Just call him “Mister”. He’s earned the moniker.
Keith Jennings sticks out on the sidelines of a Bluefield College basketball game because he is usually the smallest person on the floor.
Yet, when Jennings speaks, it’s the much taller players that look “up” to him. For good reason.
“They look at me as a coach,” said Jennings, who is serving as an assistant for Bluefield first-year head coach Richard Morgan, and is also directing the Rams’ junior varsity squad. “When coach Morgan says things to them, they definitely respect that. Usually when the next guy says something they don’t take it as seriously just because he is not the head coach, but I think with what they want to learn from me it automatically gives me some credibility.
“It’s been a pleasure working with these guys here and I just see a bright future for this tradition that they already have here.”
Jennings has earned that respect, and the nickname “Mister” since childhood to go with it. He was an All-America point guard at East Tennessee State, spent four seasons in the NBA, another 10 years overseas, and is now sharing his experiences with the Ramblin’ Rams with a dream of being a head coach.
“It’s almost like instant credibility, I know I’m not the only coach that has played in the NBA, but very seldom do you get the chance to learn from guys that have that background,” Jennings said. “I’m sure there are a lot of programs that have that, but somewhere like Bluefield, I don’t think they’ve had that…
“At first I didn’t think I would want to coach in the NBA, but eventually if things worked in a way where that opportunity presented itself, I think I could. I wouldn’t mind doing it, but definitely being a college head coach would probably be the next step for me.”
Don’t think a man small in statue can make it in the world of basketball? Don’t tell that to Jennings. He’s 5-foot-7, but all that did was motivate him to the greatest heights in the sport.
“Being a small player I had always heard I was too small, even in high school,” said Jennings, who grew up in a close-knit family with three brothers and three sisters in Culpeper, Va. “When they asked me to play varsity as a freshman, I was a little nervous, but the fact that everybody said, ‘He is too small, he can’t do it’, kind of drove me.
“If you want to say that was a chip, I didn’t have to prove it to them because I knew I could play, but basketball is supposed to be a taller man’s game so they really neglect to see a basketball player.
“It was almost like I wanted to fight for them, get their story out for them. I didn’t stop hearing I was too short until I made the NBA. It was a good feeling too.”
He’s experiencing more of those feelings now. After spending 22 years playing basketball at the prep, college and professional levels, Jennings went into coaching, and has his sights set on his next goal.
“I would say it’s like another dream come true,” Jennings said. “I knew when I was playing basketball that I had the mind of a coach as a player.
“I’ve had numerous coaches call me a coach on the floor so I knew that eventually I would want to get into coaching once my playing days are over.”
After finally ending his playing career in 2003, Jennings spent three seasons as the coach at the Highland School in Warrenton, Va., before returning to ETSU to complete his degree and work with the basketball team there. He spent last year as an assistant at ultra-successful Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., before accepting Morgan’s offer to join him in Bluefield.
“…He told me if things worked out and he got a head coaching job he wanted me to be on his staff,” said Jennings, who had followed the exploits of Morgan at the University of Virginia, and met him through Morgan’s brother, Charlie, who is the head coach at Science Hill’s top rival, Dobyns-Bennett in Kingsport, Tenn. “It just moved kind of fast, and I am ready for it. I felt like it was something I was always ready to do and now I’m just trying to be the best assistant that I can.
“Hopefully one day I can be a head coach, preferably at East Tennessee State. I’ve got to keep dreaming.”
Morgan is a first-time head coach at Bluefield, having starred at Virginia, and also played in the Continental Basketball Association and in Austria, Honduras and the Philippines. He’s served coaching stints as an assistant at East Carolina, Hampton and Appalachian State before finally being tabbed to replace the departed Jason Gillespie for this season.
He wasted no time notifying Jennings of his decision. Jennings was ready with an answer.
“You hear a lot of people tell you they can help you in this business, but I know head coaches at different places that weren’t ready to give me an opportunity because they didn’t think I had enough experience,” said Jennings, who is in the midst of a divorce, has two children, Keith, Jr., and Kaycee.
“Hearing it from coach Morgan and knowing that he was anxious to be a head coach, I just felt like he was dreaming and I felt it was good that he was considering me.
“Once he knew it was going to happen at Bluefield, he called me up and asked me what I wanted to do. He didn’t have to ask me twice, let’s put it that way.”
Now 41 and able to ‘still put the ball in the basket’, Jennings thinks he’s found his calling for the rest of his working days.
“When you love something like I love the game of basketball, I don’t think I would ever get tired of playing it or watching it or studying it or teaching it,” said Jennings, who had heard of Bluefield before arriving here, having played against the Rams while at ETSU. “I just feel like this is something I can do until I don’t want to coach or do anything anymore.
“I’m blessed to know that. I see how Bobby Bowden was as a football coach. I can understand that, I feel like I can possibly do the same thing.”
Jennings and the Rams travel to Tennessee Wesleyan tonight, looking for their fourth win in a row. He has been impressed with the competition in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, where four teams – including Bluefield – are within a half-game of first place.
“It is a competitive conference, I think considering what we lost and everybody still picked us to be number one, I really didn’t agree with that, but I agree with some of the other coaches in the league,” Jennings said. “If you can win on the road, you’re going to have a very good chance of winning this conference.
“It’s going to be tough on the road. I don’t think one team stands out that much more from the others.”
Bluefield, which is an uncharacteristic 7-9, has been to three straight NAIA national tournaments. Don’t count them out for another one. Jennings likes the future that lurks for the Rams.
“We’ve won our last three so now we are going into a good direction. We know there is tradition here, we want to add to it,” Jennings said. “I’m thinking hopefully within this month and next month we’ll really start to turn the corner because the future is really going to look bright for these kids and I definitely hope I am around to see it.
“I see getting back to the NAIA tournament very soon. If not this year, very soon, with the possibility of hoping we can win it.”