AUBURN, Ala. – First, it was Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, overshadowing a major coaching milestone after his 900th victory by speaking out to America’s leaders for change in the aftermath of Friday’s Newtown, Conn. shooting.
Then a far less famous coach did the same, with much greater eloquence garnering arguably more notoriety for his strong words.
Pat Kelsey is in his first year as head coach at Winthrop, a small liberal arts university in Rock Hill, S.C. with a Big South basketball program qualifying for nine NCAA tournaments in 14 years. Winthrop had a great week on the court, winning at 7-4 Ohio and giving No. 7 Ohio State a tough test before losing 65-55 Tuesday.
The Eagles’ (4-5) next game is Saturday night at Auburn (5-5), in a matchup of two teams starting to play better in December than they did in November.
But that’s not why Kelsey is a sudden household name. At the end of his postgame press conference following his loss to the Buckeyes, Kelsey noticed there were “25-30” reporters and many cameras staring him in the face – compared to one camera and one reporter after home games at Winthrop.
And as he later divulged, Kelsey felt divine intervention. He had to speak up.
“The last thing I want to say is … I’m really, really lucky, because I’m gonna get on an eight-hour bus ride, and I’m gonna arrive in Rock Hill, S.C., I’m gonna walk into my house, I’m gonna walk upstairs, I’m gonna walk into two pink rooms with a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old laying in that pink room, with a bunch of teddy bears laying in that room,” Kelsey said. “And I’m gonna give them the biggest hug and the biggest kiss I’ve ever given them. And there’s 20 families in (Newtown), Conn., that are walking into a pink room with a bunch of teddy bears … with nobody laying in those beds. And it’s tragic.”
“I’m not smart enough to know what needs to be done. I know this country’s got issues. Is it a gun issue? Is it a mental illness issue? Or is it a society that has lost the understanding that decent human values are important?”
Kelsey, 36, acknowledged he didn’t vote for President Barack Obama, but “you know what? He’s my president now. He’s my leader. I need him to step up. Mr. (John) Boehner, the Speaker of the House, he’s a Xavier guy, he’s a Cincinnati guy. He needs to step up.”
“Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches, everybody needs to step up. This has to be a time for change. And I know this microphone’s powerful right now … I’m not going to have a microphone like this the rest of the year, maybe the rest of my life. And I’m going to be an agent of change with the 13 young men that I get to coach every day and the two little girls I get to raise. But hopefully things start changing, because it’s really, really disappointing.
“I’m proud to grow up American. I’m proud to say I’m part of the greatest country ever. And that’s got to stay that way. And it’ll stay that way if we change. But we gotta change.”
A former Wake Forest and Xavier assistant, Kelsey had follow-up interviews with the Cincinnati Enquirer and on MSNBC’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. He said he found out about the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy – taking the lives of 20 schoolchildren – when the Eagles’ team bus broke down on its way to Ohio.
“Four or five hours prior, I was sitting at the breakfast table with my 4- and 5-year-olds,” Kelsey said on MSNBC. “My wife put pancakes in front of them, and they put their little Hershey kisses in the shape of a smiley face. They were drawing pictures for me that I could take on the road for five days.
“When I sat there, all I could think about were those 20 families that had those same breakfasts that morning with their 4, 5 and 6-year-olds. The next time they saw their children, they were identifying their bodies. I couldn’t shake it.”
Of the impassioned postgame pulpit, Kelsey “said what was in my heart. It was what I was thinking about the last couple days.
“I have been overwhelmed over the last 18-20 hours of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of e-mails and texts and (mentions) on Twitter from people I’ve never met before,” Kelsey continued. “Just saying, ‘Coach, I really appreciate what you said. You said exactly what I’m thinking.’ I’m not anything great for having said it. I just had the opportunity and I had that microphone and I spoke from my heart.”
Kelsey’s Eagles take on the Tigers at Auburn Arena at 8 p.m. Saturday. Auburn has won three straight games.