If Gene Keady had his druthers, more people would know that Purdue has won two straight Big Ten titles and at the end of last week was tied for first place, with a 4-1 record, as it sought its third in a row. If the choice were his, parents of Indiana's best high school players wouldn't tell him again and again that they wouldn't think of sending their boy to play at Indiana for "that man," Bob Knight, only to send their boy off to "that man" just the same. If it were up to him, the NCAA wouldn't have assigned him over the years to such tournament sites as Memphis to play Memphis or Louisiana to play LSU. But when you coach basketball for a school Keady says non-Midwesterners mistake for "a poultry company," and you do it in the shadow of Knight, the druthers, alas, are often others'.
Keady is resigned to all that. But if he could change anything, it would be his life over the last two weeks.
Wednesday, Jan. 10. Forty minutes before Purdue is scheduled to play Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Keady is fetched from the Boilermakers' locker room to take an emergency call. His daughter Lisa, 30, has slipped in the kitchen of her home in Alpine, N.J., struck her head on the floor and lapsed into a coma. Doctors are performing brain surgery and are unsure of her chances for survival. A team manager drives Keady's wife, Pat, to O'Hare Airport for a flight to New Jersey, where she'll join their son-in-law, Glenn Sands, in the intensive-care unit at Hackensack University Medical Center. Only after coaching Purdue to its 67-51 victory does Keady tell the team of Lisa's condition. His players give him a hug and say a prayer before the drive back to West Lafayette, Ind.
As a high school sophomore in Larned, Kans., Keady was once struck in the head by a throw from a shot-putter during track practice. He actually kept on walking and didn't collapse until he got home. Keady has made light of the episode over the years—he says it proves he's literally a hardheaded Irishman—but he was rushed to a hospital and went into convulsions for three hours. A priest was brought in to perform last rites. "I've never been through what Lisa's going through, but that was close enough," he says. "There was no permanent effect, other than my being less cocky than I had been. You know how kids are: 'I'm gonna live forever.' "
Thursday, Jan. 11. Keady catches a morning flight to New Jersey to join Pat, Glenn and Lisa, who is still in critical condition. Shortly after Keady arrives, his sister, Norma Raffety, calls to tell him that their father, Lloyd 85, has died of respiratory failure in a Fair Oaks, Calif., convalescent home. The 59-year-old Keady comes as close as he ever has during his 18 years as a head coach to missing a game. But after thinking for a while about taking a plane to California, he spends the night in Jersey and on Friday afternoon heads to Newark Airport and boards a flight to Minneapolis. Because of a winter storm socking in the East Coast, it takes him 10 hours to reach his destination. Keady spends the wee hours going over scouting reports on Minnesota, the Boilermakers' opponent the next afternoon.
Order up the ideal Purdue basketball coach, and the lab would deliver this: A gruff exterior, so as not to be taken as a cream puff by the state's red-clad majority, but a soft heart, the better to play off the archrival's tyrannical leader. He would be a hellacious competitor—he would have to be to survive—but not so egomaniacal or insecure that he would let Knight or Indiana University-mania get under his skin. Most of all, he would have to be resourceful, because other than the occasional Kohoutek-like arrival of a Glenn Robinson, he would be left with the scraps that the Hoosiers pass on.
Keady is all that, and he has forged for himself an identity all his own: that of the basketball mentor as football coach. The Boilermakers were into weights long before it became trendy, and they thrived with bruisers like Jim Rowinski (class of '84) and Steve Scheffler ('90). They're always huddling up, then breaking on cue. Why, Keady calls his team's initial possession "the first play from scrimmage." Even his single professional failing—Purdue has never advanced beyond the Elite Eight of the NCAAs since he arrived there in 1980—may find an explanation of sorts in football, where coaches have always had an irrational aversion to a postseason playoff. Watching the Boilermakers make sacraments of defense and rebounding, and pounding the ball inside on their muscular way to the free throw line, you can't help but strain to hear the appropriate commentary—not from Dick Vitale but from John Madden.
In fact, Keady was a halfback at Kansas State and was drafted in the 19th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958. Cut by the Steelers too late that year to find a job coaching high school football, he took a position coaching basketball at Beloit (Kans.) High. From there he stopped over at Hutchinson (Kans.) Junior College (where, he points out, he wore a red sweater on the sidelines long before it became fashionable elsewhere), Arkansas (where his boss, Eddie Sutton, so respected him that Sutton calls Keady "the only assistant I let get technicals") and Western Kentucky (where he served as head coach for two seasons until the Boilermakers hired him).
If Indiana University's higher profile really bothered him, Keady says, "I'd leave—I could have left lots of times." Numerous schools, and even the Indiana Pacers, all sniffed around him, yet always he chose to stay, reasoning that, deep down, he's happy. And he really is, notwithstanding his TV image as a snarler, with his eyes narrow and his arms folded so tightly across his chest that he seems to be giving himself the Heimlich maneuver. According to Keady, Mike Ditka once told him, "You got me off the hook, because I could always tell my wife, 'See, there's a guy worse than I am!' "
"I don't know if I'll ever change the image of looking mean," says Keady. "I don't feel mean."