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Heritage grad shooting to turn UNC Wilmington back into winner
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North Carolina-Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts encourages his team against No. 5 Louisville in their NCAA college basketball game in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)
 
Chris Lang newsadvance.com

WILMINGTON, N.C.

Kevin Keatts’ most proud moment as an athlete at Heritage High School had nothing to do with basketball.

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Instead, it was his record as a quarterback for the Pioneers’ football team that brought him the most satisfaction.

“I’m proud to say that I never lost a game as a starting quarterback,” Keatts said Thursday, sitting in his office in UNC Wilmington’s renovated Trask Coliseum. “From JV to varsity, we lost one game. We were ranked No. 1 in the state, and we lost one game my senior year, and I was hurt.”

That flashback speaks to Keatts’ competitiveness, as did his demeanor on the floor during Wednesday’s overtime home win over Liberty. Keatts, a Lynchburg native and the Seahawks’ first-year head coach, isn’t a ranter or raver on the sideline. Though his suit jacket came off some time during halftime, his instruction to his players was measured, his interaction with game officials determined.

It’s that steely resolve that Keatts hopes rubs off on his players, far too many of whom had gotten used to losing games at a traditionally strong basketball program.

“The thing that really sticks out to me is intensity and effort. That’s something everybody on the coaching staff preaches,” UNCW guard Craig Ponder said. “It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how good you are, if you don’t come to practice and games with intensity and effort, you’re not going to play here.”

Keatts’ road to the Port City was somewhat unorthodox. After graduating from Heritage, he was a Division III player at Ferrum, where he was teammates with former Virginia Tech coach James Johnson, among others. When head coach Bill Cullen was seriously injured in a car wreck, Keatts helped assistant Steve Proefrock stabilize the program.

“I kind of helped him out, showing him the plays, what we were doing,” Keatts said. “It was at that point I realized I wanted to get into coaching.”

Proefrock left for Southwest Michigan, a community college, to lead its basketball program, and he brought Keatts along with him. He quickly returned to Virginia, though, when Ferrum assistant Scott Shepherd recommended Keatts for an opening on the staff at Hargrave Military Academy.

Both Shepherd and Johnson, who had just taken a job as the director of basketball operations at Old Dominion, reached out to Keatts about returning home. He did, and within two years, he was the head coach of the Academy’s post-grad program.

After a two-year stint as an assistant at Marshall, he returned to Hargrave for another eight-year run as head coach.

So how does coaching a post-grad program help one’s aspirations of earning a Division I job someday? For one, Keatts coached high-level DI talent, and he coached it well. He rolled up a 263-17 mark during his time at Hargrave, coaching many players who ended up eventually playing in the NBA. Keatts has a constant reminder of that success close by, as a framed poster featuring the names of Hargrave’s NBA talent hangs in his office behind his desk.

“I developed so many relationships,” Keatts said. “And at Hargrave, I ran my own program. I drove the bus. I swept the floors. I washed the clothes. So I learned how to do things at the grassroots level. ... And I was a head coach, in a sense, running my own Division I program. We had on average 10 Division I guys a year. And I learned how to make some mistakes, and learned how to be able to play through them.”

One of Keatts’ most important relationships was with Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino who was leaving for a job on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida, part of a wholesale assistant coaching change at UL.

Richard recommended Keatts to his father, and Keatts quickly became one of Louisville’s top assistants, the recruiting connections built while coaching at Hargrave paying off nicely. He coached former Louisville standout Luke Hancock at Hargrave, and he had recruited current star forward Montrezl Harrell to Hargrave before taking the job at UL.

As much success as Keatts was having at UL, he was judicious about jumping to the first available Division I job. There were some opportunities, and some speculation that he might be a fit at Virginia Tech when Johnson’s firing became inevitable. The timing simply wasn’t right for that opening, though, especially considering the close nature of the friendship between the former Ferrum teammates.

When UNCW dismissed Buzz Peterson and his staff, though, Keatts interest was piqued. UNCW has tradition, having made four NCAA tournament appearances, all since 2000. It has facilities. And perhaps as important as any factor, it’s a basketball school with no football program located in an attractive market, not too far from the beach.

“[Pitino] and I talked about it, and he and I both felt like this was a great situation,” Keatts said.

And it’s not a broken program, despite some of the struggles of the last few years. The biggest challenge was changing the mentality of his players.

“My current seniors had lost 65 games in three years,” Keatts said. “The challenge is developing a winning attitude. Last season, they lost 14 straight games. Some of those games they were in. I want to win some of those games that we could have won. So it’s getting these guys to believe in themselves.”

There are already signs of that happening. The Seahawks went toe to toe with a top-10 Louisville team last Sunday and made winning plays at the end when things got tight against the Flames on Wednesday.

“That’s a game these guys probably would have lost last year,” Keatts said.

For Keatts, the goal this season is to stabilize the program and re-establish its competitiveness within the Colonial Athletic Association. Pitino suspects it won’t be long before Keatts, who signed a five-year contract with the school, has the program turned around entirely.

“I think he’s going to take his biggest jump next year because he has four players sitting out (after transferring) and he had a good recruiting class,” Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

“Kevin’s going to do a great job. He’s one of the best assistants I’ve had.”

One thing Keatts wants to continue is a series with Liberty. For one, though the Seahawks won all four games with the Flames in recent seasons, each one was close, so it’s beneficial to both sides.

And there’s no doubt Keatts would love to coach a game in the Vines Center. His parents and a close aunt still live in Lynchburg, not to mention many close friends. Coaching in front of a hometown crowd would be a special experience.

“I love Lynchburg,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable place. It’s got a lot of great qualities about it. It’s one of those places that, when this thing is all said and done, I could see myself moving back, retiring there, and living there the rest of my life.”

 
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