April 28, 2013

The Fayetteville Observer: McGeehan's dream comes true

Fayetteville Observer Sports

By Bret Strelow
The Fayetteville Observer
Reprinted with permission

BUIES CREEK - The seat behind Kevin McGeehan's office desk offers a view comparable to the grassy overlook where a honeymooning McGeehan and his wife, Melissa, gazed at the Pacific Ocean nine years ago.

Both are beautiful to the basketball-crazed coach.

Earlier this month, Campbell hired the 39-year-old McGeehan, a former Richmond assistant, to lead the Camels. His humble beginnings in the business date back to 1995, when he first connected with current Richmond coach Chris Mooney as a high school assistant, and the career-changing text message McGeehan received while sitting next to his bride in Hawaii started a chain of events that have resulted in him becoming a Division I head coach.

McGeehan was cut from his high school basketball team four times, and he worked in a maintenance closet during his first stint as a college coach. Each experience helped shape the driven individual who introduced himself to a crowd of Campbell supporters April 11.

"You just get bit by the bug a little bit," McGeehan said. "I remember, when I started, my dad asking me, 'Do you like it?' I said, 'I love it. All I want to do is figure out how to wake up every day and worry about coaching basketball.'

"It was definitely the dream right away, and it's been a path to get here. An awesome path."

Life-changing message

Relaxing outside a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Hawaii nearly a decade ago, looking at the ocean, McGeehan picked up his phone to read a message from longtime friend and former colleague Mooney.

Princeton coach John Thompson III was taking the Georgetown job, the text said.

McGeehan knew his life was about to change. This was his big break.

Thompson's move meant that Princeton would hire alum Joe Scott, Air Force's head coach. Mooney, Scott's top assistant, would receive a promotion to head coach. With an assistant's spot open, Mooney would hire McGeehan away from Springfield (Pa.) High School.

After nine years of coaching at the high school and small college levels, McGeehan was headed to a Division I program.

"Not a lot of high school coaches have a realistic shot of being on the road in Division I," McGeehan said. "That's what happened for me, and that was incredibly fortunate and a great opportunity. Then you start moving. It's hard to do it that way."

McGeehan has assisted Mooney for 14 of the previous 18 seasons, including the last eight at Richmond, bookending a partnership that began at Lansdale Catholic (Pa.) High School.

A year after graduating from Princeton, Mooney was hired as Lansdale's head coach. He picked McGeehan, who had just graduated from Gettysburg (Pa.) College, to be his assistant.

They had similar ideas and philosophies given that McGeehan's college coach, George Petrie, is the brother of Geoff Petrie, the Sacramento Kings president, who played at Princeton. Taking over a 4-18 team, Mooney and McGeehan led Lansdale to two conference championships with one district title in three seasons.

"He was a smart guy and he loved basketball," Mooney said of McGeehan, who spent his nights working toward dual master's degrees in secondary and higher education and counseling at West Chester (Pa.) University. "We just couldn't stop talking basketball, program building, the excitement of that."

The two young men left Lansdale in 1998 to coach Division III Beaver College in Glenside, Pa., where Mooney also served as an on-campus events coordinator, meaning he'd schedule the use of facilities and even show prospective brides around the school's historic Grey Towers Castle.

McGeehan had an office in that majestic building - sort of.

Still finishing his master's in counseling at West Chester in addition to coaching basketball, McGeehan worked part-time with Beaver's center for education abroad, which serves hundreds of colleges and universities.

The Grey Towers Castle features administrative offices, conference rooms and student residences on its three main floors. McGeehan didn't have his own work space, but he was told he could go to the basement and turn a smoky maintenance closet into an office.

Equipped with a brush and bucket of white paint, he pulled books away from the walls, stacked them in the middle of the floor and started painting.

Each day, when other employees entered the building and went up to their offices, McGeehan headed downstairs with a strip of mailing labels and lots of envelopes to stuff. The music from a radio provided his only company.

"I couldn't be happier," McGeehan said, "because at 3 o'clock, I could walk across two fields and I was at the basketball court to do what I really wanted to do."

Couldn't make team

Being involved with basketball is what McGeehan always wanted to do.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, his family spent summers at the Jersey Shore, and McGeehan played on the outdoor courts for up to 10 hours a day.

He attended La Salle College High School but went 0-for-4 on attempts to play for the private school. The coach brought in transfers to fill his team, making it almost impossible for regular students to earn a roster spot. McGeehan was only about 5-foot-4 before hitting a painful, 10-inch growth spurt as a sophomore, and he was the final player cut in each of his final two years.

