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Steve Rushin
January 28, 1991
Keith Jennings, the little big man they call Mister, has led East Tennessee State to the big time
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January 28, 1991

Hey, Mister

Keith Jennings, the little big man they call Mister, has led East Tennessee State to the big time

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For now it is the Southern Conference schedule that weighs heavily on LeForce, a Kentucky native who left a Charleston, S.C., high school team five years ago to become an assistant to Robinson with the Bucs. He is just now adjusting to signing autographs during lunch at Bennigan's in Johnson City, where the check mysteriously never makes it to the table.

A salad platter on the house couldn't happen to a more deserving man. He's a guy who so admired onetime Kentucky football coach Bear Bryant that he wears a similarly unstylish, albeit uncheckered, hat. He coached high school and small-college basketball for 33 years, beginning with a $1,975 a year position in his hometown at Williamsburg (Ky.) High, where he taught seven phys-ed classes, assisted the football coach, drove a school bus and coached the basketball team.

"I occasionally interviewed for some Division I jobs, and I really got discouraged," says the soft-spoken LeForce, who was named the Bucs' coach two days after Robinson left. "I finally said, 'I'm just not going to make it.' Yes, this has been like a dream."

Last weekend LeForce dreamed while on a dark bus ride through Sam's Gap in the Smoky Mountains, on the way to Cullowhee, N.C., to play Western Carolina. Between Dec. 16, 1984, when a plane carrying the East Tennessee State basketball team from Birmingham to Oxford, Miss., crash-landed in Jasper, Ala. (there were no serious injuries), and Nov. 30, 1988, when the Bucs had no choice but to fly to Syracuse for a game against the Orangemen, the team traveled exclusively by bus. Last season the Bucs flew off to Hawaii, where they lost by five to Maryland and hammered Chaminade. On the way home from Hawaii, the jet-lagged Bucs were blown out of Pauley Pavilion by UCLA.

After that game, an interested spectator told the Bucs how highly he thought of them in spite of their performance that night. John Wooden was another coach LeForce had always admired, and his words represented respect, something the Bucs had long been craving.

Even now, as a favorite of the pollsters, the team still measures respect by a one-sentence mention on ESPN. "They usually just flash our score," says Jennings. "But the other night, they said, 'Marty Story was the story with 23 points as East Tennessee beat the Citadel.' So people are beginning to talk."

After their 93-76 win over Western Carolina on Saturday, the Bucs once again ascended into the Smoky Mountains, where Geer, who grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., told a story in the dark: "East Tennessee played at North Carolina my senior year in high school, after I signed my letter of intent," he said. "I was in the stands with a lot of friends. Carolina won by 50 or 60. My friends were all asking me, "Why in the world would you go there?' "

It has taken some of these players four years to phrase a response, but they are satisfied that it is a good one.

Why in the world would you go there? "When we all get our degrees, and we're all alumni sitting in the stands, we can say, 'We started this," says West. "We started this when there were 200 people at the games.' And that will be a good feeling."

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