ORLANDO, FLA — Pat Kelsey jumped out at the end of College of Charleston pre-NCAA tournament practice on Wednesday afternoon and grabbed an Amway Center rim. He hung on long enough to swing for a few seconds, much to the delight of the players and staff.
Yeah, not your typical trainer.
“The only way to get to the rim is to win a championship and work your way up,” San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher said.
Kelsey also did that by cutting the nets in Washington, D.C., atop a ladder with his son Johnny on March 7 to celebrate the Cougars’ first CAA championship since 2018.
Make no mistake, the sting of a 63-57 loss to No. 5 seed San Diego State on Thursday will last for quite some time. No. 12 seed College of Charleston missed a few baskets of a valuable advancing chance to face No. 13 Furman with a Sweet 16 trip down the line.
It would have been the Cougars’ first game as an NCAA Tournament favorite.
Let it soak up your well-worn “The College” sweatshirt.
But a 31-4 season in Kelsey’s second year as College of Charleston head coach raised awareness, raised the bar and raised funds. This was a crucial step in building the program that is likely to pay off as long as the dynamic Kelsey sticks around, and even if he leaves for a more high-profile position.
“That’s why we hired Pat. To bring us a spark and bring us energy, not just with our basketball program but our community. Campus community. City of Charleston. Our staff,” athletic director Matt Roberts said Friday morning at the College of Charleston’s Orlando hotel before the team’s flight home. “Just to raise the bar for what Earl Grant has built. We were just looking for that same next step and that same jolt of energy. And ‘energy jolt’ is definitely what you can use to describe Pat.”
Kelsey, 47, will continue to present himself as a real or perceived candidate for job postings.
Will he run away, like Grant did for Boston College?
Maybe. Eventually. Probably.
Roberts credited the great John Kresse for “building relationships” and setting the mark (NAIA national championship and four NCAA Tournament bids), and Grant for adding to that (the 2018 NCAA Tournament trip was the Cougars’ first since 1999), and Kelsey to “take it a step further”.
This means that working at the College of Charleston is becoming increasingly attractive, giving the school greater leverage if a new coaching search is needed.
Perhaps most importantly this season, raising the bar meant giving impact unprecedented in program history.
Kelsey’s new contract — $5.5 million over five years, down from $3 million over five years — includes $500,000 a year in private funding.
Winning big coincides well with the influx of new Lowcountry residents looking for a sports team to hang on to.
“Being a non-football school makes us unique in the state of South Carolina, where we’re not necessarily competing for fans or donors with Clemson or Carolina or some of the other schools in the state,” Roberts said. . “Actually, some of our fans are also Clemson fans or Carolina fans, or Georgia fans.
“A lot of people believe in what we’re trying to build and want to be a part of it.”
Of course, it’s not just newcomers.
Along with Kelsey, the College of Charleston’s success owes its underrated coaching staff, strength and conditioning people, coaches, Roberts, a team led in 2022-23 by four graduate students, the student section, the group, the cheerleaders, the season ticket holders, King Street Merchants, Bill Murray, and Clyde The Cougar (not necessarily in that brown order).
That’s the stuff of nine straight sellouts at the TD Arena to end the season.
Kelsey can surely attract even better players now.
Certainly, the boosters ready to donate have opened new NIL doors.
College of Charleston will never be the “Gonzaga of the East” and such dreamy talk has always been nonsense.
But improved consistency is within reach.
There were 19 seasons between Kresse’s final NCAA Tournament appearance in 1999 and Grant’s breakthrough with Joe Chealey, Jarrell Brantley and Grant Riller in 2018.
Five years later, another NCAA tournament trip.
A little more over the next few seasons is a reasonable goal.
‘It’s really exciting’
Kelsey left the Amway Center late Thursday afternoon saying, “Charleston is rocking. There is a rebound. There’s a vibe on King Street.
He draws a lot of attention to himself with unusual magnetism and giddy tweets from his walks down King Street.
But Kelsey is the real deal, never using covert narcissism disguised as selflessness.
That’s why he rarely goes bananas when the lights are brightest. Look at the relatively calm demeanor during a game. Most coaching is already done by whistleblowing with Kelsey’s signature energy mostly reserved for practices, team meetings, bus rides, one-on-one relationships.
That’s why there’s so much optimism around the program when who knows, in this crazy transfer portal era, who will appear on the College of Charleston roster by the time the 2023-24 season opens?
“We have a big group of freshmen coming in,” sophomore goaltender Reyne Smith said in the locker room at the Cougars’ Amway Center. “Then the returning guys will step up. It’s really exciting that we can continue to build.
Oh, for that shot at Furman.
But there’s worse in college basketball than raising a glass to raise the bar.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff