Day 3: Purdue | Traveling Violations
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – So coach, about the hair.
"I like it," Gene Keady growls, one of his preferred forms of communication. "That's all that counts, right?"
Well, it should. Keady is about to coach his 25th season at Purdue, following which he'll retire. His overachieving teams won six Big Ten championships and made 17 NCAA tournament appearances thus far, mainly because this old-school coach made them defend and rebound and defend some more.
Keady won ugly here. Keady won his way. Keady wasn't much for slick. Image meant nothing. This is a roll-up-your-sleeves area of the country, a mix of farms and factory towns. Who cares about hair?
Just work hard and everything will be OK.
"I don't know why people are so concerned with it," Keady laughs. "You must have dull lives to worry about my hair."
Keady's hair is a phenomenon, regardless. This season, the Purdue student section will wear T-shirts that read: "The Gene Pool: We'll comb you over." (Keady and his wife signed off on the idea.)
Keady once appeared on Letterman and read a Top-10 list on personal grooming.
"The Letterman thing was fun," he says. "[In 2000] we played the first and second round of the NCAA tournament in Tucson. I was asleep at the hotel and my wife was watching television. Then she shook me awake and said, 'Do you know what David Letterman said about your hair?' … He was showing some big picture of me and I looked like a dip(expletive) because, hell, I act like one half the time. He kept showing it throughout the NCAA tournament.
"In April my [sports information director] gets a call; they want me on the show. They say I can get even with him, get my equal. … About three, four weeks later, we go visit our daughter in New Jersey and I go on. I did a Top-10 list on the proper way to groom.
"It was fun."
And he didn't change his haircut.
In the increasingly telegenic world of college basketball, Keady's blue-collar appeal is going to be sorely missed.
He is retiring in part, he says, because "our record isn't worth [expletive] and I don't like wasting people's time." He says kids haven't changed through the years, but parents have. "Parents don't make their kids do anything anymore." He's most depressed that Purdue's defense has been so-so lately.
That's Keady. No nonsense, no apologies, straight up.
He grew up on a farm way out in Larned, Kan. – "between Dodge City and Great Bend." He built his career not because he was a famous player or had a powerful mentor, but by coaching high school and junior college, eventually working his way up to Western Kentucky and then, in 1980, Purdue.
What he inherited was a program trying to compete against Bob Knight's Indiana juggernaut. In Indiana, the Hoosiers enjoy the most fans, the most media, the most hype.
For Purdue to hold its own all these years, to play all of those passionate, prideful games against IU during the 1980s and '90s, to always be good and often great, is a testament to the coach.
He won with lots of talent and with little talent. One stretch in the 1990s he won three consecutive Big Ten titles. Twice he reached the Elite Eight only to just miss out on that coveted Final Four. He made Purdue matter.
None of this is possible if you are so unsure of yourself you worry about what people are saying about your hair.
"I was brought up to out-work you and not worry about who I am going to impress," Keady says.
After 25 years at Purdue, he'll leave behind a lot of impressed people.