Winthrop coach speaks from the heart

December 20, 2012

The chance to be a head college basketball coach is what Pat Kelsey waited his entire adult life.

That his first shining moment in that role came in his home state is pure coincidence.

The the first-year Winthrop coach turned a colorful postgame news conference at Ohio State into a powerful one. After answering questions following Tuesday night's 65-55 loss to the seventh-ranked Buckeyes, Kelsey asked if he could say one more thing, noting that he "might not have a microphone this big" again.

Kelsey started talking about wanting to get home and hug his young daughters after last last weeks' tragedy in Newtown, Conn. He started talking about how the incident should spark change in this country and in each of us. He he called on leaders, from the President, clergymen, coaches and teachers, to spark change, starting at home.

At the end of that eight-hour bus ride that started late Tuesday night and ended early Wednesday morning back in Rock Hill, SC, Kelsey went into their rooms and hugged his daughters, aged 4 and 5. By the time he arrived in his office Wednesday around noon, he had a stack of interview requests from newspapers and websites nationwide and even a national TV station.

"It struck me that I had a platform not many have, and maybe one I won't have again," Kelsey said by phone on Wednesday. "I hate to say there might be some silver lining come from this terrible thing, but there has to be.

"I said what I felt. I never envisioned it being a huge deal. I feel strongly that this is a great country, and that we have enough great people who are in position to make changes and make sure we're in this together — make sure something like this never happens again."

In his Ohio State postgame comments, Kelsey promised his daughters would get "the biggest hugs they'd ever gotten" when he got home. He and his team had been gone since Friday, Dec. 14, when the Eagles traveled to Ohio University for a Saturday game.

Winthrop won that game 50-49, and the team traveled from Athens, Ohio to Kelsey's hometown of Cincinnati before going to Ohio State on Monday. In 40 hours or so in Cincinnati, "we practiced at Xavier, ate at (famous ribs restaurant) Montgomery Inn and the players got to hear a thousand stories about me growing up and how much I loved that place."

During his downtime, though, Kelsey said he couldn't stop thinking about Newtown and his daughters back at home.

"I was absolutely sick," he said.

Long considered a rising star in the coaching business, Kelsey stepped away from it altogether 19 months ago. The night former Xavier and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser died in 2007, Kelsey, then a Wake Forest assistant was the first to find Prosser. His mentor's death wore on him to the point that in May 2011, he decided to step away from his job at Xavier, intent on spending more time with his family and finding out if he'd ever have the desire to return.

"Coach Prosser had meant so much to me," Kelsey said. "More than I can put into words. This business, this life, it's not for everybody. It's long years paying your dues, long hours recruiting.

"What I needed to do was step away, really savor some time with my family and really figure out if I was going to be able to do this and still be a great father, a great husband, all the things that matter."

The point guard and leader of Cincinnati Elder High School's 1993 state championship team, Kelsey grew up with basketball. He had a brother and a sister who played at Northern Kentucky. He started his own college career at Wyoming before transferring home to Xavier, where he played for Prosser.

"My dad was a businessman, but he was always coaching me," Kelsey said. "I always loved the game, every part of it. When I got to high school I had the honor of playing for Joe Schoenfeld, who was not only a coach who had been winning for a long time but a man who molded and pushed young men. I had great role models. The path was kind of laid in front of me."

Schoenfeld was so important to Kelsey that the old coach was in the young coach's wedding.

Kelsey's only previous head-coaching job came in 1999-2001 when he led the freshman team at Elder. He went from there to Wake Forest, working under Prosser, first as director of basketball operations, then as an assistant coach from 2005-09 until returning home to Xavier and working under Chris Mack.

When Kelsey accepted his new job last March, Mack said Winthrop "hit a grand slam." For now, Kelsey said he's content hitting a series of singles as he guides Winthrop (4-5) and gets comfortable in his new role. Prosser's son, Mark, is on Kelsey's Winthrop staff as an assistant.

"As head coach, you're the CEO," Kelsey said. "It's one thing to be an assistant and make suggestions — and believe me, I made a lot of suggestions that I thought were the smartest things in the world. It's a whole new ballgame when you're making decisions, not just suggestions. When the buck stops at your desk, it's different.

"It's new and it's challenging, but it's good. I like making these decisions. I like leading these young men."

The contracts for the trip to Ohio were done before Kelsey took over, but he played a part in scheduling them together — and he did so with a smile. He knows Ohio's back roads and basketball hot spots, and plans to take advantage of them as his career goes forward.

Two of three players who signed with Winthrop in the early signing period for 2013 are from Ohio, Josh Davenport from Cincinnati Moeller and Keon Johnson from Mansfield Senior. Kelsey notes those are "two of the winningest programs in Ohio high school basketball history," and he certainly knows his Buckeye state basketball history.

"Growing up, going to St. John Arena (Ohio State's former arena), that was like going to Mecca," he said Tuesday night.

At Ohio State's new, shiny building across the street, Kelsey had a moment he'll never forget.