Gene Keady is up at the board, his back to a small audience of subordinates, scribbling out a practice schedule in a script that might as well come with its own Rosetta Stone.
As he writes, he asks questions. He does not ask as if he were testing these men. He is soliciting information. You would think after 46 years of coaching basketball, the past 24 of them at Purdue, Keady would have all the answers he needs.
This is how he does it, though. Always has. Back when assistants Bruce Weber and Kevin Stallings were sitting behind him and the Boilermakers were preparing to play Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers, Keady would build his practice plans by soliciting opinions on what drills corresponded to salient items from the scouting report.
Now, all of the men working for him are half his age. What can they know that he does not? It doesn't matter. With the first game of his last Purdue season just three days away, Keady feels good asking questions of someone other than himself.
Keady, 68, is coaching his final season at Purdue. That's official. He had planned to do this with less ceremony. He wanted to negotiate a three-year contract extension so he could effectively recruit another class. "And I was going to leave after this season, anyway," Keady says.
Athletic director Morgan Burke wasn't convinced that would be the best approach. But as San Francisco pursued Keady for its vacant coaching job, the men compromised. Former Boilermaker Matt Painter was hired after a brilliant rookie season at Southern Illinois. He will serve one year as Keady's assistant and then become head coach.
"It's been kind of fun," Keady says, unsheathing a smile that far too few fans have seen. "You know your destination. You know this is it. No guessing when it's going to end. But it'll never end for me and Purdue, really."
'A different era'
In November 1980, when Gene Keady coached his first Purdue game, Thad Matta was 13 and living in Hoopeston, Ill. He was a huge Boilers fan, having attended camps run by Keady's predecessors, Fred Schaus and Lee Rose.
"When we wanted to venture out, go to the big city, we went to West Lafayette," Matta says. "I remember rooting for Coach Keady's team. I was a huge Purdue fan. I was hoping they would recruit me." Matta is in his first season as Ohio State head coach.
As Purdue starts practice, there's a moment when Keady makes an important point to one of his regulars and punctuates it with that grin. Sitting courtside, you can't help but wonder whether he is less imposing, less fearsome, as he closes in on his 70s.
Keady thinks about this. Only one of his past four teams reached the NCAA Tournament. He knows those teams did not feature great talent, but most of his teams did not. In 24 seasons at Purdue, through six Big Ten titles and five Sweet 16s, he has coached only four players who went on to NBA careers that lasted more than 100 games: Brad Miller, Steve Scheffler, Brian Cardinal and the great Glenn Robinson. Kentucky had seven on its 1996 NCAA championship team.
He has enjoyed coaching players who sacrificed for the sake of Purdue, who lived by the three-item creed he preached: play harder, play tough man-to-man defense, take care of the basketball.
"It's kind of a different era in terms of mental toughness and stuff," Keady says. "For us to overachieve, it's been harder. I don't know why. I don't think I've let up any. But maybe I have."
Painter is the most audible and visible coach early in practice. A little more than an hour in, though, Keady has seen enough lethargy and imprecision from the Boilermakers. He fires up the menacing scowl that usually is reserved for referees but works just as effectively on players who irritate him.
"Your asses will not even be in the NIT!" Keady bellows. In case they did not get the message, he says it again. Gene Keady gone soft? No, not really. "Do you know why we won league championships here? Because the guys were coachable! And they weren't as good as you, I can tell you that."
In March 1984, when Gene Keady was securing his first Big Ten championship, Steve Alford was completing his freshman season at Indiana. Keady had tried to recruit Alford.
"The summer after my senior year in high school -- I'm going to Indiana in two months -- he had me and my dad come over and speak at his basketball camp," Alford says. "I always respected coach Keady. That took it to another level." Alford is in his sixth season as Iowa head coach.
What does the future hold?
Keady doesn't know what he'll do after the season; he'll listen if some other college approaches; if TV wants him; if an NBA assistant job comes up; if Purdue wants him to work raising funds. But he does kind of know what to expect this season. Jud Heathcote, treated like royalty after announcing his retirement before the 1994-95 season, told him about the experience.
Keady jokes about going out like Al McGuire, who won the 1977 NCAA title after announcing he would retire. This team, which also has lost by 20 to Cincinnati, would do well by making the NCAA field. Keady will close this season with just about every achievement short of the Final Four and just about every award short of the Hall of Fame. He was a finalist last spring, an honor in itself. But being excluded took its toll.
"I was playing in a golf tournament, and I shot 41 on the front," Keady says "They said, 'Take your cell because you'll find out today whether you'll make it or not.'
"I played the 10th and 11th holes in par. They called me on the 12th hole and said, 'You didn't make it.' I went double-bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey." Gene Keady laughs as he finishes the story, then smiles.
You should have been there to see it.