Reviving Texas A&M Has Become a Life-Affirming Mission for Coach Billy Kennedy

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Reviving Texas A&M Has Become a Life-Affirming Mission for Coach Billy Kennedy
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The suit is in the upstairs closet, the shiny black shoes replaced by a pair of gray Nikes.

Nine miles from Reed Arena, just hours after a victory over Missouri, the coach of the highest-ranked Texas A&M team in history wears sweatpants and a T-shirt as he watches SportsCenter from the study of his four-bedroom home.

Most nights, Billy Kennedy and his wife may have celebrated with a filet a few miles down the road at the Republic Steakhouse or dined on some seafood at Christopher's World Grille. But on this Saturday evening in January—with his eldest daughter, Lexie, and other friends and relatives in town—Kennedy has opted to eat at home.

"Just wanted a little privacy," said Kennedy, reclining in a leather chair shortly before dinner. When snippets from the Aggies' victory flash across the screen, the room goes silent.

"I love the Aggies," ESPN analyst Dino Gaudio said at the end of the highlights. "They're not just one of the best teams in the SEC. They're one of the best teams in the entire country."

Kennedy initially expresses frustration that Gaudio failed to mention that the Aggies' 13-point victory came without forward Tyler Davis, who missed the game with an injury. But as he pushes the mute button on the remote control, the coach is overcome with a moment of clarity.

Kennedy smiles gently.

"It's nice to be talked about again," he said.

Especially in this fashion.

Kennedy has dominated the headlines in College Station before, but not for reasons he had hoped.

Patrick Murphy-Racey/Getty Images
Kennedy led the Aggies to 18 wins in their first 21 games this season.

In the fall of 2011—just three months after leaving Murray State for his "dream job" at Texas A&M—the 47-year-old Kennedy was diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's disease, an incurable, degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement.

For more than a month, Kennedy kept his condition a secret as he hosted recruits and spoke at booster functions—all the while preparing to coach a team that had been picked in the preseason to win the Big 12.

Still, no matter hard he worked, Kennedy found himself lying in bed each night, staring at his ceiling, unable to sleep.

"For five weeks, I didn't sleep for more than two hours a night," Kennedy said. "Anxiety, depression…all of that stuff can set in. I was thinking about things I shouldn't have been thinking about—about the future and the possibility that things could go south."

More than four years later, life is going in the opposite direction for Kennedy.

And for the Aggies.

The man who initially considered quitting after his diagnosis has his squad in contention for the SEC title. With a resume that includes wins over Texas, Iowa State, Florida, Baylor, LSU and Gonzaga, Texas A&M is a virtual lock to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.

The Aggies have been ranked as high as No. 5 in the AP Top 25 poll, making Kennedy a candidate for both SEC and national Coach of the Year.

For Kennedy, the success means even more because of the battle he endured to achieve it.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press
Murray State went 107-53 and reached the NCAA tournament in 2010 in five seasons under Kennedy.

"This is a God thing," Kennedy said. "It happened like this for a reason. He planned it this way all along."

Even for a man strong in his faith, that theory was probably difficult to grasp in the months after Kennedy learned of his diagnosis. Countless times, Kennedy pondered whether coaching was the best thing not only for his future but also for the futures of the assistants he'd brought to College Station and the players counting on Kennedy to lead them.

"There was so much stress and uncertainty," Kennedy's wife, Mary, said. "Everything just hit him over the head at once. It was hard for him to think clearly."

Following the orders of his doctor, Kennedy took a three-week medical leave of absence in late October—not so much because of Parkinson's but to deal with the extreme exhaustion caused by a lack of rest.

"My body was shutting down," he said.

Aided by prescription medication, Kennedy spent most of his days in bed catching up on sleep while Mary organized her husband's office in the home they'd purchased just months earlier.

She hung pictures of Kennedy cutting down the nets at Murray State after the Racers won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and of Kennedy with Jason Kidd, the 10-time NBA All-Star whom Kennedy coached as an assistant at Cal.

Anything to motivate Billy. Anything to boost his spirits.

Eventually, as Kennedy began to regain his energy, the doubts about whether he should return to the sidelines subsided. Kennedy still remembers receiving a pivotal phone call from Aggies senior associate athletics director John Thornton—one of the key figures in his hiring.

"The only thing that's going to make you feel better is doing what you love," Thornton said. "And what you love is on that court. You need to get back out there."

