There is a moment during the final seconds of the NCAA Tournament play-in game between Ole Miss and BYU when Rebels head coach Randy Kennedy lowers his head. His Ole Miss squad has surged back from a 17-point halftime deficit largely because of Kennedy’s adjustments. Now, as his players jangle with unrestrained energy, as the BYU players burn red-faced, as the clock ticks off its final seconds, the coaching legend from Greenville, MS shuts his eyes tightly. The clock hits zero. Randy Kennedy’s head pops up, and a wide grin spreads beneath his now-gray mustache. This, I think as chaos erupts, is why he’s returned.
Randy Kennedy had nothing left to prove. Seven NCAA tournament appearances in seven seasons. Two Final Fours, five Sweet Sixteens, and a bevy of All-Americans, Kennedy’s program boasted as much hardware as any in the country when he announced his retirement in 2011. At his farewell press conference, choking back tears, Kennedy said, "While I will always regret having failed to reach our ultimate goal – a championship for the University of Mississippi – I feel that now is the time for me to step aside. We've accomplished much, and I know that the program is in good hands."
For a year, Kennedy worked on his novel, Roundball. That book became a runaway bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Kennedy went on tour. He built a hospital in Guatemala. He sat on the beach and stared at the waves, and all the while, he thought about his team.
When the 2012 Rebel squad fell short of an NCAA Tournament berth, Kennedy knew he had to come back. In what was called a "mutual decision," new coach Richard Ray left for a job at Southeastern Louisiana, and Kennedy found himself back in his office.
His press conference was short and sweet. "It’s good to be back," he said. "We’re going to get right to work."
His team did just that, making a deep tournament run in 2013 thanks to the self-less play of guard Marshall Blanderson. "Marshall’s my kind of player," Kennedy said after a heart-breaking Final Four loss to Kansas. "He plays within the system, takes smart shots, and is as solid a leader as I've ever seen. Next year will be his coming out party. All the pieces are in place."
Kennedy’s plan wasn't meant to be. Just two months later, Blanderson announced that he was leaving the team to focus on his academics.
"I loved playing basketball," Blanderson, now a second-year medical student at Johns Hopkins, said. "But the life of an athlete just wasn't for me. I’m a quiet guy, and while I could get up for games and practice, all the hustle bustle just felt like it was taking away the quiet parts of my day. In the end, I wanted to be alone with my books. You have to give Coach Kennedy credit; he never made me feel bad about my decision to leave. He said, ‘Marshall, you need to be true to yourself.’"
Without Blanderson, the 2013-14 Rebel basketball team lacked an identity. They made the tournament but were a quick out. During the off-season, Kennedy looked dispirited. There were public rumblings about his future with the team, whether it might be time for him to hand over the reins.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, things looked grim. An opening-game loss to Coastal Carolina fired up the message board critics, but Kennedy insisted publicly that the team would find its footing. Privately, rumors swirled that this season would be his last with the Rebels. After all, there were more books to be written, more hospitals to be built, and the Ole Miss program would continue to do what he’d built it to do: win basketball games.
Then, things began to click. The team found some chemistry, the wins started to pile up. In the end, the season that had begun so unspectacularly ended on an unexpected note: a spot in the play-in game in Dayton. "We’re just glad to be here," Kennedy said before the game.
Hours after the game has ended, after the press conference, after the fans have left the building, after the lights are dimmed and the facility begins to shutter itself for the night, I finally catch Randy for a moment alone. He’s leaning against a wall in a back hallway of the arena, his eyes, again, closed. When I say his name, he looks up and smiles, shakes my hand, asks if I enjoyed the game. I tell him that I did, and then I ask what he was thinking about in those last few seconds, before the game ended.
He thinks for a moment, sighs, and says, "Validation." And then the winningest coach in Ole Miss history excuses himself to go prepare for Xavier.