take over the Maryland program.

"This team can be great. I think 'good' is an understatement," Harris said before a recent conditioning session at the Aggies' home arena. "And I think, under coach Kennedy's tutelage, we have an even better chance of meeting some of those expectations next season. Not only winning conference, but going deep into the tournament and doing big things."

Harris said he is encouraged because Kennedy has expressed plans to "pick up the pace of our play a lot" -- the coach's stated goal is to score within the first seven seconds of the shot clock -- without sacrificing stops on the defensive end. Given the configuration of the Aggies' roster, Harris said the move to a more up-tempo style is "something that a lot of guys have been wanting to do for a while" and he envisions the transition being smooth because Kennedy, 47, has posted the best record in school history at the last two stops on his head coaching journey: Murray State (31-5 in 2009-10) and Southeastern Louisiana (24-9 in 2004-05).

"He's taken programs from almost nothing and won with them," Harris said. "Now, he's stepping into a... nationally known program with guys that have great talent, like my teammates do. It should make it a lot easier for him to make the transition."

From a hands-on perspective, the transition begins July 26, when players begin practicing for a four-game exhibition tour in Europe from Aug. 8-17. The Aggies will play two games in Switzerland against the Swiss National Team and two games in France against an undetermined opponent during a stretch Kennedy envisions as a "team-building experience" between members of a first-year coaching staff and a group of inherited players signed by Turgeon.

But the bottom line, said Kennedy, is clear every time he crosses paths with Gary Blair, coach of the A&M women's team that won the 2011 national championship. It marked A&M's first NCAA basketball title by a team of either gender.

"I don't know if it ratchets things up from a pressure standpoint because we'll put pressure on ourselves, no matter what," Kennedy said. "But it shows it can be done. If you can get the best players from around here, you can contend for a national championship.... We need to be the next team to get a championship."

Kennedy's blueprint for leading the Aggies in that direction is derived from a defense-first philosophy instilled by his stepfather, Kevin Trower, who served as Kennedy's high school basketball coach in New Orleans before joining the family after Kennedy enrolled in college.

"He's still Coach Trower to me in a lot of ways," said Kennedy, who plans to have Trower, 76, drop by A&M practices to offer occasional insights while staffers install a defensive system designed to feature man-to-man pressure "95 percent" of the time. "I give him a lot of credit. He gave me my belief system on how the game needs to be played... to keep it simple and stick with it defensively. I've adopted that philosophy everywhere I've been as a head coach."

Kennedy's lone regret? Not being savvy enough as a teenager to pick up on any subtle signs that Trower might be headed toward a deeper relationship in his life than coach-player.

"I would have shot the ball a lot more, had I known there was more involved," Kennedy said of his high school career, which paved the way for him to graduate from Southeastern Louisiana, the school he led to the Lions' first NCAA Tournament berth in 2005.

Stepping back

Immediately after that milestone moment at his alma mater, which included a second consecutive Southland Conference title, Kennedy took a step back in responsibility to take a step up in competition. He joined the staff of then-Miami (Fla.) coach Frank Haith, who's now at Missouri, to learn the inner workings of coaching and recruiting in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Without that willingness to become "uncomfortable" as an assistant coach after eight seasons overseeing small-school programs in Louisiana, Kennedy -- an A&M assistant in 1990-91 under Kermit Davis -- said he never would have acquired the skills necessary to return to College Station for what he considers "a destination job" where he hopes to hang his coaching whistle until he retires.

"The track record of Southland Conference coaches getting the next job, for whatever reason, isn't good. And wrongfully so, I think," Kennedy said. "But the [bigger programs] just don't look there.... At Southeastern, we had maxed the program out. And when it comes to recruiting, you have a bigger stick and a bigger name when you say you come from the ACC and Miami. People are a lot more receptive to hearing what you have to say."

Haith described Kennedy as "a great man and also a great coach" who has the skills necessary to extend the Aggies' streak of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances under predecessors Turgeon and Billy Gillispie, the first-year coach at Texas Tech.

"Coming to Miami gave him a chance to stretch himself. I think that helped him," Haith said. "Billy is a quality, all-around guy... He will be able to do what Billy and Mark have done."

Kennedy, who worked as a part-time scout for the San Antonio Spurs during his initial stint at A&M, has maintained relationships through the years with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, a person Kennedy identified as a mentor and "one of my better friends in the business."