Kennedy made his Texas A&M debut in the second game of the season, an 83-58 home win against Southern. Four nights later, he was coaching the Aggies in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Convinced by Texas A&M's athletic director John Thornton that a return to the court would help lift his body and mind, Kennedy made his Aggies debut in the second game of the 2011-12 season after starting his fight against Parkinson's earlier that fall.

Glad as he was to be back, the situation was overwhelming for Kennedy.

Along with leading a group of players he'd met just six months earlier and hardly coached in the preseason, Kennedy was also adapting to a staff of assistants with whom he'd never worked.

Oddly, even with a new coach, Texas A&M had been picked as the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 in its final year in the conference. But a flurry of injuries (most notably to future NBA draft pick Khris Middleton and starting point guard Dash Harris) resulted in a 14-18 record overall and a 4-14 mark in the league.

Kennedy said he wanted to make roster changes in the offseason, but the team he inherited was in such poor academic standing that doing so would've caused a huge hit to the program's academic progress rate, which could've led to NCAA-mandated tournament bans, scholarship losses and reduced practice time.

"I couldn't get rid of anyone," Kennedy said. "And, in turn, that made it tough to sign anyone."

Nothing, though, was as challenging as what Kennedy and his staff faced on the recruiting trail. Multiple times, Aggies assistants were informed that opposing coaches were telling prospects they should avoid Texas A&M because Kennedy had Parkinson's disease. At times, they even resorted to telling lies. 

"Kennedy isn't going to live out his contract."

"He'll never be at practice because he'll be in the hospital all the time."

"You won't get to know him because he'll only show up for games."

"One coach even told [a recruit] that he might catch Parkinson's from being around Billy," Aggies assistant Kyle Keller said. "It was unbelievable. Billy is the nicest guy I've ever come across in this profession. There's not a better, more upstanding person in our business than him.

Sam Craft/Associated Press
Kennedy and his staff say they have had to refute the claims of rival recruiters that Kennedy's Parkinson's treatments would make him little more than a caretaker coach.

"So I hear this, and I'm thinking, 'You're taking a shot at BK? Are you serious?' It's a sad deal that people would try to use Parkinson's against someone. It just shows you the cut-throat, Power Five, BCS level that we're at."

Instead of harboring anger about the dirty recruiting, Kennedy found a way to make it work in his favor.

He offered to play recruits one-on-one to show how little he'd been affected by the disease, and he openly questioned the character of those who had spread the false rumors.

"I flipped it," Kennedy said. "I'd say, 'They're obviously lying to you about Parkinson's. What else could they be lying to you about? They could have cancer and not even know it.'

"I wouldn't let my assistants use that as an excuse (for not getting a recruit). I told them we've recruited around being a football school. We can recruit around this, too."

Off the court, Kennedy was making noticeable strides, both mentally and physically. After experimenting with several medications, he eventually found a treatment that helped with the occasional pain in his neck, shoulders and arms.

He currently takes three pills twice a day. He's participated in yoga classes and visited acupuncturists and improved his diet. Green smoothies are a staple.

Kennedy also lifts weights regularly and spends 30-40 minutes on the treadmill multiple times each week. Anything, he said, "to loosen stuff up."

"When we're in the gym after practice, he's right there working out with us," Aggies guard Alex Caruso said. "It's amazing how good of shape he's in."

On the court, though, it took a while for Kennedy to enjoy the same type of success as predecessors Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon.

Kennedy won 18 games in both his second and third seasons but finished below .500 in SEC play each time.

In the spring of 2014, as the Aggies bused from their Atlanta hotel to the Georgia Dome for the SEC tournament, Kennedy received a call from a reporter informing him that rumors were swirling about his job security. And the buzz only intensified after an opening-round loss to Missouri.

"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't heard those things (toward the end of the season)," Kennedy said. "But I wasn't worried. I believed in the process. I thought we had the support of the right Aggies, and we'd won just enough to show we were headed in the right direction.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Transfers Jalen Jones and Danuel House have combined to average more than 31 points a game for a Texas A&M team that was in third place in the SEC through 26 games.

"People like to talk about the process of a coach building a program, but people don't always realize it's a process from an administrative standpoint, too. A coach needs time to get his own guys, time to weed things out, time to absorb a mistake that may have been made in recruiting, time to build fan support. Some guys don't get that time, but (athletic director) Eric Hyman gave it to me."

Indeed, rather than fire Kennedy after his third season, Hyman gave him a two-year contract extension.

It's paying off.

