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Jamie Vaught: EKU’s McHale excited to bring Colonels’ fast-paced offensive attack to Rupp Arena

Last April, when Dan McHale was hired to take over Eastern Kentucky University’s hoops program as the new head coach, he promised an exciting brand of fun, fast-paced basketball.

“We are going to bring excitement to McBrayer Arena with a fast-paced style of play,” said McHale, who came to the Richmond school from Minnesota where he was an assistant coach under Richard Pitino for two years. “It’s going to be fun for our players and our fans.”

Well, he has fulfilled his promise so far.

Entering this week’s action, his Colonels ranked fifth in the nation in scoring offense at 93.7 points per game. And EKU has averaged 100 points in their six home games and they scored 84 in a two-point loss to old rival Western Kentucky in Bowling Green Tuesday.

Next week McHale will bring his Colonels to Rupp Arena for a date with the Wildcats. The Dec. 9 matchup will be televised by ESPN2, beginning
at 7 p.m.

Dan McHale's road to becoming EKU's head basketball coach began when he got a job as a student manager under Bill Keightly at Kentucky (EKU Athletics Photo)

Dan McHale’s road to becoming EKU’s head basketball coach began when he got a job as a student manager under Bill Keightly at Kentucky (EKU Athletics Photo)

Before McHale got his coaching start at Louisville as a staff assistant under coach Rick Pitino in the early 2000s, he had served as a student manager for four years at UK. While working with then-Wildcat boss Tubby Smith, he was part of Kentucky’s 1998 national championship team.

McHale graduated with honors from UK in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Before coming to Kentucky, McHale, a native of Chatham, N.J., played prep basketball but wasn’t actually a big star.

“I was a pretty good player for Morristown-Beard School in New Jersey for Head Coach Ed Franz,” McHale recalled in a recent interview.

But why did he come to Lexington?

“I had always dreamed of playing college basketball but realized that my real dream was to coach college basketball,” commented McHale. “I had always admired Rick Pitino from his time as the New York Knicks coach and wanted to learn from him at Kentucky.

“If it wasn’t for Mr. (Bill) Keightley taking a chance on me or Frank Vogel (current Indiana Pacers coach who is also from New Jersey and was a student manager at UK) blazing this same path, I’m not sure I would be where I am today.”

As it turned out, Pitino went to NBA’s Boston Celtics in May 1997 after eight seasons at UK, including three Final Four trips. And Smith took over the Kentucky job.

While happy for Pitino, a young McHale, then 17 years old, wasn’t too thrilled about the new coaching change.

“I was really disappointed when he left because he was the reason I was coming to UK and I was set to enroll in the fall,” said the EKU coach. “But I was 17 at the time so what did I really know about life?”

He didn’t personally know Pitino during that time.

Another question: Why become a student manager?

“I knew my best chance to become a college basketball coach was to take this route and the University of Kentucky in the late ’90s under Rick Pitino was like getting accepted to the Harvard Business School,” explained McHale.

McHale has a favorite story about the newly-hired Wildcat boss at the time.

“My favorite Tubby Smith story was when we all went over to his house (where UK had recruits in town) on Halloween of ’97,” he recalled. “We tuned into the Celtics-Bulls game (which was Pitino’s first game as the Boston coach) and I remember Coach Smith cheering so hard for the Celtics. He was such a genuine man who understood the importance of loyalty and friendship.”

For the record, Boston beat Chicago and Michael Jordan 92-85 on Oct. 31, 1997.

His favorite memory as an assistant coach?

“(It) was our first year at Minnesota — winning 25 games and helping my good friend Richard Pitino build the foundation with wins over Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, Florida State, SMU and others that year.”

The 25-13 Gophers captured the NIT championship that season and defeated No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 11 Ohio State.

Previously, McHale also spent some time at Manhattan College, Iona College and Seton Hall in addition to two stints at U of L.

McHale is anxious to visit his alma mater.

“I’m excited and honored to be coming back to Rupp Arena as the head coach of the Colonels,” he said. “I experienced a lot of great memories at UK and met so many friends that I’m still close with today.”

In addition to facing WKU on last Tuesday night, the Colonels also will meet East Tennessee State (Dec. 18) West Virginia (Dec. 21), Manhattan
(Dec. 29), among others, in non-conference games before beginning Ohio Valley Conference action.

“We’ll definitely be tested,” McHale said before the season. “But we need to see how we measure up against some great mid-level programs. I don’t want my guys to lose confidence, but I want them to play well and – win or lose – I want them to feel good going into OVC action knowing they played probably the toughest non-conference schedule in the league.”

By the way, the folks in basketball circles actually didn’t influence McHale to enter the “unstable” coaching profession. Interestingly, it was his then-girlfriend (now his wife) at UK who helped him to make a career choice.

“My wife, Jackie, was the person who pushed me to chase my dream and to get into college coaching,” he said. “She has been my rock through the highs and lows.”

McHale said he met Jackie, a native of Owensboro, when “one of my best friends, J.P. Blevins, was dating Jackie’s roommate and they set us up.”

As you may recall, Blevins played guard at Kentucky and was a three-time Academic All-SEC.

McHale and his wife have two daughters and a son.

“Kentucky is home to me and my family,” said McHale last spring when he was hired. “We are excited to be back and to coach basketball in this state.”

Certainly, the EKU folks are getting excited about McHale and his program, too.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The associate head coach on McHale’s staff also has strong Kentucky connections.

Remember Michael Bradley?

He played two years at UK during the late 1990s before transferring to Villanova. As a freshman at UK, Bradley saw action in 32 games for the 1998 national title team. As a sophomore, he also broke the school single-season record for field goal percentage, hitting on 65.7 percent of his shots.

The 6-10 forward finished his collegiate career by leading Villanova in scoring (20.8 ppg) and rebounding (9.8 rpg) on his way to earning All-Big East and All-America honors in 2001.

The No. 17 pick by Toronto played five years in the NBA. Bradley then became the head coach at a high school (Summit Country Day) in Cincinnati, where he was named Associated Press Division III Coach of the Year in Ohio after the 2012 campaign.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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