Randy Kennedy stands serenely on the sidelines of Colonial Life Arena, the fingers of his right hand thoughtfully running through the thick waves of his dark brown hair. From under his furrowed brow his gaze is deliberate and calm; much calmer than you would expect from a man who's season rests on the next 0.9 seconds. His Ole Miss Rebels trail #2 South Carolina by one point on the road, and are down to one inbounds play to steal a win.
Marshall Sanderson, a true freshman shooting guard who Kennedy calls "the most poised player I've ever coached," darts around a screen at the top of the key and cuts towards the right-hand corner of the court. He catches the inbounds pass and instantly explodes into his shooting motion, his momentum carrying him slightly to his right and away from the basket. The ball leaves Sanderson's hand, the thoughts and prayers of a school, a community, and a state following its slow arc toward the hoop. Kennedy remains as stoic as ever, standing in a motionless imitation of the bronze statue that bears his likeness back in Oxford. The ball careems off the far iron, bounces off the glass, and drops through the bucket. The Ole Miss bench explodes. A smile is just noticeable from beneath the bristles of Kennedy's well-groomed mustache.
Twenty-four hours after the Rebels' 65-63 victory in Columbia, a much more relaxed Randy Kennedy reclines in an oversized leather chair in his stately office on the Ole Miss campus, his dark green eyes shining with excitement as he discusses his team's newfound NCAA Tournament prospects. "What a huge win," exclaims the Greenville, MS native, the grin on his face suggesting that the joyous disbelief from the previous night has yet to fade completely. "That really puts us in the driver's seat as far as postseason play goes."
Indeed, the victory over the highly-ranked Gamecocks lifts Kennedy's team off of the bubble and places them firmly into the field of 65. It is a position that few thought they would be in three weeks ago after a disappointing 0-6 start to their conference schedule. It was Kennedy's worst start since arriving in Oxford from Cincinnati and seemed to threaten his streak of seven consecutive Tournament appearances with the Rebels. But following an emotionally charged victory over Kentucky on Jan. 29, Ole Miss has roared back, winning seven straight, five of those against ranked teams. The surge is even more impressive when considering that it has been accomplished within what is widely considered the sport's elite conference.
The driving force behind the Rebels' rise has been the emergence of Sanderson, who currently leads the SEC in scoring and 3-point shooting percentage. Despite his quiet and reserved nature, the freshman has become a leader in his own right. "He's not a real vocal kid, but he's the kind of guy that's going to lead by example," says Kennedy, who insists that the freshman's stable demeanor is a steadying force for the team. "Sometimes you want to check Marshall's pulse when he's out there," Kennedy jokes, "But that ability to stay cool under pressure is what allows him to make big shots like he did against South Carolina."
Sanderson's poise under pressure seems to be a trait he's inherited from his coach. Clutch performances in big-game situations have become the norm in Oxford under Kennedy, who has developed a reputation for performing his best in when it matters the most. The three Sweet Sixteen and two Final Four banners that hang from the rafters of the Randy Kennedy Memorial Gymnasium attest to this. Kennedy's arrival has sparked a roundball Renaissance on the historically football-obsessed Ole Miss campus. What was a middling program devoid of any real significant basketball history is now a Mecca of state-of-the-art facilities and McDonald's All-Americans.
Despite his celebrity status on campus, Kennedy generally keeps a low profile. Many evenings following a big win find him at the library, quietly enjoying a good book. Though he enjoys the intensity and excitement of the sideline, it is the peaceful moments by himself that Kennedy truly relishes, and what have him contemplating putting down the clipboard. Much has been made of the rumors of an upcoming retirement, and many believe a run in this year's postseason would allow the legendary coach to go out on a positive note. For his part, Kennedy refuses to confirm or deny whether 2013 will be his final season, but does acknowledge he feels a calling beyond the hardwood.
"I'd like to take some time off, travel the world," he admits. "I have a book in the works, I'd love to have time to devote to that." A noted philanthropist, Kennedy also dreams of establishing an orphanage in Gaza that would house both Israeli and Palestinian children. "Conflict resolution is always something I've been inclined towards. If you can start that process at an early age, you never know what can come out of it."
For the time being, though, Kennedy has no time for fantasies of riding into the sunset. "We've got work to do," he says, pulling out the game film for the upcoming Auburn Tigers. With five regular season games remaining before the conference tournament in Nashville, Kennedy is focused solely on putting his team in position for a deep push into March. "Stay tuned," he advises, the confident smirk once again sliding under his 'stache. "This could be a very special season for Ole Miss basketball."