It all happened so fast in June 2010.
One minute, Kevin McKenna was head coach of the Indiana State men’s basketball program. Then — poof! — he was gone.
McKenna resigned from his head coaching position at ISU on June 13, 2010 to take an assistant coach position on Dana Altman’s then-burgeoning University of Oregon staff.
And other than a statement he released via Oregon at the time he was hired by Altman, McKenna really was gone. He came back to Terre Haute a few times to attend to his affairs and both of his children — Megan and Bobby — remained in Indiana after he departed.
But as far as the public is concerned, McKenna’s break with ISU and the Terre Haute community was Keyser Soze-like in its thoroughness. Part of it was that he was in the far away Pacific Northwest, part of is that Greg Lansing was/is a long-time popular fixture and took ISU to the NCAA Tournament in his first season.
But most of it is simply that McKenna was from the start and to the end a very private man as far as the public is concerned.
McKenna never really said goodbye to ISU and that’s kind of a shame because he did get ISU pointed in the right direction. You have to go back to Bob King in 1978 to find an ISU coach who left with a winning record in his final season as McKenna did after a 17-15 season in 2010. The Sycamores were 43-52 overall in McKenna’s three seasons at the helm.
There were some ISU fans upset at the time that he left ISU’s head coach position to take an assistant coaching position. I think most fans understood — either at the time or as time passed — that he was more comfortable in this position he took at Oregon.
He was also getting more money. McKenna is being paid $300,000 this season according to the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard, $100,000 more than he was being paid by ISU. Until ISU demonstrates that it can pay closer to market value for head coaches, these things will happen, and one can’t really blame McKenna for that.
To my knowledge, McKenna never spoke to the local media about his departure at the time. Full disclosure: McKenna and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye — and that’s putting it mildly at various junctures of his three years — but that’s normal for coaches and the media to clash. I don’t hold any grudges.
Given all of that, it was good to see McKenna relaxed and content at Lucas Oil Stadium late Friday night, even in the wake of Oregon’s 77-69 loss to Louisville in the Midwest Regional semifinal. With the Ducks playing in the Sweet 16, it’s obviously a happy place for McKenna to be.
“We started off really well at the beginning, we had a few bumps, like every team does, we lost our point guard [Dominic Artis] for nine games and it took a while to get re-adjusted when he came,” McKenna said. “We played really well in the conference tournament and really well against Oklahoma State and Saint Louis and for about 20 minutes [Friday]. Louisville is really tough, athletic and fast and just get stuck on our heels early.”
From 21-18 in 2011, to 24-10 in 2012, to 28-9 and a Sweet 16 appearance in 2013, the Ducks have improved in each of Altman’s seasons. Oregon was under-seeded as a No. 12 in the Midwest Region, but proved the NCAA selection committee wrong by beating Oklahoma State and Saint Louis.
“Our first couple of years we felt like we were just trying to get competitive to attract some players up there. I think we showed we have some good players. We have a pair of freshman guards [Artis and Damyean Dotson] who really came along and that’ll be really good down the road,” McKenna said. “We’ve got great resources. Obviously, Nike is right up the street and does a great job. Mr. [Phil] Knight does a great job of supporting us and coming to our games and being a good donor to our program.”
As for ISU, McKenna stated Friday what he stated in 2010, that the move to Oregon to join Altman’s staff was a career-move he felt was in his best interest to make.
“From my standpoint, it was a good change. I miss a lot of things about Indiana State and Terre Haute, but for my career, it’s been very good for me,” McKenna said.
It doesn’t mean he doesn’t keep tabs on his former team. Three Sycamores — Lucas Eitel, Jake Odum and R.J. Mahurin — were signed by McKenna and sat out their true freshman seasons as redshirts during McKenna’s final season at ISU.
“Whenever they’re on TV, I try to catch their games. Obviously, Greg and Lou [Gudino, now ISU’s associate head coach, who was hired by McKenna in 2007] have done a really nice job there,” McKenna said.
“Those guys I brought to Indiana State, I’ve really liked the progress that Jake has made over the years. R.J. and a lot of those guys who redshirted and weren’t playing for us then have really proven out to be good players and really good representatives for Indiana State,” he added.
McKenna has kept tabs on the changes in the Missouri Valley Conference too. His alma mater, Creighton, is leaving the MVC for the rebooted Big East next season. McKenna was an All-MVC second team player for the Bluejays in 1980 and 1981 and was part of two successful staffs under Altman at Creighton in the 1990s and 2000s.
“Creighton leaving? It’s going to be a step up for them for sure. With the way the landscape has changed, nothing surprises me anymore. Where can a school feel like they get the best economic situation for their school? Loyalty goes by the wayside sometimes, but I think the Valley will survive and still continue to be a quality basketball league,” McKenna said.
And he feels ISU can be a contender within the new-look MVC.
“It’s a totally different landscape now with Creighton having been one of the better programs over the years in the league. There’s going to be a shift of power. With the guys that ISU has coming back, they can be right in the middle of it next year. Jake is a big part of that and gets the team going in the right direction. Greg’s done a good job bringing in talent there,” McKenna said.
Meanwhile, McKenna will keep helping Oregon to try and do the same in the Pac-12 Conference. He seemed happy — and at the end of the day — that’s all that really matters. Good luck to him.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.