The addition of transfers Danuel House (Houston) and Jalen Jones (SMU) propelled Texas A&M to a 21-12 record last season, including an 11-7 mark in the SEC.

The Aggies likely would've earned an NCAA tournament bid had House, the team's leading scorer, not missed the final regular-season game (a 61-60 loss to Alabama) and the opening round of the SEC tournament (a 66-59 loss to Auburn) with a broken foot. 

Either way, the marked improvement Texas A&M showed in 2014-15 provided loads of momentum entering this season.

The addition of former longtime Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury to Kennedy's staff has also been a spark. Regarded as one of the nation's top recruiters, Stansbury helped sign a 2015 recruiting class that was ranked sixth in the country by ESPN.com.

Three members of that haul—Davis, DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder—are averaging more than 18 minutes a game as freshmen.

"We were missing out on guys I thought we should've been in on," Kennedy said. "Rick has changed that. I've never been around a guy as good as he is. He's relentless. He believes he can get anyone."

Just as the Aggies' play has improved, so has Kennedy's coaching. His wife said his passion for his job has elevated to a new level, that he spends more time studying film than ever before.

Kennedy's players have noticed a change, too. They said their coach, while still soft-spoken, is more upbeat and has more energy, and it's not uncommon for Kennedy to give a five-minute devotional before practice. Numerous times, he's shared bits and pieces of his motivational story.

"It sets a positive tone for the entire workout," Caruso said. "And, to be honest, it makes our team closer, coaches included. We've had ample talent to compete the past few years. The difference this year is that we have a little more talent and a lot more camaraderie."

Kennedy has also tweaked his methods for dealing with players who are struggling.

"If anything, I'm softer on them now," Kennedy said. "I've learned to love my players more. I think more big picture. We all say that as coaches, but when you go through a situation with your health and have to worry about your family and your future, you realize there are things in life more important than basketball.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Kennedy says he believes his fight with Parkinson's has allowed him to express his love for his players more openly, a change in his demeanor his players have come to appreciate.

"These kids have issues to deal with in their lives, too. I'm more understanding of that now than I was before. I want to be there to support them."

Kennedy, after all, knows firsthand how vital such support can be. One of the key reasons he's experiencing success, he said, is because of the encouragement he's received from the Aggies. Not just the players but the entire Texas A&M administration.

There is no way to predict if/when Kennedy's condition will worsen. According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, the progression of Parkinson's varies among individuals. Some people live with mild symptoms for many years, while others develop movement difficulties more quickly.

Kennedy said he's done worrying about what may occur in the future. He's too busy relishing what's happening in the present. Mary Kennedy said her husband's faith continues to shape his positive outlook.

"God was not surprised by this," Mary said. "He's not surprised that Parkinson's was waiting for us here in College Station, or that this team was going to have all sorts of crazy issues and injuries. God ordered that."

Time and time again during his first four years at Texas A&M, a few hours before almost every game, Kennedy and Mary would walk in circles around the court at Reed Arena and pray. They'd ask God to watch over those competing in the game that day. They'd pray for health of family and friends and offer thanks for what they have and for guidance.

"And at the end of the Prayer Circle, we'd pray for this arena to be filled some day," he said. "We'd pray for success here, that people would be excited and that we'd win games and hang banners."

Photo courtesy of Mary Kennedy
Kennedy and his wife, Mary, spend time before each game in prayer for good health and a good result on the court.

Imagine, then, how gratified Kennedy must've felt on Jan. 19 when he walked through the tunnel and onto the court for Texas A&M's game against LSU and Ben Simmons. A sellout crowd of 13,888—the largest in Reed Arena history—filled not only the seats but also the aisles.

School officials won't admit it, but the belief is that an extra 1,500 students were admitted into the building that day, pushing the attendance past 15,000. Texas A&M responded with a 71-57 victory.

"I'm so glad our administration stuck with [Kennedy] and gave him a chance," said Caruso, a senior. "We're ranked and we're getting some publicity and it looks like we'll make the tournament.

"That goes a long way toward letting Aggies around here know that the right choice was made."

Just as he did after the Missouri win, Kennedy went home that evening and listened to praise for his team on SportsCenter. The most satisfying thing, however, wasn't what the analysts said.

But rather what they didn't.

"The first few years I was here, I was 'Billy Kennedy, the coach with Parkinson's disease,'" Kennedy said. "Now I'm just 'Billy Kennedy, the basketball coach at Texas A&M University.'

"That's what I'd always wanted, to not be identified by the disease. That was my goal. That was my prayer."

 

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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