Gene Keady sometimes gets the shivers during his commute into Queens, N.Y., on the Long Island Expressway.
All it takes is the sight of a Kohl’s department store located just off the Interstate to sour Keady’s mood. It reminds him of his struggles at the Kohl Center during a legendary run as the Purdue men’s basketball coach.
Keady, who’s in his fourth season as a special assistant/advisor to St. John’s coach Steve Lavin, is looking forward to the Red Storm’s season opener on Friday night against Bo Ryan and the University of Wisconsin. Keady is even happier the game will be played at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., and not at the venue in Madison that still haunts him to this day.
“I didn’t enjoy playing at the Kohl Center because we couldn’t win,” Keady said. “We won a lot of games at the UW Field House, but at the other place we couldn’t win.”
Keady was 0-6 at the Kohl Center. It was a tough pill to swallow for a man who was a seven-time Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year during his 25 seasons with the Boilermakers and beat the Badgers the first 20 times he faced them.
He still jokes that he should have kept his mouth shut when asked by reporters back in the 1990s what UW needed to do to become a competitive program in the Big Ten. His advice: Build a new arena and find some good players.
The Badgers have been to 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments, including 12 in a row under Ryan. The streak began in 1999, the end of UW’s first full season in the Kohl Center.
“They listened,” Keady said. “I was stupid.”
Keady was 2-4 against Ryan, who led the Badgers to a 77-68 victory over the Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in 2005 to end a 29-game losing streak in West Lafayette that spanned 33 years.
But Keady and Ryan loved competing against one another. They also got along well during offseason coaches’ meetings because both have a passion for the game and are outspoken.
“He loves the game,” Ryan said.
“I really respect him,” Keady said.
The biggest similarity between the two is how much they’ve invested in the game they love.
Ryan, who will turn 66 next month, is set to begin his 13th season at UW and shows no signs of letting up.
Keady, 77, could be living the sweet life of retirement but couldn’t stay away from the game. After his final season at Purdue — the Boilermakers went 7-21 in 2004-05 — Keady spent a season as a senior advisor with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors followed by a three-season stint as an analyst with Big Ten Network.
“I played golf every day for a while — I didn’t like it,” Keady said. “I couldn’t take retirement. I had to work. I had to be involved with basketball somehow. I know Bo’s cut in that same cloth, too.”
Lavin, who was hired as a graduate assistant by Keady in 1980, returned the favor when he was hired at St. John’s in 2010. Keady watches practices and games, studies Red Storm video and offers critiques to Lavin and his three assistants.
“I coach the coaches,” Keady said. “It’s just fun. I enjoy basketball, so therefore it’s a great opportunity for me because I like helping people that want help.”
Keady sold his house in Lafayette, Ind., and his car, too. He admitted that living in New York was a bit of a culture shock at first, but now he’s used to it.
And while he no longer has to deal with the stress of being a head coach, Keady is still a competitor at heart. He’d love to get a little payback for all the anguish the Badgers caused him at the end of his run at Purdue.
“I had a great time in the Big Ten and I miss it,” Keady said. “But I’m glad I’m here.”