By an extraordinary coincidence, the field of the 1978 NCAA basketball championship tournament included schools which were once coached by four of the men who have done the most to shape the modern game: Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Rhode Island.
Rhode Island mentioned in the same breath as three superpowers of modern basketball? Even the casual fan is at least acquainted with the legends of Phog Allen, Adolph Rupp and John Wooden. But who, he might ask, was Frank W. Keaney. Well, Keaney of Rhode Island probably did more than any other coach to transform basketball into a running game emphasizing speed and stamina. It was Keaney who originated the fast break, which revolutionized the game of basketball as much as the forward pass changed football.
In 28 years at Rhode Island, Keaney had a 403-124 record, but those numbers scarcely measure his achievement. He turned a game of patterned plodding into 40 minutes of frenzied excitement while overflow crowds howled their approval. In an era when most teams scored barely 40 or 50 points a game, Rhode Island averaged nearly 80. In 1939 the Rams routed the University of Maine 100-56, and a year later they romped over Connecticut 102-81 in what was at the time the highest scoring college game ever played.
"Our won-loss record wasn't what drew people," says Earl Shannon, a Rhode Island star in the early '40s. "It was our two points a minute." Rodman Gym was packed for every home game, and the Rams filled rival arenas as well. In 1940 they drew 15,590 in their Madison Square Garden debut and they attracted 18,341 when they returned to New York to play in the National Invitational Tournament.
A portly, wide-faced Irishman, Keaney belonged to the old-fashioned school of coaching that stressed character over technique. "My psychology of it is that you've got to feel victory to win," he declared.
"As far as techniques of the game, he was probably the worst coach I ever had," says Ernie Calverley, who played for Keaney from 1942 to 1946 and was his most celebrated player, still renowned for his 58-foot shot against Bowling Green in the 1946 NIT quarterfinals. "But as far as being able to psych the team up for games, he was super. He had a great way with all his players, from substitutes to stars."
Keaney also had a restless imagination and a flair for showmanship. The fast break was only the most spectacular product of his maverick genius; there was a touch of originality in everything he did. A native of Boston, Keaney graduated from Bates in 1911 as a Phi Beta Kappa. He played professional baseball and coached high school sports before Rhode Island hired him in 1920 as athletic director, coach and chemistry instructor. He worked hard, coaching several sports at the small state college and using his chemistry laboratory to concoct liniment and athlete's foot preparations. He even produced a light-blue dye, known as "Keaney blue," which replaced the school's official color, royal blue, on team uniforms.
In football, basketball and baseball Keaney's teams lacked size and numbers. "We had so few people on the football team," recalls Bob Lepper, who played in the '30s, "that the right side of the line had to scrimmage against the left side." To compensate, Keaney stressed conditioning, seeking both to outlast opponents and to minimize injuries. His players were expected to play every minute of the game. "You aren't in shape unless you can run around the bases, stand on home plate and whistle Yankee Doodle," he informed the baseball team. To the injured he proclaimed, "You can't be hurt at Rhode Island; it's against the rules."
While stamina kept his outnumbered players in the game, Keaney's ingenuity made them winners. Impatient with the conservative style of play then in fashion, he searched for ways to open up the games. His baseball teams ran opponents dizzy. In football he was one of the first to use the double-wing, running it with double and triple laterals that flabbergasted coaches who regarded a thrown football with the same apprehension they would a live grenade. The fast break was the logical extension of this impulse to basketball.
Keaney installed an offense geared to quick passes after each center jump or rebound. To verify his premise that "if we shoot more, we'll make more," he kept careful charts of all shots taken. His 1928-29 team (15-1, 41 points a game) was the first to earn fame as a "point a minute" team, an average that rose steadily in succeeding years. When the center jump after each basket was eliminated in 1937, Keaney unleashed the fast break in earnest, and Rhode Island's 1937-38 team raced to a 19-2 record while averaging a national-record 67.3 points a game.