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Billy Kennedy undeterred by foes using his Parkinson’s to sway recruits away from Texas A&M

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Billy Kennedy (AP)

Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy has a message for recruits who have heard whispers from opposing staffs that he may only have a year or two left on the bench.

He wants them to know it's a lie.

Even though doctors informed him two years ago the lingering pain and weakness he was experiencing in his left arm were symptoms of early-onset Parkinson's disease, Kennedy insists he feels healthier than he did even before the diagnosis. He has cut out fast food and high-cholesterol meals from his diet. He exercises more regularly. And he is moving so well these days that he still often plays games of one-on-one with his players.

"It angers me when people tell recruits I may not coach much longer because it's coming from people who don't really know me," Kennedy said. "I'm in the best health I've ever been in my whole life. I don't really have any symptoms right now to be honest with you. Nobody would even know my situation if they saw me."

Kennedy's health has become a hot-button issue this week because opposing coaches have made it one. In a sad indictment of the win-at-all-costs mentality in college athletics, Texas A&M commit Alex Robinson told CBSSports.com on Tuesday other coaches tried to dissuade him from joining the Aggies by noting Kennedy's disease could dictate he step down long before Robinson's college career was over.

At a time when recruiting in men's and women's basketball is so cutthroat that coaches will use age, health or sexual orientation against a rival, Kennedy says he's not surprised to learn other staffs have brought up his Parkinson's diagnosis. The 47-year-old is adamant the tactic is mean-spirited and immoral but also is hopeful it's a rarity rather than a regular occurrence.

"I learned a long time ago all is fair in love, war and recruiting, so I'm not surprised people would bring up something about my health," Kennedy said. "There are some insecure assistants in high-profile programs that do whatever they have to do to get a player. But that's not the norm. I don't think most people are that way."

Kennedy is smart not to be shocked opposing coaches would suggest his health may be an issue only because such vile tactics have been used in the past.

Steve Lavin told reporters in Jan. 2012 that he had to reassure prospects he'd soon return to the bench because opposing coaches were using his season-long hiatus due to prostate cancer recovery as a tool in negative recruiting. And former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden admitted he kept secret he had prostate cancer in 2007 for four years out of fear opposing coaches would tell top recruits he was about to die.

"Maybe it ain't right, but that's the way the game is played," Bowden told ESPN's Outside the Lines two years ago. "Every coach is looking for an in-roads, something where I could get this good player, someway to get him to come to my school and not go to his school."

For Kennedy, the price of allowing friends and colleagues to help him through his illness has been figuring out how to fight back against the negative recruiting.

Such tactics were more common when Kennedy was first diagnosed with Parkinson's than they are now, but the Texas A&M coach still takes a proactive approach by discussing his health openly with recruits and their parents. He tells them Parkinson's disease is an incurable, degenerative neurological disorder that affects motor skills, but some people are able to live for years or even decades with only mild symptoms.

"People ask me how I'm doing, and I tell them I'm doing great," Kennedy said. "A lot of kids don't even know my situation unless somebody made them aware. Most important to parents is they just want to know I'm going to be there to coach their kids."

Whatever Kennedy is doing to diffuse the negative recruiting, it seems to have been fairly effective so far. Though Texas A&M has missed the NCAA tournament both of Kennedy's first two seasons and graduated leading scorer Elston Turner last spring, the Aggies seem to be headed for an upswing thanks to the young talent in the program.

Sophomore guards J-Mychal Reese and Alex Caruso were highly touted recruits, though both struggled at times as freshmen. Columbian freshman forward Tony Trocha shined on the international stage and could have an immediate impact if he's cleared by the NCAA to play at some point this season. And Robinson is a top 75 prospect likely to contribute right away when he joins the Aggies in 2014.

It's deplorable and shameful Kennedy has had to recruit amid whispers he won't be able to coach much longer, but he should be proud of what he has accomplished so far. He should also be proud of the strides he's taken to improve his diet and conditioning in hopes Parkinson's disease won't force him from the bench anytime soon.

"Michael J. Fox has had Parkinson's for 20-plus years, and is starting a sitcom this week," Kennedy said. "I'm praying and believing it won't affect me for a long while."

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