RICHMOND — Dan McHale, the new Eastern Kentucky University men's basketball head man, was 8 when he decided his mission in life was to coach college hoops.
By the time the Chatham, N.J., product was a high school senior in 1997, he had a plan to gain entry into his life's profession. He was going to attend the University of Kentucky, work as a basketball manager and learn coaching from Rick Pitino.
Except to earn entree into the world of UK basketball managers, McHale discovered that Pitino's opinion might not be the most important one he needed in his favor. Bill Keightley, the longtime UK equipment manager, had to be won over, too.
To make an impression on "Mr. Wildcat," McHale launched a relentless letter-writing campaign.
"I wrote Mr. Keightley handwritten letters every single day," McHale recalled last week in his still-empty EKU office. "I came down to visit the school, and I knew Mr. Bill was an early-morning guy. He pretty much unlocked Memorial Coliseum every morning."
That knowledge led McHale to formulate a game plan. He would show the depths of his desire to become part of the Kentucky basketball program by beating Keightley to the office.
"I did, too, I actually beat Mr. Bill to Memorial Coliseum," McHale said, smiling. "I camped outside his office. He said 'Son, it's 5:30 in the morning. Nobody beats me here.' I think that's how I got the job."
When McHale was introduced earlier this month as Jeff Neubauer's replacement at EKU, he was widely — and correctly — referred to as a member of the impressive Rick Pitino coaching tree. McHale, after all, served two separate stints as an aide in Pitino's program at Louisville. He then moved up the coaching ladder under former U of L assistants Kevin Willard (at Iona and Seton Hall) and Richard Pitino (Minnesota).
However, the new EKU head coach is also part of another coaching legacy, perhaps the most unlikely "coaching tree" in all of basketball — Bill Keightley's.
Former student managers under Keightley — who worked in the UK equipment office from 1962 until his death in 2008 — have left a coaching footprint across basketball in the 21st century at a variety of levels.
High school: Donnie Adkins (lettered as a UK manager in 1963-65) and Jeff Morrow (1989-92) have each won Kentucky boys' state championships as head coaches, for Lafayette (2001) and Jeffersontown (2006), respectively.
Junior college: Jeff Kidder (earned UK letter as manager in 1989) claimed a national championship at Utah's Dixie State College in 2002.
Small college: Chris Briggs (2002-04) coached Georgetown College to the 2013 NAIA Division I national title.
The NBA: Frank Vogel (1996) led the Indiana Pacers to last season's Eastern Conference finals.
That doesn't take into account Steven "Zo" Goodson (2002-05), currently the director of player development for Tubby Smith at Texas Tech, nor Kevin Murphy (1998-2000), who has worked as an assistant at Manhattan, Seton Hall and Monmouth but is not presently in coaching. (I'm sure there are others, too. Not claiming this as an all-encompassing list.)
Now, with Eastern hiring McHale, one of Keightley's former managers is a NCAA Division I head coach here in the commonwealth.
"Mr. Keightley would be loving this," Georgetown's Briggs said Friday. "He'd be super-proud of all of us."
In his time as a UK student manager, McHale said he "worked my way up from being a freshman and folding towels."
By his senior year, he was on the Kentucky bench during games keeping the deflections chart for Tubby Smith or making sure the Cats coach knew how many timeouts he had. "Tubby would turn to me and give me that look, those eyes," McHale said of the famous "Tubby glare." "It was great."
Aaron Howard (lettered as UK manager from 1998-2002) was McHale's roommate at UK. "Dan came to Kentucky to learn to be a coach, and he never lost sight of that," Howard said. "He'd come back to the (Wildcat Lodge) room, and he made notes on every practice we had."
At EKU, McHale hopes to use the full-court press and matchup zone he learned from Rick Pitino. He envisions using offensive principles from Billy Donovan that were in the playbook of former Gators assistant Richard Pitino at Minnesota.
What he will bring to Richmond from his time with Bill Keightley will fall more under the category of life experience.
"Even before class, I'd go into Mr. Keightley's office at 6 a.m.," McHale said. "We became real close. We'd talk baseball — he loved the Reds, I was a Mets fan. We'd talk hoops. We'd talk about everything, really. We developed that bond. We just had a lot of fun."