The big news in Black Bear Nation over the last week was the passing of legendary UMaine baseball coach John Winkin. Winkin’s death comes just over a year after the passing of another past UMaine coach, former men’s basketball coach Rudy Keeling. While Keeling did not experience the success nor the longevity of Winkin, he was, nonetheless, a groundbreaking figure in the history of UMaine athletics.
As part of our Fill The Steins Summer Session series, we are proud to present our piece from last August profiling the late Coach Keeling. So, while you’re standing and drinking that toast to Coach Winkin, make sure you top off your glass and tip one back for Coach Keeling as well!
Rudy Keeling is one of four men who have coached the University of Maine men’s basketball team in my lifetime (Editor’s note: thankfully, that number is now five). Despite being 17 years removed from the end of his tenure patrolling the UMaine sidelines, and despite not being the coach when I actually attended the school, he is still the coach I most closely associate with the program. That’s because Keeling was the head coach during my formative years as a sports fan while growing up in nearby Bangor. Even though his UMaine coaching career ended with an overall losing record, he brought a level of success to the program that had never been seen before. That’s why, like many Maine sports fans of my generation, I was so saddened to learn of Keeling’s surprise passing last month.
The odds were against Rudy Keeling from the very beginning at UMaine. Not only was he the university’s first African-American head coach, but he was also tasked with replacing Skip Chappelle, a man who was well-liked in the UMaine community and well-respected within college basketball coaching circles. Combine these factors with the reality that Keeling was always going to play (at best) third fiddle on campus to more popular and accomplished coaches like Shawn Walsh and John Winkin, and it was hard to see a clear path to success. Keeling, however, forged that path, doing so the best way he knew how – by building relationships with people.
“He had a tremendous smile that lit up a room,” said Lee Goldberg, current Sports Director at WCSH-TV in Portland and former Sports Director and lead UMaine men’s basketball announcer for sister station WLBZ-TV in Bangor during the latter part of Keeling’s tenure with the Black Bears. “He was always smiling, always positive, and a great communicator to his players. The guys liked him. They didn’t do things for him because he told them to. They did it because they respected him.”
Keeling’s people skills and communication skills extended beyond his players. They extended to the media and to supporters of the program, remembers Goldberg.
“When he was talking to you, he was interested in you. He was invested in you,” said Goldberg. “I always felt like he was invested in me when we had a conversation. He always seemed interested in me. I enjoyed every moment I spent with him.”
Keeling’s strong interpersonal skills were also a key component in his ability to be a talented recruiter who brought in players from markets into which the Black Bears had not previously tapped.
“He had a fantastic connection as a basketball recruiter in the Midwest and brought in some great talent from that part of the country,” said Tim Throckmorton, Sports Director at WABI-TV in Bangor.
The talent Keeling brought in, coupled with his ability to communicate with and get the most out of his players, helped Keeling lead the Black Bears to the first 20-win season in school history in 1993-1994. That season, the Black Bears also reached their conference championship game, falling just one win short of their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
In 1996, Keeling left UMaine to become the head coach at former conference rival Northeastern, and later served as Athletic Director at Emerson College and as Commissioner of the ECAC, before his passing on July 6 of this year.
Even though the later part of his career was spent in other athletic endeavors in the northeastern part of the country, Keeling is, rightly, most remembered for his contributions to the University of Maine, for defying odds that were stacked against him, and for bringing the UMaine men’s basketball program to respectability. For those reasons, we “stand and drink a toast” to Harold Rudolph “Rudy” Keeling, and to the winning smile he always brought to “the college of our hearts always!”
What are your memories of Rudy Keeling and his time as the men’s basketball coach at UMaine? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or on Twitter using #FillTheSteins!
Photo courtesy: Portland Press Herald