Ernie Kent: Never a dull moment
Ernie Kent is in Scottsdale, Ariz., now, able to reflect on where he’s been, and where he still wants to go.
“It’s almost identical,” he said, comparing the desert weather to his seven-year fling in the ‘80s as a coach in Saudi Arabia. “You’re able to have coffee outside in the morning, and a glass of wine outside late at night.”
Kent, 66, was one of the most popular of the Kamikaze Kids, whom I wrote about in “Mad Hoops,” released late last year. It was probably because he was seen as one of the more high-ceiling players on Dick Harter’s roster in the ‘70s, a guy who came out of Rockford, Ill., with the nickname “Million Moves.”
I remember a photograph in my old paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, on a Sunday morning after the Ducks had played the night before at McArthur Court. It was Kent taking a charge – the hallmark of the Harter program – his body at a 45-degree angle to the floor, stiff as an ironing board. It was textbook Kamikaze, sacrificing everything.
Truth be told, it only worked because of Kent’s initiative. He was a flashy player a bit miscast in the Harter system, functioning for a coach who didn’t mind 55-50 scores.
In the book, Kent was rapturous in describing the family atmosphere at Oregon, and after he had launched a coaching career, the warmth of his undergrad experience no doubt weighed heavily on a burning desire to get back to Oregon as a head coach. He says the words himself: “My dream job.”
He got it in 1997, and for a long time, Ernie Kent was Oregon’s dream coach. With Luke Ridnour, Luke Jackson and Freddie Jones, he took the 2002 Ducks to the Elite Eight, when they hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1960. Then he did it again five years later with the Aaron Brooks-Malik Hairston-Maarty Leunen team.
History tells us that for every guy who has a celestial experience returning to coach at his alma mater, there are many more for whom it eventually goes south. The sweet undertones of the college days fade in the reality that this is big-time sports. Close to home, it happened to Kent’s good friend, Lorenzo Romar, at Washington, and before Romar, Lynn Nance at the UW. It happened to Jim Anderson at Oregon State.
Kent had another class headed by big man Michael Dunigan of Chicago. But Kent misjudged the skill level of the class, its passing and shooting capabilities, and it hit him one night during a game. Prowling the sidelines – purposefully, as always — he muttered to a staff member, “It’s time to blow it up. We’re stagnant right now.”
He’d violated a tricky part of the coach’s code: He stayed too long. He says there was an inquiry from Notre Dame along the way, and some others. But his kids, including three-sport standout Jordan, had gone to Oregon, and it didn’t feel right to leave. Eventually, the Ducks pulled the plug.
“Even at a (cherished) place like that,” Kent says, “there comes a time when they stopped celebrating you and started tolerating you.”
Kent’s primary regret there was missing the opening of Matthew Knight Arena, after having spent so many nights in raucous Mac Court starting in 1973. He remembers Phil Knight, dropping in to chat the day of a UO spring football game and saying, “I really haven’t helped you, and look what you’ve done. We’re going to build you a new arena.”
He laid out of coaching for a few years and found it refreshing, doing broadcasting, consulting and work with the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches. He’d forgotten what he’d been missing. One day after he got fired at Oregon, he took a drive out near Harrisburg, a little town 20 miles north. He looked over and saw a farmer on a tractor. His wife came out to meet her husband with a baby in her arms, holding it up to him.
It was Norman Rockwell stuff. The sun was out. Kent was smitten. On the side of the road, he got out, sat on the hood of his car and soaked it all in. The sky was blue, the trees were green.
But coaches coach, and in 2014, Kent wanted one more chance. His old boss at Oregon, Bill Moos was at Washington State then, and Kent signed on. But he found out what a lot of other coaches have found out: WSU is a tough job.
“We couldn’t get the elite player in the door,” Kent laments.
But WSU has never been about getting the elite player, it’s been about player development. Indeed, Kent had some success with that, with Robert Franks and Malachi Flynn and C.J. Elleby. But the Cougars didn’t defend and the changing terms of the college athlete gnawed at the program. Flynn left to star at San Diego State, too many potential supporting players left, and WSU ran aground, parting ways with Kent after the 2019 season.
College athletes have become itinerants, and to someone who survived the punishing ways of Dick Harter and lived to tell about it, that has to be unnerving.
“The (transfer) portal, to me, has really hurt college athletics,” said Kent. “Guys have gotten fired, people have literally taken recruits off each other’s campus. It’s just a mess.”
But it’s somebody else’s mess. Kent took a $4-million buyout from WSU and moved to Arizona. He’s interested in a return to broadcasting work, and has plunged into a new pursuit.
In June, he underwent prostate-removal surgery at the Mayo Clinic after elevated readings of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Since then, he’s spoken to a number of veteran NCAA coaches who have dealt with prostate cancer, and found it eye-opening.
“It’s rather shocking to me, as I did my homework, how many people have gone through this, and how many don’t speak up about it,” Kent said. “It’s really prevalent.”
It’s one of the most treatable cancers, but its relatively slow progression also makes it something men might sleep on. Incidence of the disease, and mortality rate, is greater in African-American men, and that gets Kent’s attention. He preaches testing after age 40 and with the help of his own physician and others, would like to use his platform to educate.
“I feel that’s a calling,” Kent said.
And after all those years on the bench, a different kind of coaching.