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Kennedy returns to coach in Jefferson County

Pat Kennedy, who won 499 college basketball games, is excited to be coming home to Tallahassee, where he enjoyed success as Florida State’s head basketball coach for 11 years and where he and his wife, Jeanne, raised their children. He’s not coming back to coach college basketball or junior college basketball, he’s coming back to coach at Jefferson K-12 School, where his former basketball camp manager Jackie Pons – the former Superintendent of Leon County Schools – serves as the school’s principal.

“It is truly an honor to have someone of Pat’s status working for Jefferson K-12 School,” said Pons of the high school, formerly known as Jefferson County High School in Monticello, Fla. “He is going to change lives for the better, which is what coaching is all about.”

“I guess you’d say it’s the same career and a new venture,” Kennedy said. “But, yeah, I’ve been asked by Jackie Pons to apply and interview for the Athletic Director and Head Basketball job over at his high school (Jefferson K-12 School in Monticello) and I’m very, very excited about it. I missed working with kids, working with teams.”

If you are surprised to read this, you are not alone. Tom Carlson, who served on Kennedy’s FSU staff during a decade of success — and was related to Kennedy through marriage — was surprised, too.

“I was surprised because he’s a Northeasterner,” Carlson said with a laugh. “But I think it’s really a great move on his part. Pat and Jeanne really cherish their time in Tallahassee and the community here in Leon and Jefferson County. The time they had in Tallahassee was fun for them. When he came for Bobby Bowden’s funeral, he saw a lot of people he knew. And when this opportunity came up, he saw it as a way to come home.”

Kennedy, now 70, came to Florida State for the 1986-87 season, the Seminole program was down, enjoying only one winning season (1983-84) during the last five years of the Joe Williams era.  

He made an immediate splash, with the Seminoles going 19-11 in his first season and earning an NCAA tournament bid. He earned the attention of Southern basketball coaches when he signed three of the top prospects in Florida: David White, Lorenzo Hands and Michael Polite. Quarterback Brad Johnson, a stellar player from North Carolina was in that class as well as Byron Wells and Aubrey Boyd, who would help Pat win 19 or more games in seven of his 11 seasons. 

In Florida State’s first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Kennedy took a team into the Dean Dome and upset the Tar Heels on their home court. The Seminoles’ performance silenced the crowd, which Sam Cassell famously referred to as “a wine and cheese crowd.” That Kennedy team reached the Sweet 16, finishing 22-10. The following year, they made it to the Elite Eight, finishing 25-10. They were heady times for the young head coach, who would become the youngest head coach ever to take three teams (Iona, FSU and DePaul) to the NCAA Tournament two years after leaving FSU for DePaul.

Those were heady years for FSU sports with basketball winning big and Bowden starting the Dynasty Era run, which left an indelible mark on Kennedy. 

“I never miss a Florida State football game,” Kennedy said. “If I can’t watch it on television, I listen to it on radio. Gene Deckerhoff is the best. I can’t wait to have lunch with him again.”

Kennedy will earn a base salary of between $48,000-$67,000, with the amount to be determined later, plus incentives.

A very, very tough rebuild ahead

While the FSU and DePaul rebuilds were challenging and swift, the situation Kennedy will face at Jefferson County High School is dire. The Tigers’ basketball team won just two games last year. What’s worse is the academic performance of the 180 students, with whom he must begin this rebuild. The school is ranked 512-596 within Florida and 13,383-17,843 nationally, based on state-required test performance, graduation and college preparation. So bad is it that more than 350 students, who are Jefferson County residents, have chosen to attend schools in neighboring counties. 

“Yeah, that’s what really caught my interest,” Kennedy said. “In talking to the principal, Jackie Pons, there’s a lot of challenges. There are challenges academically, there’s challenges to advance the students to hopefully a higher level, hopefully college levels. And to do that with any high school, and I’ve been in thousands of high schools throughout our country, you need an administration. You need a faculty. You need a community that’s all going to be very supportive of the young students.”

Kennedy has the first piece in place with Pons in administration. Pons was a student when Kennedy arrived at FSU and made an immediate impression. And Pons knows he must give Jefferson County kids a reason to want to attend school, something they love like art, music and athletics to rebuild the spirit of the high school.

“In my first few weeks at Florida State, I fell in love with Jackie,” Kennedy said. “Every time I turned around he was in the office. He was always getting stuff done. He’s a doer.”

As a student, Pons built a game plan for basketball camps that Kennedy said looked like a business plan. Kennedy turned his camps over to the student assistant and watched as he built what became the most successful camp in the South. “After three or four years, we just knocked it out of the park and I was all in, so I gave him a percentage of the business, which I thought was the right thing to do,” Kennedy said. “I just love hard workers and that’s one thing that Jackie certainly is.”

The two will have a chance to build something for the Jefferson County community.