What lessons has Kennedy gleaned from Buford?

"The biggest thing I've learned from him is to develop those people around you and help them get jobs. If you focus on developing people and caring about them, it will come back ten-fold," Kennedy said. "Basketball-wise, I've stolen a lot of what they do. We do a lot of the same things offensively. But we have to do it without Tim Duncan."

Buford described Kennedy as a "very good team-builder" as well as a "high-character person" who will win his share of games while stressing family values to his players. Another NBA executive with ties to Kennedy, Sacramento Kings assistant general manager Shareef Abdur-Raheem, expressed similar thoughts.

Abdur-Raheem, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, was recruited by Kennedy to play at California when Kennedy was a Golden Bears assistant coach. Abdur-Raheem's younger brother, Amir, played for Kennedy at Southeastern Louisiana and coached with him at Murray State.

Ideally, Abdur-Raheem said he would like for his 9-year-old son to play for Kennedy if his son develops into a Division I prospect because Kennedy "has remained the same, all of these years."

"When I was recruited, it was about how you carry yourself, both on and off the basketball court," Abdur-Raheem said. "It was about the total person. I know Billy would... help develop the entire person."

Harris said Kennedy's family-oriented style -- the coach's 6-year-old daughter, Anna Cate, is a regular office visitor -- has been apparent since Kennedy was hired on May 15.

"He really seems to love family," Harris said. "That always helps, because on the floor, you have to be a family. You have to form that brotherhood. When your head coach has that motto, that makes it much easier for guys to buy in."

Open-door policy

Khris Middleton, a 6-foot-7 forward who is the Aggies' top returning scorer from last season (14.4 avg.), indicated the buy-in process began during Kennedy's initial address to the team. The primary topics: A&M will have fun, work hard and stress defense. And the coach's door is open to any player who wants to talk. About basketball or life in general.

"My impression has been really good of coach Kennedy," Middleton said. "He told me he was going to push me and push everybody... We'll definitely play a little more pressure defense. I think that would be good for us."

From all indications, Kennedy -- a huge New Orleans Saints fan who grew up playing football -- embraces the football-first culture of A&M more than Turgeon, who was enticed by Maryland's reputation as a basketball school in the ACC. Kennedy's compensation package of $1 million per year is roughly half of what Turgeon was slated to make next season, although it represents a huge jump from Kennedy's $275,000 deal at Murray State.

"I love football. So it doesn't bother me at all being at a so-called 'football school,'" said Kennedy, whose affection for his employer is evident (sort of) in the names of his oldest daughter (Alexandra Marie) and his youngest son, Brooks. Kennedy said he lobbied for his daughter, now a student at Louisiana Tech, to have the A and M initials because she was born during his lone season as an A&M assistant. His son, he said, is named after UTSA men's basketball coach Brooks Thompson, who played at A&M when Kennedy was an assistant and later worked on Kennedy's Southeastern Louisiana staff in 2000-01.

"My youngest son's name is Brooks because we liked the name and we like Brooks," Kennedy said. "So we got two names out of that one year here."

Now, Kennedy is back and in charge of the Aggies' program. He may get animated at times, he said, but it won't be a habit. During his early days at Murray State, Kennedy said he drew criticism from fans who thought he was "too laid-back" until he started winning enough games to quiet the critics. He plans on taking a similar approach in Aggieland.

"That's who I am. I'm able to get my point across in practice and behind closed doors. So I don't have to do it during games," said Kennedy, who lists basketball coaches John Wooden, Dean Smith, Eddie Sutton and Roy Williams, along with football coach Tony Dungy, among his primary coaching role models. "That's more me than Bob Knight. I heard Bob Knight speak at a clinic when I was 19 and he said, 'Be yourself. Everybody can't be like me.' Then he called himself a few choice words. That hit home with me."

These days, Kennedy considers himself back home at a program where he has spent only one previous season in a nomadic coaching career that began in 1985. But he's already sold Harris on his potential to lift the program to the next level.

He's also made a believer of athletic director Bill Byrne, who noted that a colleague called Kennedy "the silent assassin" during A&M's coaching search because of Kennedy's ability to produce at a high level while operating under the radar. Kennedy embraces the nickname.

"I like that," Kennedy said. "There's some truth to that. You look at my track record, I've climbed the ladder a little bit different than a lot of people... but I'm where I want to be. I plan on retiring here."

Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

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