The winning Kennedy campaign: Texas A&M wins first league title since 1986

Billy Kennedy and the Texas A&M basketball program both share one fundamental trait on the final weekend of the 2016 regular season: They’re both healthier than they’ve been in years.

Just a matter of weeks before he coached his first live game at Texas A&M in 2011, Billy Kennedy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Kennedy was the latest in a line of Murray State coaches to springboard to a power-conference job. Mark Gottfried and Mick Cronin did so before Kennedy, and Steve Prohm fit the pattern in subsequent years. When A&M hired Kennedy to replace Mark Turgeon in the spring of 2011, the move was considered a sound one.

The Parkinson’s diagnosis rocked Kennedy, and it shook the A&M program. First and foremost, Kennedy had to make sure he could maintain his health. Second, he had to make sure he could continue to coach and give his players an honest effort. Third, Kennedy had to deal with the negative recruiting which naturally emerged from such a story. Fourth, for all the reasons above, Texas A&M stopped making NCAA tournaments, which had been a constant from 2006 through 2011 under Billy Gillispie and Turgeon. After the 2015 season ended with an ugly, late nosedive, Kennedy had to wonder if he could cross the threshold in College Station.

Saturday afternoon, the 2016 season became a complete success in AggieLand. A&M won a share of its first conference championship since 1986. The Aggies topped Vanderbilt to get the No. 1 seed at next week’s SEC Tournament. Kentucky, if it beats LSU later on Saturday, would share the SEC. If the Wildcats lose at home, A&M would own the outright title. No matter — A&M can be called SEC champs. The feat is a substantial one, given the primacy of Kentucky in the SEC throughout the league’s hoops history.

The most impressive aspect of Billy Kennedy’s performance this season was his ability to arrest a freefall. A&M was collapsing in the middle of February, having lost five straight SEC games and five out of six overall. The Aggies were headed to the middle of the SEC after ruling the roost for a month and a half. Plenty of teams, once they start to unravel, can’t regain their equilibrium.

After that fifth straight SEC loss, to LSU on February 13, the Aggies haven’t lost again. Kennedy kept his cool, showing the same resilience on the bench that he’s shown off the court.

The Houston Chronicle noted that with help from Mary, his wife, Kennedy has managed his Parkinson’s very effectively. His energy and holistic health have markedly improved. It isn’t an idle coincidence that as the coach has handled his health and his off-court life with more balance and wisdom, his job performance has improved as well.

Texas A&M might not go deep in this year’s NCAA tournament, but in a sport where conference championships receive far too little appreciation — certainly in comparison with football — this SEC title, complete with a Big Dance invitation, marks the 2015-2016 A&M season as an unqualified success.

When you can have moments such as this one below with your spouse, your season can only be viewed in a positive way, no matter what happens in the SEC or NCAA Tournaments.

The Billy Kennedy story and the Texas A&M story are one and the same: rebuilding, renewing, rebounding — from rough breaks and tense times — to find a brighter day.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.