It sits on top my desk, but it is faced
So that the sun will not cause it to fade:
The photographs we save are like the taste
Of honey on a sharpened razor blade.
- John Wood
In the long haul of his fourth season with Ole Miss, my dear friend Randy carved out some time one late afternoon on a practice day to sit with me on the steps of the Lyceum and chat. He was excited about the team’s progress. In his first three years, they’d made a sweet sixteen and two final fours, but this was the year he believed they’d break through and bring the school he loved so dearly a championship. He was right, of course. Two months later he was hoisting the trophy, cutting down the net, and so many of his goals for this place were achieved. But that cold day on the steps, he didn’t know any of that. That day, despite his excitement, he seemed ill at ease.
He talked for a while about the team, about an upcoming game against Kentucky, about a new lineup he was considering. After a while, I asked him what was wrong. He sighed, looked down at his hands, and said, “Teddy, what comes after complete happiness?”
I told him that I didn’t quite get what he was asking. He looked up, made eye-contact with me for the first time in several minutes, and said, “I feel so content. What’s going to happen when we do win a championship, when everything I’ve worked for is here? What’s life going to be when you’ve already gotten what you want from it?”
Well, that day I didn’t have an answer for him, but now, eight long years later, I think I do. Here is what happened next for Randy Kennedy, after he brought Ole Miss that first championship:
He made sure that every day, every minute, was spent pulling those around him into that circle of happiness he’d achieved for himself. Randy already had his Ph.D. when he came to Oxford, of course, but in the wake of that first championship season, he started making more time for his life-saving work on water purification systems in sub-Saharan climates. He began spending more of his time each week tutoring students in Math and English. And not just his players. I don’t think Randy ever met a struggling student he wasn’t willing to help. He became more politically active, serving several terms on Oxford’s Board of Aldermen. He made so many positive changes to this town in that capacity, many of them unheralded. It was Randy, for instance, who brokered a positive, mutually beneficial deal between taxi unions and the burgeoning ride-on-demand industry. No one gave him credit for this work. He did it because he cared about both groups, the hard-working cabbies already in town and the businesses that wanted to come here, who he knew would help our local economy.
Thinking of Randy these last days, I find myself frequently doing what I’ve just done: falling down a spiral of accomplishment. That’s easy to do with Randy. But you all already know about his accomplishments. What I want to close with today is something more personal. I want to give you a bit more understanding of what kind of friend Randy was.
In my first year as Chancellor, Randy and I became quick friends. I recognized all that he’d done for our basketball program and our university, of course. Nothing makes an administrator’s job easier than having a stable, controversy-free, winning presence already on campus. And when we met, I imagined that we’d have a positive working relationship. But right from the start, Randy wanted more of me. I’m used to putting up something of a façade. My colleagues frequently joke with me about my button-down, no frills demeanor. In fact, just this past year, Randy got me another plain red tie as a present for Boss’ Day, something of a joke given my proclivity for simple neckwear. I’m wearing that tie today.
At our first meeting, I went through my practiced patter about the university and the program, but I noticed Randy was fidgeting. Eventually, I asked him if something was wrong. He smiled at me, and then he shifted the conversation entirely. Instead of me asking about his program, about his team, he began to pepper me with questions, large and small. Where was I from? What did my father do for a living? How old were my kids? What kinds of things did they like? What was my favorite novel? As soon as I answered one question, he’d hit me with another, and I must admit, I was thrown a bit off guard. By the end of the conversation, we were talking honestly and frankly about what we wanted from our lives. And not just professionally. He was legitimately interested in what kind of person I wanted to be, how I found myself to fall short of that, and he shared with me the same information about himself. That day we formed a bond that still hasn’t been broken, even now, sadly, with Randy’s death. We took a photograph that day, the two of us, standing just outside my office. He’s smiling broadly, the way he always did, his mustache perfectly groomed. I am clearly still a bit off-kilter. That’s one of the few photographs that still sits in my office. I’m not one for adornment.
He was, simply put, an extraordinary man. The kind who would extend a gregarious hand, even when he didn’t know you. I can’t believe we’re going to have to venture into a future where he isn’t the basketball coach at Ole Miss, where he isn’t gracing us all with his presence.