One of the most challenging stories I ever wrote while working as a sports writer was a feature on then-Murray State head men’s basketball coach Billy Kennedy.
The Racers had just won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament back in 2010, and I had been granted a 1-on-1 interview with Kennedy to write an in-depth profile feature before the Racers entered the NCAA tournament.
The questions I asked him ranged from his childhood, to career goals, to faith.
Billy was a Louisiana boy, and craved his native Cajun food flair that couldn’t be found in western Kentucky.
Billy’s ultimate goal was to win an NCAA National Championship. “Can you do that while at Murray State?” I remember asking, trying to bait him a little.
He gave me a sly smile, knowing full well what I was asking him, and said it would be highly unlikely to bring Murray State a national title.
I had come to his office in the bowels of Roy Stewart Stadium in Murray, Ky., armed with dozens of questions and a yellow legal pad that day. When I met him there, he was sitting at his desk, hand-writing a letter.
The one thing that always stood out to me about Billy Kennedy was his unwavering faith. Kennedy was a Christian, and lived his life in faithful fashion for Christ.
He wasn’t preachy about his faith. In fact, on the outside, Kennedy isn’t fiery about much of anything. Kennedy isn’t the kind of coach to wail or blast or offer up bubbling praise in interviews and press conferences, but he often spoke of the team and himself as being “blessed.” When someone uses the term “blessed” it usually implies there’s someone out there doing the blessing. For Kennedy’s case, it was God.
I began my career at The Paducah Sun in 2007 fresh out of college, and getting to observe the Kennedy family helped rekindle my faith. I had interviewed Kennedy’s wife, Mary, and youngest daughter, Anna Cate, while traveling with the team on a road game. Mary’s devotion to “Coach” was palpable, and the pair never missed a game. They still don’t. It was a beautiful marriage, seen from the outside, a couple who are devoted to supporting each other and bound together through Christ.
The story I wrote about Kennedy was extremely personal for me. Kennedy was someone I not only respected, but I truly admired. He was a star in my eyes, and now I had to tell his story. To be honest, I had broken journalism’s cardinal rule of objectivity: I was a fan of Billy Kennedy.
I labored over the story. I completely discarded the first draft. The second draft worked, and is what I wound up printing, but it still wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
A week later, I experienced the highlight of my sports career. I watched and reported on Murray State upsetting Vanderbilt in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in San Jose with Kennedy at the helm. Senior forward Danero Thomas hit a jumper as time expired to give the Racers’ only their second NCAA tourney win up to that point and first since the late ’80s. (Watch the pandemonium here.…I still get chills!)
Kennedy left Murray State in 2011 to take the head coaching job at Texas A&M, what he called his “dream job” after coaching there as an assistant several years prior.
But life wasn’t perfect for the Aggies’ new head coach. At the same time he was packing up and moving to College Station, Kennedy was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. His stress level spiraled out of control, and he was forced to take a three-week leave of absence from his new team and convalesce.
Despite some years of personal and professional struggle, Kennedy is on top once again. Kennedy and the Aggies are 26-8, and won a share of the Southeastern Conference regular season title and are SEC tournament runners-up. He and the Aggies will get a chance to truly compete for that national title Kennedy’s dreams are made of once the NCAA tournament begins next week.
From my limited perspective following the Aggies this season, the team, like most of Kennedy’s teams, seem to be a reflection of the head coach.
Deflect the spotlight.
Kennedy’s approach to coaching, and life in general, is still what makes me think of him often. I run hot or cold. High or low. I’m hyperbole and superlatives. Best. Worst. You won’t believe this! But Kennedy runs level at all times. He doesn’t get mad. He doesn’t get particularly gleeful. He’s not up, he’s not down. He’s steady.
At the times when I’m exhausted because I can’t keep up with my roller coaster emotions, I think of Kennedy. I think of Kennedy’s approach to faith: steady, solid, stable, lived, breathed. He’s governed himself with grace and peace, and I wish I could do the same.
So here I am, attempting to tell another story about Kennedy. I’m grateful our paths crossed so many years ago, and I’m thrilled he’s seeing the success he so much deserves.
Now if you excuse me, I’ll be an Aggies fan the next few weeks.