Every March for the last several seasons, Dwane Casey has looked from his perch as an NBA coach to see how the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament is treating his Kentucky Wildcats. After all these years, Casey’s heart still bleeds Kentucky blue.
“I’m happy for the fans, I’m happy for the program,” said Casey, a Kentucky native who is the Toronto Raptors’ coach. “I get excited for the school and for the tradition.
He was a month shy of his ninth birthday on March 19, 1966, when Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team lost in the NCAA championship game to a Texas Western team that started five black players. Twelve years later Casey was the captain of Joe B. Hall’s Kentucky team that won its own national title.
Casey was a bench player at Kentucky, the quintessential coach in waiting. At the end of his playing career, Hall suggested that Casey, who earned a degree in business administration, get into the coaching business. That began a journey that continues to this day.
He spent a season with Hall, then five years at Western Kentucky with Clem Haskins. He joined Eddie Sutton’s staff at Kentucky in 1985 and became Sutton’s top recruiter.
“Deep down I’m really proud of my school,” Casey said. “I pull for it – and the other stuff, I try not to dwell on and I move forward with it.”
He may not dwell on it, but the other stuff turned Casey’s coaching career upside down. It is a part of his life – and a part of March Madness that should not be ignored.
In 1988 Casey’s burgeoning college-coaching career unravelled when he was implicated in a recruiting scandal. The NCAA declared that Casey had sent a recruit $1,000 in an express-mail envelope that mysteriously opened.
Sutton resigned. Then Casey resigned, too, and the NCAA issued an order effectively barring him from college coaching for five years. Casey has always maintained his innocence and filed a $7-million lawsuit against the express-mail company and its employees.
Casey settled the lawsuit, and the NCAA rescinded the show-cause order that kept him from coaching, but he has never come close to returning to the college ranks.
Sutton, meanwhile, rebounded quickly. After sitting out a season, he was hired at Oklahoma State, where he coached more than 500 games with great success.
Casey’s experience mirrors that of numerous assistants at other programs that got in trouble. When Louisville was placed on probation in the 1990s, for example, Coach Denny Crum was unscathed but two assistants resigned. Last year at Connecticut, two members of the staff were fired for their roles in a recruiting scandal, while Coach Jim Calhoun received a three-game suspension.
There are times when an assistant who makes a mistake has been given a second chance.
In 1989, when Rick Pitino went to interview at Kentucky to replace Sutton, he was greeted in Lexington by reporters and a front-page article in The Herald-Leader detailing recruiting violations during his first coaching job, as an assistant at Hawaii, that were cited in a 1977 NCAA report. The report implicated Pitino in 8 of the 64 violations that led to Hawaii’s being placed on two years’ probation, including arranging air fare, used cars and free food for players, and it said that he and Coach Bruce O’Neil had misinformed NCAA officials.
The NCAA committee on infractions recommended that Pitino and O’Neil be disassociated from Hawaii athletics. But Pitino landed on his feet. He had already become an assistant under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and was on his way to head-coaching jobs at Boston University and Providence.
Asked about the report that afternoon in Lexington, Pitino, who was the Knicks’ coach at the time, said: “The Hawaii problem was no problem at all because I’ve already been at Providence and Boston University. I’m not an assistant fighting for my first job. It’s no problem for me – in fact, I think it’s a positive because I know exactly what can go on the wrong way.”
Casey would make a great college coach, but unlike Pitino, he was never given that helping hand. He was exiled. He coached the Japanese national team with Pete Newell, leading it to its first FIBA world championships appearance in 31 years. Meanwhile, George Karl opened the door to the N.B.A. for him.
Karl hired Casey as an assistant with the Seattle SuperSonics. After that it was off to Minnesota, where Casey eventually became the head coach. After a season and a half he was fired, and he moved to Dallas under Rick Carlisle. Casey was responsible for the Mavericks’ defense on the team that won the N.B.A. title last season. Now he’s in his second head-coaching job, in Toronto.
Casey’s story is yet another tale from the NCAA crypt – of the enormous pressure to succeed, of the burden that often falls on assistants whose job it is to protect the head coach, accept all of the blame and little of the glory in hopes of getting their own head coaching position.
During the NCAA tournament, we see waves of assistants flanking their head coaches, some holding clipboards, others having conversations with players as they come off the court. Casey has been an assistant at the professional and collegiate levels, and asked which is harder, he said it was not close: college.
“You got to recruit, you got to produce from that standpoint, then once you get them there you’ve got to make sure you help them go to class and become young men,” he said. “The N.B.A. is a business. It’s about winning games and coaching and teaching basketball.”
It’s his business, too, with a college job being unlikely even though he is not formally barred. Yet Casey has consistently taken the high road when discussing his career, especially what happened at Kentucky two decades ago.
“When I look back on the situation at Kentucky, it is in the rear view mirror; life goes on,” he said. “Let bygones be bygones. I don’t live my life every day hoping and wishing and thinking about what would have, could have or should have happened back in Kentucky.”
He added: “I’m perfectly happy in the N.B.A. and I’m happy in Toronto, I love the organization.”
Nevertheless, Casey should have the option to return to college. At age 54, he would have an abundance of life lessons to teach.
“America’s the land that loves opportunities for redemption,” Mark Emmert, the NCAA president said, during a phone interview. “When someone has been involved in an infraction and served out their show-cause period of time , if a university is interested in them, I think they ought to have every opportunity.”
Casey acknowledged that he would like to have the option of coaching in college, but added: “I don’t sit around and think about it. First of all, I don’t have time to. Trying to win games in the N.B.A. is time-consuming.”
The high road has taken Casey to a rich N.B.A. coaching career: a championship ring and now a job handling the reins for a tough young team.
Still, he remains loyal to his old team. He cheers for the Kentucky tradition. And he remembers what Hall used to tell the players. It’s a sentiment that applies equally to assistant coaches who come and go.
“He said that the program would always continue, no matter who’s coaching and who’s playing,” Casey said. “He used to say, ‘I’m just the keeper of the program and you guys are just here, going through it right now, but the program is bigger than all of us.’ “