It’s spring in Rock Hill, which for the last five or six years has meant job rumors swirling around Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey.
Spring, 2019 is no exception.
On the surface, the latest rumor involving Kelsey could have some legs.
Last weekend, Cincinnati hired John Brannen, a close friend of Kelsey’s. Brannen leaves Northern Kentucky after guiding the Norse to two NCAA tournaments in the last three seasons. NKU only joined NCAA Division I athletics seven years ago.
In the days since Brannen’s departure, numerous media outlets in Cincinnati have bandied about potential candidates to fill the opening at NKU, and Kelsey has been at the top of several lists. And on Tuesday night, multiple news reports out of the area said that Kelsey interviewed with Parker Executive Search, the search firm running Northern Kentucky’s pursuit of a new head coach.
Kelsey didn’t respond to a phone call or text message from The Herald. When he was asked about the Xavier opening in 2018, he said, “My policy is to never discuss or talk about any other situation but the one I’m in and those type of things are personal and are between my family and I. But I’d be happy and thrilled to talk about the job I have because it’s a phenomenal one and I’m really lucky to be the head coach at Winthrop.”
Reached Wednesday morning, Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin said, “I never want to comment on searches. I haven’t spoken to anyone, but that’s all I’m gonna say.”
NKU assistant athletic director Bryan McEldowney declined to make the school’s AD, Ken Bothof, available for interview on Tuesday.
“While no timetable is available,” McEldowney wrote in an email, “the search will be both thorough and as expeditious as possible.”
According to former Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman, Kelsey was involved in the NKU job opening in 2015, before the school ultimately opted for Brannen. Hickman, who retired in 2016, remembers discussing the NKU job with Kelsey four years ago, but didn’t remember if NKU offered Kelsey the job at any point.
Here are five reasons why the vacant NKU job could appeal to Kelsey in 2019:
Almost all of Kelsey’s extended family still lives in the Cincinnati area, including nearly 60 cousins. Kelsey’s family, especically his dad, Mike, were regular attendees at Winthrop games the past seven years, and no doubt would prefer a 15-minute drive over an eight-hour one, if given the choice.
Kelsey’s family has major connections to NKU. Kelsey’s sister, Katie Kelsey-Cluxton, is the school’s all-time leader in assists, and was inducted into NKU’s hall of fame in 2019. Her husband, Paul, and Kelsey’s younger brother, Walt, also starred for NKU’s men’s basketball team and are members of the school’s athletic hall of fame as well.
The job is not as much a lateral move as it would have been before Brannen took over. NKU moved from the Atlantic Sun to the Horizon League in 2015, and has reached the postseason each of the last three years (two NCAA tournaments, one NIT), winning at least 22 games each season. Winthrop has only been to one NCAA Tournament in the last nine years.
NKU, which, like Winthrop, doesn’t have a football program, has an enrollment of around 14,500 and plays its basketball in a $68.5 million arena built in 2008 that seats 9,400 fans and has a practice court and other built-in facilities. Kelsey thrives on fan and student engagement and would undoubtedly enjoy working at a bigger school.
Kelsey signed a new Winthrop contract in November, 2017, one that included a $225,000 buyout. The deal pays Kelsey just over $227,000 per year in base salary and included a number of retention bonuses as long as he remained Winthrop’s coach. Kelsey’s next $25,000 retention bonus would be paid in November, 2019.
If Kelsey terminates his Winthrop contract before it expires in March 31, 2022, either Kelsey or his new employer would pay the buyout.
Prior to his exit, John Brannen’s NKU contract paid him $370,000 base salary, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Herald. Had Brannen remained at NKU, he would have been eligible for a pay increase to $400,000 and an additional $25,000 retention bonus on July 1, 2019.
Kelsey has been connected to, or interviewed for, other job openings in the past five years, including James Madison, Siena, N.C. State and Xavier. He actually took the UMass job in 2016, only to change his mind shortly after and return to Winthrop.
The Norse only graduate two seniors that played substantial minutes, while Winthrop will welcome at least seven newcomers in the biggest offseason player turnover during Kelsey’s tenure in Rock Hill.
Limiting the unexpected departures of important players has been one of the keys to consistency during Kelsey’s time at Winthrop. Kelsey and his assistants also found plenty of recruiting success by stepping outside of normal pathways. The program landed a number of overseas talents, including Australian Xavier Cooks, one of the best and most unique players in Winthrop’s history.
Winthrop hit recruiting home runs with several transfers from the Division II level, namely Jimmy Gavin and Keon Moore, who became All-Big South players in Rock Hill.
And undersized guard Keon Johnson -- overlooked by many schools in his native Ohio -- left Winthrop as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
All of those players thrived in the particular offensive style Kelsey has injected into his Winthrop teams, playing fast and fluid when at their best. Winthrop was top-50 nationally in adjusted tempo (amount of possessions per game) each of the last four seasons, according to KenPom.com, finishing 16th (out of 351 teams) this past season.
The Eagles went 14-17 in Kelsey’s first season as a head coach, 2012-13, but have posted six straight winning campaigns in the years since, averaging 20.8 wins per season during that stretch.
Kelsey’s Winthrop record is 139-83. He took the Eagles to the Big South Conference tournament finals four straight seasons, from 2014 to 2017, winning the 2016 tournament and the accompanying NCAA Tournament automatic bid.