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Andy Kennedy deserved better by Ole Miss

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The Dean of SEC basketball will be gone at season’s end, and timing and circumstance were of no help.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Mississippi Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Longtime Ole Miss men’s basketball head coach Andy Kennedy announced on Monday that he will resign his post at season’s end, a premature and anticlimactic denouement to some large-scale writing that’s been on the wall since the day that Chancellor Jeff Vitter was installed as head man in Oxford. The university declined to extend AK’s contract after the Rebs’ 2016-17 campaign, instead electing to take a wait-and-see approach to Kennedy’s future performance in charge of Ole Miss hoops.

At the time of the non-extension, this very blogger argued that AK was well positioned to receive one after this season’s conclusion, and it’s today that you should provide your best edible crow recipes in the comments or on Twitter.

Still, though, there’s much that rankles surrounding AK’s resignation announcement, not least because it would appear he knows that Vitter and athletics director Ross Bjork had no intention of keeping him on beyond the first week of March this year, notwithstanding Kennedy owning the most wins in Ole Miss hoops history and accounting for a full quarter of the Rebs’ NCAA tournament appearances.

For all his platitudes during Monday’s presser to announce his resignation, there’d be no such need for this sort of proclamation if he wasn’t guaranteed to get the ax in a month’s time.

AK did the best with what he was given, which wasn’t much.

Ole Miss basketball pays one of the lowest salaries in the SEC. In addition to that naked fact, and perhaps more importantly, Ole Miss basketball’s assistants pool is equally as dismal. Such pecunious incentive practices render the Ole Miss job one of the least attractive gigs in Division I college basketball, to say nothing of the fact that the Rebs play in a consistently weak hoops conference over and against the rest of the Power 5 leagues. In short, bringing and keeping top-tier leadership is difficult in Oxford, given Ole Miss’ conference and national competition.

Still, though, Kennedy was willing to eat lesser pay for commensurate work on the recruiting trail and on the court to coach at the flagship university of his home state. He brought energy, personality, and inventiveness — especially in his efforts at bringing JUCO and transfer prospects to Oxford — to bear in a town and state where basketball sits far, far behind juggernaut football as sports fans’ main point of attraction.

This latter point bears stressing. AK was recruiting from north-central Mississippi. The in-state talent is already thin, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and LSU sit in your recruiting backyard, and penetrating the AAU elites in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, LA and elsewhere can grow prohibitive when attempted from MS highway 6. If upper echelon coaches look easily past Ole Miss, it’s easy to understand why five-star prospects from the northeast should do so as well.

And still. AK cobbled together some fun, impressive cohorts that could — maybe should — have popped off a season here or there that ran one or two rounds deeper in the SEC or NCAA tournaments than they otherwise did. Certainly Stefan Moody’s final stint in Oxford should have ended with one more big dance appearance, but he couldn’t do it all himself.

AK has a knack for rehabilitating CBB’s castoffs and molding them into role-player guys that contribute and play like hell for him. Kennedy managed to reign in Marshall Henderson’s outsized personality just enough to turn him into one of the most prolific, enjoyable gunners in conference history. He kept Jarvis Summers around for four full years, and then somehow re-calibrated Stefan Moody into a one-spot guy a year later. There were growing pains, to be sure, but by season’s end Moody looked comfortable on the ball and running the offense that, given maybe five more games, we’re talking about AK’s third trip to the dance.

Kennedy will be coaching college basketball next season, and given a real support structure, he should thrive.

Kennedy leaves Oxford having led Rebel hoops to three AP Top 25 rankings inside the top 20. He took Ole Miss to the NCAA tournament twice, won the SEC tournament outright in 2013, and garnered a winning percentage just north of 61 percent. Again, given that this is Ole Miss basketball, that’s stunning. Oh yeah, he also leaves Oxford as the longest tenured coach in the SEC.

Perhaps it’s that continuity and lack of real upward swing in results that ushered his exit. Perhaps it’s a great, grand combination of that and all the adversative factors listed above. Perhaps Bjork really wants to commit to Rebel hoops and bring in a rising personality that’ll spend four years revamping the shop into the Sweet 16 before jumping ship for some other major. And so the cycle continues.

Andy Kennedy will most definitely coach college basketball again, and he’ll do so at a mid-major or Power 5 program with an appropriate robust substructure beneath its basketball team that’ll see him thrive. He’s obviously a powerful motivator. He’s coached all over the country, against the nation’s best competition, and often with a sizable disparity in talent level.

It’ll be different for AK, wherever he lands. Basketball in Oxford afforded a certain degree of autonomy and anonymity, especially under the hailstorm of Hugh Freeze’s football tenure. He didn’t have to weather gross media scrutiny — except for when he was causing international incidents at DUI stops — because Ole Miss was never quite good enough to invite such microscopes. AK’s clubs are good enough to find interesting for the casual fan, and they were fascinating for the basketball sportswriter, but there was never enough sustained success to ignite a soil-level rabidity around basketball in Oxford.

He was kneecapped from day one, and kneecapped every day after, and he still coached for 12 seasons. There’s something to be said for that.