For any college basketball coach, the first time they call the shots in Rupp Arena as a head man must be a singular career moment. For first-year Eastern Kentucky Coach Dan McHale, Wednesday night’s EKU contest in Rupp with No. 5 Kentucky will carry extra meaning.
A UK alumnus, McHale sat on the Kentucky bench as a student manager for four years (1997-2001) working under the late, long-time Wildcats equipment manager Bill Keightley.
McHale still laughs about the night then-Kentucky assistant Mike Sutton asked him to move from the end of the Cats bench where the managers normally sit to the front end with the coaches. The reason was because McHale was keeping a defensive chart with information Sutton wanted the coaches to have constant access to.
Problem was, nobody told Tubby Smith about the move. As soon as the game started, McHale found himself on the receiving end of the Tubby “death stare.”
“I’m sitting in the second chair, right next to Mr. Keightley,” McHale recalls. “Tubby didn’t know why I was down there, so he gives me that stare. I’m 21-years-old, and I’m thinking ‘I’m not sure I’m ready for this.’ Next game, I told Coach Sutton I was moving back down to the end (of the bench).”
Before he brings his first team to Rupp Arena as a head coach, McHale has already experienced the venue in both its extremes.
He recalls sitting on the UK bench Dec. 19, 1998, when the No. 5-ranked Wildcats of Scott Padgett, Wayne Turner etc. ... hooked up in a scintillating, up-tempo duel with No. 2-ranked Maryland and Steve Francis.
“There was so much electricity, and it was such an up-and-down game,” McHale said of Kentucky’s 103-91 win. “I remember looking around Rupp and thinking, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’”
A Chatham, N.J., product, McHale knew at age 8 he wanted to be a college basketball coach. He chose to attend UK starting in the fall of 1997 because he believed serving as a student manager under Rick Pitino would be the best available entrée into his chosen profession.
I’m proud to be an alum (of UK). I’m proud of the opportunity Mr. Keightley gave me. This will be special for me, it really will.
EKU Coach Dan McHale
Pitino, however, left Kentucky for the Boston Celitcs before McHale got to UK. So when Ricky P. returned to the college game at Louisville in 2001, McHale seized a second chance to apprentice under Pitino. He became a staff assistant at U of L.
That meant McHale was on the Cardinals side for what was likely the most hostile Rupp reception ever accorded any visitor — when Pitino came back to his old Kentucky home as coach of UK’s archrival on Dec. 29, 2001.
“I remember being back in the locker room with Coach before he came out,” McHale said of Pitino. “He holds up two ties, a red one and one the color I don’t remember. He said, ‘Which one?’ I said, ‘The red one, definitely.’ That day, being on the other side in Rupp, it was crazy. Surreal.”
Even with the current Cats coming off a loss at UCLA, things don’t figure to be quite that fevered when McHale brings EKU to Rupp.
When Eastern hired the former Seton Hall (under Kevin Willard) and Minnesota (Richard Pitino) assistant to replace Jeff Neubauer, McHale promised he would install an uptempo style similar to what Rick Pitino used in his Kentucky days.
So far McHale has delivered on that vow times twenty. EKU (7-2) comes to Lexington sixth in the nation in scoring (90.4 points a game), fifth in three-point field goal percentage (44.3) and 24th in three-pointers made (average of 10 a game).
McHale inherited a Colonels program that graduated its three best players, Corey Walden, Eric Stutz and Timmy Knipp, from last season’s 21-12 team. However, newcomers have so far filled that void with aplomb.
Jarrelle Reischel (pronounced Juh-REL Ruh-SHELL), averaged three points a game last year at Rhode Island. After transferring, the 6-foot-7 Reischel has played like a star at EKU (19.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2 steals).
JaVontae Hawkins, who sat out last season at Eastern after transferring from South Florida, has thrived (18.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) in McHale’s frenetic style. The 6-5 wing had the decisive basket in the Colonels’ 74-71 victory at Savannah State Saturday.
McHale reports that the Eastern players are excited to face Kentucky in Rupp Arena. They’ll have to go some to match their coach.
“I’m proud to be an alum (of UK),” McHale said. “I’m proud of the opportunity Mr. Keightley gave me. This will be special for me, it really will.”
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m., Dec. 9
Where: Rupp Arena