“Jackie has an incredible wealth of knowledge about that whole system and process,” said Kennedy, who noted that as a kid he always dreamed of returning to coach high school basketball in his hometown on the Jersey shore. “I want to build all the programs for all the students as best as we possibly can. Fundraising, I’m sure it’s gonna be somewhat a part of it. But mostly, it’s going to be just working within the framework of the high school and the conferences that we’re in. And then, most importantly, is developing programs for the young students. And in particular, in the world of athletics, is to help youngsters find their next school, not that they have to be scholarship youngsters at all, but to just help them. They still maybe want to play and find a great Division III school, help them to move on and to become college bound students. 

In addition to coaching basketball and serving as athletic director, Kennedy will teach, work with facilities and scheduling as well as the fundamentals, Kennedy said. “It always goes back to the same things, you got to teach the kids about accountability, responsibility and some principles and some guiding lights, and then you got to work with them on a daily basis when you see a youngster who’s struggling, maybe at home,” Kennedy said. “I had to do the same thing at Florida State. You had to be there to work with those guys and to make sure their lives get straightened out. I used to say to my players at Florida State, ‘If you’ve got a clear mind and a clear heart, now you can get some things done. If your mind and your heart is always clogged up with negative emotions or negative experiences, it’s hard to advance yourself. 

“I’ve always been a very positive-thinking person, and I’m going to try to help every youngster I come in contact with; I’m going to try to help Jefferson County High School.”

Like the movie “Hoosiers”

“It’s like the movie Hoosiers,” said Carlson. “You take a team with two wins and you have to get back to the nuts and bolts of coaching. He grew up in camps with his dad and his brother Bobby, running the Pocono Mountain Camp, so he’s been around kids his whole life, not just at the collegiate level and has a good feel for it.”

Carlson is the second person to mention the movie, a sports classic that appeared in theatres at about the same time Kennedy made his first move to Tallahassee. Pons was the first. 

You may remember the plot line, a classic tale of redemption. 

The movie was inspired by Milan Indiana’s run to a state title back in 1984. The coach, played by Gene Hackman, travels to the school to find trophies won in years past. Kennedy will find a similar legacy of athletics success in a county that has produced a number of high-level athletes over the years.  

“Maybe some of the kids who are playing in other counties might come back to the school with Pat there and Jackie’s leadership as principal,” Carlson said. “Might be a chance to come back to play in a gym that’s only five years old. 

“He’s making a big commitment to come back to Tallahassee. There’s a number of collegiate, or pro coaches, who come back to make a difference at a high school. The Hoosier movie is a good example. I’m not saying that will happen in Jefferson County but it’s not like they don’t have history. There’s been a lot of great athletes in that area.”

For this program to return to its glory days, Pons and Kennedy will have to inspire the athletes who are already in the hallways to come out for their teams and inspire those who are playing in adjoining counties to come back and play where they live. 

Pons believes Kennedy can ignite that flame with camps, featuring some of his former players, including 27 who played in the NBA, who believe in the message he wants delivered to kids, guys like Cassell, Bobby Sura, Doug Edwards, Irv Thomas, Brad Johnson, and former players who are now coaching, Lorenzo Hands and Rodney Dobard. And, yes, Charlie Ward, who coaches at nearby Florida High. 

Kennedy would love to put Charlie Ward’s Florida High team on the schedule.

“It would be a historic moment,” said Kennedy. “What an honor and joy would it be to see Coach Ward on the opposing sidelines while my school takes the court.”

Pons, who watched Ward’s team win a state championship last year, is thinking “not so fast my friend.”

“Fundraising can be part of it, if there’s ways to develop some programs, but also getting some of those people to come back and be involved, to a certain extent, to talk to your student-athletes and to help them,” Kennedy said. “All of these youngsters could use a mentor program. Nowadays, the mentor doesn’t have to physically be there. It can be right on Zoom like we are now.

“I’m certainly going to reach out for them to help us any way they possibly can. And they’ll understand that my mission is going to be to help the young people. That’s why I got into this many, many, years ago.”

“Bobby, Sam, a lot of our guys have a need to donate their time to a good cause and I can see that happening,” Carlson said. “Pat knows how to run camps, promote camps. Pat is a very, very good coach; a great X and O guy. He’s a fundamentalist who understands the game and he’s anxious to do it. I think it’s a good match. Unusual. A cool idea. It could become a real Hoosiers deal. 

Pat and Jeanne Kennedy are excited to get back home.

“When I put it on paper, I probably have more friends in Tallahassee than I have in all of the Northeast,” Kennedy said with a laugh. “So, we’re excited to go back, we really are, and settle into another home and take another shot at our life and what we should be doing and what we hope will be successful.”

Bobby Bowden and Pat Kennedy with Charlie Ward in 1993. (photo courtesy Pat Kennedy)