Editor’s note: Ole Miss alumnus Matt Barnthouse spent four years behind the scenes in recruiting, film and analytics as a student manager for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss. In this article, Barnthouse discusses the impact AK made on his life and on Ole Miss as a whole.
Andy Kennedy doesn’t deserve this. In spite of the qualms and problems Ole Miss fans may have with the way the men’s basketball team has performed this season, Andy Kennedy does not deserve this. For devoting twelve years to turning around a historically weak program, for making Ole Miss a consistent winner, and for doing it all with integrity and honesty, this is not what this man deserves.
However, life is not always fair, and sometimes one makes a selfless decision that is for the greater good, rather than personal gain. Andy Kennedy did just that when he stepped down, effective immediately, as the Ole Miss head coach Sunday afternoon.
Kennedy always preaches personal responsibility to his players and staff, and he lived up to his words Sunday. It isn’t fair, but, once again, life isn’t fair.
My already tremendous respect for the man I called coach for four years is higher than it has ever been. He’s influenced me and countless others in so many ways that it is hard to express all my appreciation in one column, but here is my best shot.
At first glance, you’d think someone like Andy Kennedy would have no real reason to give me the time of day. I was a dumb, arrogant, eighteen-year-old basketball manager, easily replaceable. I talked too much. I made a lot of mistakes, both on the court and off.
Yet, every day, no matter the situation, Coach would always greet me with a loud, “MATTY ICE!!!!!!!”
For whatever reason, Kennedy always seemed happy to see me. And I was always happy to see him. If he ever saw me walking back to my dorm room, he’d give me a ride. It isn’t something you would expect someone of his stature to do for someone who was in the lowest possible spot on the totem pole.
I am not sure if I would call him a father figure, as perhaps he more fits the bill of the “eccentric uncle,” but either way, I always felt like family around AK.
But going back to how arrogant, dumb, and naïve I was as an eighteen-year-old, just know that I made a lot of mistakes. Once, I accidentally messed up the battery on one of the cameras, and we almost lost an entire practice’s worth of film. Another time, I lashed out at another manager following a long, crazy day at work, and, because of that, I spent much of my sophomore year unable to participate in on-court activities. There are so many reasons why I could have been let go, and on many staffs, I might have been let go.
However, AK isn’t like that. He let me make mistakes. He gave me the chance to come back and better myself after those mistakes. As long as I made an effort to improve and showed genuine interest in bettering myself and learning, there was a spot for me on the Ole Miss staff.
I am not the only person to whom AK gave second chances. Our basketball team was sort of like the island of misfit toys. As you all know, a few of our top players in AK’s tenure have been transfers who had a lot of talent, but, perhaps, may have screwed up somewhere in their life in such a way that it forced them out of their initial school. AK gave them a second chance, and many of those so-called “untouchable” prospects ended up becoming All-SEC caliber players—and some of my best friends.
Going back to “accountability,” AK holds everyone on the court accountable, including himself. He is not afraid to start an unheralded freshman if he is clearly outperforming an upperclassman. He is not afraid to tell you that you are playing “counterfeit defense.” He is very much a proponent of tough love, and those that bought into what he had to say are finding great success, often more success than other players I worked with who might have had greater physical attributes.
Three players that come to mind when thinking of the idea of “buying in” are former players Sebastian Saiz, Jarvis Summers, and Tomasz Gielo. What they brought to the table was an ability to listen, a mentality that they would grind every day and would do whatever they could to become better basketball players, and a commitment to play within the team concept to help win games.
Those players took accountability to get extra shots up after practice. They treated people with respect. They understood that everything they do had to contribute to what the team needed them to do to win, rather than just putting up personal stats.
When Saiz, Summers and Gielo bought in to the team concept, they still put up their numbers, but they also helped the team win games. Now, Tomasz and Sebastian are playing in the second-best basketball league in the world (LIGA ACB,) and Jarvis is one step away from the NBA on the Milwaukee Bucks G League team. It is almost as if coaches put players in certain positions so that they will be successful, and those that buy in play better basketball. (Imagine that!)
The accountability AK expected did not stop on the court. Our players went to class. I remember one year almost every single one of our players finished with above a 3.0 GPA. Almost every single player that stayed at least four years left Ole Miss with a diploma in hand.
Muscles, bones, and the ability to ball are temporary. That diploma will not go away, and AK helped position his players for success long after their playing careers are over.
It is also that same accountability that sheds light on why Andy Kennedy is no longer the head coach at Ole Miss. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. I once attended a coaching conference where the first line was, “You will get fired.”
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how great of a coach you are. Sometimes, the pieces, the skills, the personalities, and all other aspects do not go as planned. People get impatient, and the easiest scapegoat is the man in charge.
That criticism isn’t completely without merit, as the coach is responsible for making sure that all those intricate pieces mesh together, and this season is a clear failure in just about all aspects.
Make no mistake; that is not an indictment on Andy Kennedy’s ability to lead a team. It is just a harsh reality of the business. This year’s team did not perform to standards, and AK knows he is ultimately responsible. He didn’t fight the administration. He didn’t try to take the rest of the team down with him. He knew it was over, and he left in the most graceful way possible—even though someone who has given so much to this program should not have to leave in middle of his only losing season.
AK’s accountability even trickled down to me. In college, almost all my scholarships came from academic scholarships with GPA stipulations in order for me to maintain them, while a tiny percent came from a basketball stipend. Because of this, I often had to stay behind on road trips, as well as do other things outside of basketball in order to continue to afford to go to school at Ole Miss, a place I love so much.
In a perfect world, I’d be working basketball all day, every day. However, that just was not the case. I had to step away from hoops at times to focus on academics. The fact that AK let me do that while still being able to help out with Ole Miss basketball is something for which I am eternally grateful. I just hope he knows it was strictly for financial reasons, and not because I did not want to work more. Because I did.
In fact, I never wanted to leave Ole Miss. I really wanted to be a graduate assistant with Ole Miss Basketball following my senior year, but I got beat out by another candidate. Looking back, my skills were not good enough compared to the person who beat me out.
AK held me accountable, for better or worse.
‘He made a difference my life’
However, because of AK’s expectations and example, I have spent the last year doing nothing but putting in work to improve my skills in all aspects of basketball. It is the spark I needed to become a better worker, a more assertive person, and I will not stop until I am the best job candidate in the country.
That is why I worked 14-hour-shifts, seven days a week as a basketball coach in Maine. That is why I am working as a volunteer assistant for a top 15 team (that cannot be publicly named by me, though you can probably connect the dots fairly easily), and that is why I spend most of my free time watching game film and learning everything possible to get back into college hoops.
That is what accountability brings. It brings that thirst to get better. I want to thank AK for always, always holding me to a high standard—even if it meant letting me go.
I am a firm believer that Andy Kennedy will be successful wherever he lands next. He is too smart—and just plain too damn good at what he does.
And though he can coach the stars, AK is also the coach for the misfits. The outcasts. The ones who need second chances. Student-athletes will play for him, get their diplomas, and make impacts in the world. He will continue to make differences in people’s lives that will put them on a track to be the best person they can be, providing that they are willing to buy in to what he has to say.
I know he made a difference in my life. Thank you, Andy Kennedy. You’re the best eccentric uncle a guy could ever hope to have.