Wednesday will mark the first time since 2005 that Kentucky plays an Ole Miss team coached by someone other than Andy Kennedy.
His resignation early last week — which was intended to remove the uncertainty about his status from the players’ minds — came after Ole Miss won 22 games last season. The Rebels had won that many games in a season only five times previously. Kennedy, the winningest coach in program history, led Ole Miss to three of its six seasons of 22 or more victories.
“People are amazed I’m just not bitter about everything,” Kennedy said Monday. “I’ve been here 12 years. I had one bad season, and I’m out at Ole Miss.
“But I get it. Twelve years is a long time. I had a good run (and) been blessed beyond my imagination. I appreciate it. I want to see the program do well.”
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Kennedy did not need to be persuaded about how there’s a shelf life for any coach no matter how successful. After a period of time, fans want a new toy to play with.
“That’s just how it is,” Kennedy said. “Unless you’re having just crazy success like Cal.”
Actually, UK fans grumbled this winter even though John Calipari had led Kentucky to six Elite Eights, four Final Fours, the 2012 national championship and five Southeastern Conference regular-season championships in his first eight seasons as coach.
Kennedy is one of five SEC coaches to win 20 or more games in nine of his first 10 or 11 seasons. The other four are Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith of Kentucky, Nolan Richardson (Arkansas) and Billy Donovan (Florida). But Kennedy understands the desire for a fresh face.
Of the Ole Miss struggles this season (12-17 overall, 5-11 in the SEC), Kennedy said, “Let’s be honest. I’ve had enough time to fix it. Let’s let somebody else fix it. You hate to say it’s inevitable, but you understand. I’m at peace with it.”
I’m not used to sitting on my back deck and pontificating life. That’s not what I have a lot of time for.
Andy Kennedy, on why he’s not ready to retire from coaching
Parrish Alford, a longtime sportswriter for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal summed it up by saying, “He’s a victim of his own success.”
Speculation about the coach’s job security arose last spring when Ole Miss vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics Ross Bjork did not roll over Kennedy’s contract.
Then with the Rebels struggling this season, a conversation with former LSU coach John Brady led Kennedy to announce on Feb. 12 his resignation effective at the end of the season.
“I kind of realized there’s this ominous cloud that seems to be forming over the program,” Kennedy said. “And it’s all based on me and my status. Our team didn’t play very inspired that day (an 82-66 loss at LSU). Maybe this is putting undue stress on everybody.”
Kennedy hoped his resignation announcement would renew his players’ spirits. Instead, Ole Miss lost 75-64 at home to Arkansas. Afterward, Kennedy said, “I’ve never been more disappointed in this profession. Never. . . . I would walk away right now and never to be heard from again on this campus. If that’s what this team needs. . . . But this is beneath the standard that is Ole Miss.”
Kennedy hoped the next game would revive his team’s competitive spirit. It didn’t. The Rebels lost 79-62 at archrival Mississippi State.
“As opposed to freeing them, it was almost as if it added another layer to it,” Kennedy said of his initial resignation.
Kennedy met again with Bjork the next day and then announced on Feb. 19 that he would resign immediately.
“It’s time for change,” he said. “And Ole Miss needs a new voice and a new vision.”
Kennedy, who turns 50 on March 13, wants to continue coaching. With one daughter doing well in college (Samford) and the other a high school senior, the timing is right for a change.
“I’m not used to sitting on my back deck and pontificating life,” he said. “That’s not what I have a lot of time for.”
However, his history with Kentucky could spark reflection. Three games immediately came to mind:
▪ Ole Miss taking undefeated and No. 1-ranked Kentucky into overtime in 2015. Stefan Moody having to leave the game early in overtime because of cramps helped UK win.
▪ Nerlens Noel blocking a school record 12 shots to lead UK to a victory at Ole Miss in 2013. It was the only game the Rebels lost at home that season.
▪ Then-UK Coach Billy Gillispie scolding sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards during a halftime interview at Ole Miss in 2009. Ole Miss won, starting a downward spiral that culminated with Gillispie’s firing.
“It’s almost like I feel honored to have an opportunity to coach against them in Rupp Arena,” said Kennedy, who won at every SEC venue except Rupp and Texas A&M’s Reed Arena.
Flashing his trademark sense of humor, Kennedy added, “Right now, I’m glad I won’t get my (butt) whipped Wednesday night.”
Mississippi at No. 23 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Mississippi 12-17 (5-11 SEC), Kentucky 20-9 (9-7)
Series: Kentucky leads 105-13
Last meeting: Kentucky won 99-76 on Dec. 29, 2016, at Oxford, Miss.