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Gordo: Ole Miss coach is latest victim of the SEC beast

February 21, 2018 GMT

Andy Kennedy was a perfectly fine basketball coach for the old Southeastern Conference.

He posted a 245-154 record and won 20 or more games nine times at Ole Miss, which was unheard at that school. He took the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament twice and the National Invitational Tournament six times.

Ah, but the SEC wants to be great in basketball these days. One by one, its schools poured more money into hoops.

One by one, they made ambitious coaching hires and began playing more ambitious non-conference schedules.

The league once dominated by Kentucky and Florida could send eight or nine teams to this year’s NCAA Tournament. Those schools that miss will be expected to get there soon. Expectations just keep rising.

So Kennedy won’t be on the sidelines when Ole Miss plays at Mizzou Tuesday night. Assistant coach Tony Madlock will be in charge as acting head coach.

Kennedy became the latest casualty in this hoops renewal, following the likes of Kim Anderson, Johnny Jones, Donnie Tyndall, Rick Ray, Tony Barbee and Anthony Grant out the door.

“Andy proved that Ole Miss can be a consistent winner,” Florida coach Mike White said during the SEC’s coaching teleconference. “Ole Miss, year in and year out for over a decade, has been very competitive in the non-conference, been very competitive in SEC play. His numbers speak for themselves.”

Until recently, the school’s basketball facilities were substandard. So were his staffing and recruiting resources. Yet Kennedy still set school records.

“He was able to build a practice facility, build a brand-new arena, attract great talent,” White said, who earlier worked as an assistant coach under Kennedy at Ole Miss.

But last Monday Kennedy resigned effective at season’s end. A week later he quit effective immediately after the Rebels suffered lopsided losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State.

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Ole Miss made him a lame duck coach this season and his players responded accordingly. Which is to say that they didn’t respond to him at all.

“We all know that ‘clean breaks’ are always best, and I should have realized this last Monday,” Kennedy said with his second statement. “My apologies.”

Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork is a former athletic development officer at Mizzou. He has watched the Cuonzo Martin hiring lift the MU program back to national relevance in Year 1.

That was just the latest strong basketball coaching hire in the SEC. White made the leap from Louisiana Tech to Florida and reached the NCAA’s Elite Eight in his second season.

Former Providence, Clemson and Texas coach Rick Barnes has restored order at Tennessee. Former Pittsburgh and UCLA coach Ben Howland has recruited top-end talent to Mississippi State.

Former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson is driving Alabama back onto the national stage. Will Wade, a coaching baby-face at age 35, is energizing LSU after winning at Chattanooga and VCU.

(The frenetic Wade may have burned more calories in that single one-point victory over Missouri than predecessor Johnny Jones did during his entire final season.)

Former Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew seems certain to succeed at Vanderbilt, where Kevin Stallings became stale after 17 years. The Commodores could play spoiler in this year’s SEC Tournament at Scottrade Center and, like LSU, they have big-time recruits arriving for next season.

Frank Martin took South Carolina to the Final Four, John Calipari is still running his NBA Developmental Program at Kentucky and Billy Kennedy could get Texas A&M back to the Big Dance this season.

Master showman Bruce Pearl has worked recruiting miracles at Auburn, but his carriage could turn into the pumpkin once the FBI, the NCAA and the school get done examining how his program greased its gears. In the meantime, he keeps winning.

So when a SEC team slips, as Ole Miss did this season, there is no end to its suffering. The Rebels carry a seven-game losing streak into Boone County.

“This league is a monster,” beleaguered Georgia coach Mark Fox observed Saturday after the Bulldogs managed to beat Tennessee.

“The key for our league, is one through 14, it’s just so hard,” Howland said during the teleconference. “I don’t care who you play, it is a difficult game every night.”

No longer is basketball an activity to keep fans occupied until spring football arrives. It is a major revenue source for the league and a ratings builder for the SEC Network.

“The recruiting is better. The coaching is better,” Avery Johnson said during the teleconference. “Teams get better support at home, in terms of fan support.”

The quest for league-wide greatness will only intensify going forward. That mandate has come down from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.

“Every team in this league is good and dangerous and competitive,” White said during the teleconference. “Every arena is difficult to play in. It’s obviously as competitive as it’s ever been. It’s as competitive as any league in the country.”

And as Kennedy found out, that’s not for everyone.