Andy Kennedy is fed the hell up. He's seated in front of a microphone trying vainly to explain to the gathered media why his Ole Miss basketball team looked like utter trash in the first half of its loss to Middle Tennessee State. His jacket's gone. His top button's undone. There's a glint of sweat lingering on his bald head—ya know, the type of sweat worked up by the yelling and screaming and gesticulating that comes when your team coughs up 13 turnovers in less than 16 minutes and falls behind by 29 damn points in the first half.
"I mean, what are you gonna do? You can't go to the waiver wire," he says in calm exasperation. "I told 'em they could all transfer if they like. It's a possibility, I suppose. I'm not sure if they'd have a lot of takers based on that performance."
It reads like bitter disparagement, but it doesn't sound that way when he says it, his eyebrows raising, his forehead cracking into a mass of creases. It's delivered with a folksy sincerity, an affable frankness. Say what you want about his coaching, but there's no denying AK can spin one hell of a press conference, and this is an all-time great.
What was the locker room like at halftime, a reporter queries.
"What do you think? We're down 29." The question is rhetorical, sure, but it's not delivered with Saban-esque condescension. "I mean, I didn't go crazy. I'm not even sweating—this is a nice shirt, didn’t want to sweat right through it."
AK is, if nothing else, genuine. He began this presser by reminding everyone of that, although he didn't have to. "I think you guys who've covered me know I'm pretty candid. Call it like I see it. Always have, always will." The reporters sitting in front of him are off screen, but you get the sense that every one of them is nodding in agreement.
He's not sure if this team is any good. The Rebels are now 5-2 and the other loss came in a tight bout with No. 10 Creighton, but they've also been fortunate to bag some of those wins. They nearly blew a double-digit lead in the opener against UT Martin, letting the Skyhawks rally to within a point in the final minute. They had to scratch out 11 unanswered in the closing minutes to edge UMass. They needed overtime to put away Oral Roberts.
AK has a metaphor ready.
"If you get pulled over sometimes and the cop don’t give you a ticket... you drive slow for about a mile and if you don’t see him anymore"—he glances over his shoulder for effect—"you speed up. Well, we just got a big-time ticket. We’re gonna do a little time. Maybe this will get our attention."
Getting his team's attention is clearly the goal of this public griping. AK's not throwing them under the bus; he's trying to get them to climb onboard. His halftime taunt about transferring seemed to have had a positive effect, at least—Ole Miss had just two turnovers and outscored MTSU 43-29 over the final 20 minutes, pulling to within 9 at one point. The 77-62 score is all that matters in the record book, of course, but the second-half revival provides a degree of optimism.
"We play 31 regular season games," AK muses. "I don't think they're going to kick us out of the SEC Tournament—they could, it's possible; they'd be worthy if we continue to play the way we played that half—but that gives us 32 [total games]. That gives us 25 [left on the scehdule]. If we win those 25, we'll have a pretty good season. I'd take 24-1. You? 23-2. Anybody go 20-5? I'll take 20-5. There are still opportunities."
An auctioneer selling hope.
He drops his gaze and seems to plead, his voice steeped in sincerity. "We gotta get better, man."
They still have a ways to go. "Looked as if we’d seen a ghost," AK says of his team after the game. "I told ‘em ‘What you’ve seen is yourself. Just seen our reflection. Don’t like what we see.’" It's a roster heavy on transfers and freshmen, a team still peering into the mirror, searching for its identity.
The identity of their straight-shooting coach, however, remains as steadfast as ever. AK, the man who's spent the better part of a decade being second-guessed by a skeptical fanbase and who was once arrested for threatening to punch out a cab driver, knows exactly who he is.
"Two kinds of people in this world: fighters and fliers. I'm a fighter—figuratively and literally. This team's going to fight."