Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBoss | Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the swift rise and fall of Cleveland State’s Kevin Mackey.
The question is deceptively simple: how much is too much too fast? For Kevin Mackey, the answers to these and other questions came too late – years and years too late – to save him, and his program, from himself. For the coach of the outlaws, the misfits, the ones no one wanted, the coach with all the answers to basketball questions, there were no answers to the questions about life, about how to handle it all after you’ve tasted the big time, after you’re somebody.
Indiana had no answers for Mackey and his boys that night, that’s for sure. But that was by design. Mackey knew from experience that no one who’s anyone answers the polite knock at the door. They either don’t hear you or act like they don’t. They’ll look out the window and see you standing there with your hair all wrong and your clothes all wrong and your everything all wrong, and they’ll just shut the shades and stay quiet. Don’t let him in. He’s trouble.
So that’s why you don’t knock politely on the door. You kick the door down and tell them, show them, that what matters isn’t your hair or your clothes or anything you can see but that you are capable of kicking the door down. That’s what they pay attention to.
Kevin Mackey had been kicking doors down for a long time before he got noticed. First as a high school coach back in Boston, where he kicked to the tune of three straight championship seasons at Don Bosco. Then, level mastered, he moved on to Boston College, where scouring the dark corners of the Northeast for hidden gems he helped Tom Davis and then Gary Williams rattle some folks, too. B.C. is where Mackey showed he could bring in the kids no one else could, the Michael Adamses and John Bagleys.
Boston College can be a tough place to get noticed. Despite being a cradle of future winning coaches, it was always a place you had to scrap and claw and kick to get noticed. That was just fine for a guy like Mackey. The harder, the better. And every year they took another step. Had to overcome Rick Kuhn and Henry Hill and all that point shaving business and just kept fighting for everything they got. And because they fought a lot, they got a lot. Like a Big East regular-season title in ’81. Like the NCAA Sweet 16 the same year. With Mackey still bringing in the tough kids, the kids with nothing to lose, and Dr. Tom still coaching them, the Chestnut Hill gang almost made it all the way to the Final Four in ‘82, shocking Depaul and Kansas State and nearly taking out Houston. Williams came in and, with Mackey, kept the whole thing going forward. B.C. finished first in the Big East again. Only a man as big as Ralph Sampson could end the run, which Virginia did in the second round of the ’83 NCAA tournament.
Having been passed over for the B.C. job, now it was time for Mackey to knock down his own doors. He knew what he wanted to do, now he just needed a where to do it. How about Cleveland? Another place you have to make a lot of noise to get noticed. When Mackey took over the Cleveland State basketball program, it had never before won 20 games in a season. Came close a few times, but this just wasn’t the place you go to win 20 games in a season. Mackey the coach knew this, but he also knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to run, and trap, and kick those barriers to the big time down. And he knew how’d he’d get there – the same way he’d gotten this far: by getting the guys with nothing to lose, making them believe they could kick through a wall and then letting them loose on all the walls of the world. So that’s exactly what Mackey did. He brought in kids who had less than nothing to lose.