The writing was on the wall for Ole Miss basketball head coach Andy Kennedy.
After a blowout to Missouri on Saturday pushed the Rebels’ losing streak to five, Kennedy announced Monday afternoon his plans to step down at the end of the season.
Despite a general reaction of surprise at the timing of the announcement, hints towards Kennedy’s future can be traced back to last May, when Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and Athletics Director Ross Bjork declined to extend his contract, signaling the beginning of the end for Kennedy’s time at the head of the basketball program.
According to Mississippi state law, the maximum length of a contract for a state employee is four years. Kennedy’s contract was on the books for three years after the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, but Vitter and Bjork did not follow the standard practice of extending that time frame.
The lack of an extension was one of the first signs of doubt toward the abilities of the winningest coach in Rebel basketball’s 100-plus year history.
“I’d like to address this ominous cloud that seems to be hanging over our program,” Kennedy said in the press conference announcing his resignation Monday.
That ominous cloud formed in May, and it only grew darker as the Rebels failed to meet expectations this year, currently sitting 12th in the SEC standings and one of only two SEC teams with an overall losing record.
The message from his superiors was clear: win, and win consistently, or we’ll have to find someone who will. Kennedy understood these expectations.
“I also know that it’s time for a new voice and a new vision for this program moving forward,” Kennedy said. “I have too much respect for this university.”
In particular, Kennedy faced newfound pressure heading into this season. The Tuohy Basketball Center, a state-of-the-art practice facility, opened in 2010 with a $13 million price tag, and The Pavilion opened in January of 2016 as a $96.5 million investment into the Ole Miss basketball program in the prime of Kennedy’s tenure. Additionally, the athletics department increased investments in the program’s recruiting resources and staff over the past several years.
In order for Ole Miss to validate these investments, NIT runs and NCAA Tournament bubble talk would no longer be accepted.
At the same time, the athletics department found itself in a catch-22. One of the most abundant praises of Kennedy as a coach was his ability to do more with less. Even with the recent commitments to the basketball program, Ole Miss maintains one of the smallest budgets for its basketball coaching staff among SEC schools.
The lack of an extension for Kennedy was also a key factor in the loss of longtime assistant coach Bill Armstrong to LSU in the days after the non-extension. Armstrong’s departure led to the release of two central members of Kennedy’s latest recruiting class. Jamarko Pickett, a four-star prospect and the No. 75 player in the nation according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, and Parker Stewart, a three-star prospect and the No. 272 player, each requested release from their letters of intent in the weeks following their lead recruiter’s departure to the LSU program.
Currently, Pickett is averaging 9.4 points per game and has started 22 of 24 games for Georgetown. Stewart is averaging 8.3 points and 25.2 minutes per game for Pittsburgh.
Ultimately, Kennedy’s time at Ole Miss will be defined by consistency. Whether that was consistency in success or mediocrity is hard to say, but winning in the extremely competitive college basketball world is a difficult task for a program prone to intermittent success.
In May, Vitter and Bjork’s decision seemed like it could have been a simple financial move that still allowed Kennedy three years on contract to prove his worth. Since then, Kennedy has led the 2017-18 team through an up and down season that hasn’t culminated in the sought-after success, and comes to a close with a new vision for the future.