McGeehan had proven himself as a capable player, though, while competing at camps, showcases and Catholic Youth Organization events. Like most of the La Salle standouts, he was receiving interest from Division III colleges, particularly Gettysburg and Dickinson.

McGeehan didn't play much at Gettysburg, but he was a captain as a senior. Shortly thereafter, when Gettysburg's graduate assistant coach couldn't take a job as a high school assistant in his hometown because he was trying to complete his doctorate, he told McGeehan to contact the new head coach.

He called Mooney at Lansdale, where McGeehan had considered transferring as a prep senior so he could play at least one year of school-affiliated basketball. Instead, it's where a coaching career was born.

"Some of those experiences definitely had an impact on the desire to do this," McGeehan said. "I loved it, first and foremost, but there were points where there was that driving force in the back of my mind of how hard I was working at the game of basketball to show them I could make it."

McGeehan coached in his home state for nine seasons, the last two at Springfield High, where he had been serving as a guidance counselor even while coaching at Beaver College. Seeking continuity, he left Beaver so he could work and coach at the same place.

Two years earlier, when Air Force hired Princeton assistant Joe Scott, he added Mooney, whom Scott had previously coached, to the Falcons' staff. Mooney showed similar loyalty to McGeehan in 2004, and they were together in Colorado Springs, Colo., for one season before Mooney resigned to take the Richmond job.

Mooney's offense, which relies on spacing, movement, screening and other principles of the famous Princeton system, wasn't an immediate success. The Spiders went 21-39 in the first two seasons, but they won 36 games over the next two years and reached the NCAA tournament in 2010. A year later, Richmond won the Atlantic 10 tournament final in Atlantic City, N.J., and reached the Sweet 16.

After the net-cutting celebration in New Jersey, McGeehan arrived home at 11 p.m. The next day, his wife gave birth to the couple's third child, a daughter named Grace. Mooney is her godfather.

The two friends have spent countless hours together over the last two decades, and they're separating again after another successful run, this time on a much bigger stage.

"As sweet as it was walking off the floor of the Sweet 16 arm in arm, it was even sweeter by the fact we were at Lansdale and Beaver College, losing big at Richmond," Mooney said. "With the whole spectrum of emotions we've shared, it's tough, but I couldn't be happier and more proud."

New Camels coaches

Mooney sat in the second row, directly behind McGeehan's family, as Campbell athletic director Bob Roller announced the hiring of his new basketball coach in the Pope Convocation Center lobby.

Roller, who arrived at Campbell two years ago, fired football coach Dale Steele in November and replaced him with former Carolina Panthers standout Mike Minter. Less than four months later, Roller fired basketball coach Robbie Laing, who went 114-185 in 10 years and 13-20 during an injury-plagued 2012-13 season.

Roller delivered a friendly message to both incoming coaches as they talked on the day of McGeehan's press conference.

"I said, 'OK guys, now let's go,' " Roller said. "We're through the hard part. Now, both of them are ready to take charge."

Attempting to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992, Campbell was picked to win the Big South's North Division in 2012-13, but the short-handed Camels finished 7-9 in league play. The team's lone senior was high-scoring wing Darren White, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in early January. Point guard Trey Freeman headlines a strong core of returning players.

McGeehan likes interchangeable parts, such as a 6-2 guard who posts up defenders and a 6-8 forward who knocks down 3-pointers. There's a framework to the Princeton-style offense, which produced 8.3 3-pointers per game this season for Richmond, but it's adaptable. When talented guard Kevin Anderson was with the Spiders, the coaches wanted him handling the ball frequently and using more ball screens, adjustments that paid off with back-to-back NCAA appearances.

Aside from strategy, communication remains one of McGeehan's strong suits.

"Whenever Kevin was recruiting a guy, he was always hugging the mom the first time I'd meet a family," Mooney said. "He just has a way of connecting with people. More than anything, it's his capacity to listen and the counselor in him. It makes him a good teacher because he's not just screaming to do it harder. He's reading what's going on and how he can teach it better."

McGeehan's life has been a whirlwind since Campbell hired him. He already has worked long hours to complete his coaching staff, familiarize himself with the team's roster and recruit for the immediate future.

McGeehan was limited to specific responsibilities as a Division I assistant, but now he's in charge of everything. Considering where he started and the path he took to Campbell, it's a change that won't elicit any complaints.

"Finally having his opportunity to be a head coach is his dream," Melissa McGeehan said. "This is like a dream come true for him."

Staff writer Bret Strelow can be reached at strelowb@fayobserver.com or 486-3513.