Alford's Squad Cruises

CHICAGO — Thursday was a good day for the Iowa Hawkeyes and a not-so-good day for Gene Keady and his Purdue Boilermakers.

The Hawkeyes, needing a win to stay in the hunt for a berth in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, dealt Keady’s squad a 71-52 loss in opening round action of the 2005 Big Ten Tournament in Chicago’s United Center. The win meant that Steve Alford’s squad lived for another day – a Friday date with Michigan State, the Big Ten’s No. 2 team behind top-ranked Illinois.

The loss meant the end of the season for the Boilermakers and the end of a brilliant career for Keady, who was already on his feet when the final buzzer sounded, making his way to shake hands with the coaches and team that sent him to the locker room for the last time.

Less than a minute later, he was gone. And after 25 years, this exit was for good.

“I’ve had some place to be since the first grade. Think about it. And I don’t have to be at any place tomorrow,” Keady said Thursday after his career came to a disappointing end.

“I’ll probably be an `E.B.’ Errand boy,” Keady said, drawing laughter. Keady left the floor to a standing ovation from fans of every allegiance, appreciation for all of his accomplishments. He finishes with a career record of 550-289 that includes six Big Ten titles and 17 NCAA appearances.

More importantly, he leaves having influenced everyone he’s encountered, coaches and players alike.

“He had an impact on me 25 years ago and he’s still having an impact,” said Alford, who faced Keady when he played at Indiana. “He’s done things the right way. That’s always what coach Keady has been about. Great character, great integrity.”

Keady announced last spring that he would return to Purdue for one last season, his 25th with the Boilermakers. He helped picked his successor, Matt Painter, and hoped that would smooth the transition.

But nothing went smoothly at Purdue this year. Already down from several weak recruiting classes, the Boilermakers got hit hard by the injury bug. Leading scorer and rebounder Carl Landry blew out his knee, and David Teague, second in scoring, was limited by a broken hand.

Purdue finished 7-21, only the third time Keady has had a losing record at Purdue. The Boilermakers didn’t win a game away from Mackey Arena after Dec. 18. Purdue was just 3-13 in Big Ten play, the worst showing of Keady’s career.

As torturous as the season was, it might have made it easier to walk away.

“If we’d been winning and had a great year, and everything was going like it was supposed to, it might have been different, but not when you get beat,” Keady said when asked if he was emotional when he left the floor. “I just don’t like the way things go. It’s kind of like a mercy killing. `Pull the plug, boys, and let’s get out of here.’ It’s no fun.”

Still, he came to the conference tournament optimistic, saying earlier in the week that he was bringing four suits and planned to wear them for games. Anyone who didn’t share his faith could stay home, Keady said – then joked that he might be riding an empty bus to Chicago.

Dressed in a black suit and a gold tie, Keady walked onto the court during pregame warmups Friday as he has hundreds of times before. But when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany walked out, it was clear this wasn’t just another game.

Keady is the last of the Big Ten’s old guard, coaches who spent decades at one school and built intense rivalries in the process. Jud Heathcote at Michigan State. Lou Henson at Illinois.. And of course, the biggest rival of all, Bob Knight at Indiana.

They helped make the Big Ten a basketball powerhouse, and the crowd at the United Center cheered as Delany thanked Keady. “You’ve been a great competitor, a great friend of the game,” Delany said.

Keady smiled, and gave a thumbs up when Delany invited him and his wife, Pat, to next year’s Rose Bowl. He left the court with a wave, taking his seat on the bench one more time.

And it was soon clear it would be the last time. The Hawkeyes opened with a barrage of 3-pointers, racing out to a 12-2 lead from which Purdue never recovered. Keady sat on the bench looking as if he was in physical pain, scowling at the bad shots, grimacing with each errant pass and squirming in his seat every couple of seconds.

The Hawkeyes led from start to finish thanks to the hot shooting hands of Adam Haluska – the game’s leading scorer with 17 points – and Jeff Horner, Iowa’s dependable point guard. Haluska sank half of his 12 field goal attempts including three from behind the three-point arc. Horner did him one better, going four from six from three-point land.

Iowa also got 11 points from Mike Henderson and nine rebounds from Greg Brunner.

Purdue defeated Iowa the last time the two teams met – in late February in West Lafayette. This time, however, the Hawkeyes didn’t let a second-half lead slip through their fingers. Instead, the took a 10-point halftime margin and stretched it into the 20s during the final stanza before coasting to win No. 20 of the season – a highwater mark for the Hawkeyes under Alford and inches closer to perhaps a bid to March Madness.

However, as grand as the day was for the Hawkeyes and it was, indeed, grand – history says Iowa does well in the league’s post-season tournament when it wins Game 1, the day was Keady’s win or lose.

Purdue’s veteran coach broke out his glasses for the second half, but there was little to see. Sitting next to Painter, he twiddled his thumbs, ran his hands up to that infamous combover, and several times leaned back, exhaling with disgust.

He coached right to the end, though. His gravelly voice rose above the squeaks of sneakers, and he shook his fist 12 times during a timeout with just 2 minutes to play.

When the game ended, he shook hands with Alford and each one of the Iowa players. Some of the Hawkeyes reached over to pat him on the shoulder in a mini hug. And then it was really over, a career the likes of which will rarely be seen again.

The 68-year-old said he’ll continue to be involved in basketball, and he didn’t rule out coaching again. For now, though, there’s that list of errands his wife has been wanting him to do for years.

“I just feel for him that his last year had to end the way it did,” Alford said. “I hope whatever it is, it’s his wishes and it’s what he wants to do. I know he can walk away right now and feel very satisfied he’s had a phenomenal career.”