Pat Kelsey has been named the 22nd head coach in University of Massachusetts men’s basketball history, it was announced by Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford on Tuesday.
With that one sentence, one of the more remarkable runs in Winthrop basketball history came to a close.
There are two different sides to this: the professional and the personal. I’ll cover both in this space. Before I proceed, let it be known that I am not a Winthrop beat writer — Bret McCormick does an outstanding job in that role — but I do cover the Big South, and my travels often lead me to Winthrop, if for no other reason than proximity.
First, the professional. Kelsey went 102-59 in his time in Rock Hill, setting a Big South record for wins during his first five years. He took four straight Winthrop teams to Big South championship games — that he even did that is the story, not the outcome of any of those games — and led this year’s Eagles to a Big South regular-season title, a Big South tournament title on his team’s home floor, and an NCAA Tournament trip in which his team faced off with Butler. He often spoke of Winthrop being a tradition-rich program and of hanging banners in the Winthrop Coliseum, and he was a part of achieving that goal.
The story behind Kelsey’s arrival in Rock Hill is like that in a movie. Kelsey opened up some about his trek following that Big South championship, thanking former Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio and retired Athletic Director Tom Hickman, who were responsible for his hiring.
“They hired a guy six years ago, five years ago, that had never called a time out before, and was not in the coaching profession at the time,” Kelsey said to the media after that game. “You talk about putting your neck out there a little bit, and having a gut feel that this guy can help lead our program, and they did that. I owe them a big debt of gratitude.”
Kelsey’s relationship with legendary Xavier and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser is well-known to anyone who follows his story. Prosser’s imprint is on every step Kelsey takes, and his son, Mark, became Kelsey’s top assistant at Winthrop. In fact, if you ask anyone who is familiar with the program, they’ll tell you that he is — pardon the pun — a slam-dunk choice to replace Kelsey at the helm.
In the interest of disclosure, I agree. Prosser is a star.
This brings us to the personal.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Kelsey over virtually his entire tenure as the Eagles’ leader. We’ve talked in hotel ballrooms at Media Day, in the press room at Winthrop following early-season games when it was just him, Bret and me, in jam-packed press rooms, in happy times and in not-so-happy times. If you listen to him, you’ll hear him say the same thing a lot in each of those conversations — he has sometimes joked that he’s a bad interview because of that — but it speaks to his consistency as a coach. As a man. You always know what you’re getting with Pat Kelsey, and you know it will be good.
I’ve also seen his heart. Everyone knows the story of his comments about the Sandy Hook tragedy, but I was there when the family of Chase Kowalski, one of the kids lost that day, visited the Winthrop Coliseum. I saw how their presence impacted him and his team. Kelsey’s team wore jerseys adorned with the names of the children lost in the shooting. It was real to him.
Just as Prosser’s impact on Kelsey is obvious, so too is that of his family. Kelsey’s father, brother, wife and children are rarely far from his side. In fact, if you look in the seats just behind the bench after a questionable call, you’ll often see them voicing their displeasure — respectfully, as is their habit — with the events that just took place. You’ll see Kelsey’s children running around on the floor after games. Kelsey even said after the Big South title game that his plan to “play hoop and build Legos” with his young son would stand, no matter the game’s outcome.
The link to family extends far beyond Kelsey’s bloodlines. Whether it is speaking of his relationships with Liberty coach Ritchie McKay and Longwood coach Jayson Gee (they “saved my life”, Kelsey would say at this season’s Big South Media Day, by helping him explore his faith), his fellow coaches or his players, that word keeps coming up. Family.
His players said as much at the interviews before their NCAA Tournament appearance.
“The main thing that stood out was Coach Kelsey. He flew to Australia, really got to know me as a person,” said Winthrop forward Xavier Cooks. “I knew I was going to feel a lot homesick over here. He really made me feel at home, provide like a family environment for me. That’s really the main thing the that came to me.”
“I’m from Ohio. Coach Kelsey is from Ohio, as well. I can agree with Xavier as far as him coming to my hometown and just seeing where I was raised and what’s going on around here and just, you know, being a coach that actually cared. That was a starting point right there,” said Eagle guard Keon Johnson.
If you ask every other person in that Winthrop locker room, they’ll likely give you a similar answer, in terms of what led them to this university in a growing city — don’t call it the Charlotte suburbs, call it Rock Hill — to be a part of this program. To play for this coach and his staff.
After Kelsey was involved in the JMU and Georgia Tech vacancies last offseason, most who follow the Winthrop program had to see this day coming. Once his Eagles won the Big South title and headed to the NCAA Tournament, it had to appear all the more obvious.
It is often said that the true test of a coach is whether he leaves the program in better shape than he found it. That Kelsey did so at Winthrop is inarguable.
There’s no way in hell I’d bet against his doing the same at UMass.