After learning of the bad news during an early-morning phone call, Murray State coach Steve Prohm went to work.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, Prohm’s predecessor, mentor and friend, had revealed he was dealing with an early stage of Parkinson’s disease, and now it was Prohm’s job to let Kennedy’s former players know before they heard it somewhere else. Prohm didn’t want to tell the Racers before Thursday’s practice, so he waited until afterward.
“I huddled them up in the locker room and told them,” Prohm said. “I wanted them to hear it from me.”
Before he has appeared a single game as a head coach, Prohm is already in the middle of handling a delicate situation. The Racers pray daily for Kennedy, who led them to back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championships and a buzzer-beating upset win against Vanderbilt in the 2010 NCAA tournament. Prohm was an assistant under Kennedy on those teams and learned more than just how to win.
Kennedy parlayed the success into a Big 12 job, but not before leaving Prohm with some valuable lessons during their years together. To be a head coach, Prohm would also have to double as a life teacher.
“Don’t just be Steve Prohm the basketball coach,” Prohm said. “Be more than that.”
Of course, the rookie head coach has been soaking up information on the profession since he was a teenager. He didn’t last one season while playing for Division III Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and decided to leave the team midway through the year to dedicate himself to coaching.
Prohm transferred to Alabama, where he worked as a student assistant and team manager for the Crimson Tide for five seasons. On the side, he worked at basketball camps across the college basketball landscape as a way to meet people in the business.
Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating was a Vanderbilt assistant when Prohm was working camps for him and grinding out the early part of a coaching career.
“I think he’ll do great,” Keating said. “I think he’s really paid attention to detail and learned. He was fortunate to be with a guy like Billy who was able to teach him and have success at different places. He’s a passionate, genuine, caring person who also knows a good amount about basketball.”
Kennedy gave Prohm one of his first coaching opportunities as a volunteer assistant at Centenary, where the young coach lived in the basement of a dorm and lived off cafeteria meals. Still eager to learn, Prohm ended up working for Kennedy for 12 seasons. They spent six years together at Southeastern Louisiana, and after a difficult season at Tulane that was marred by Hurricane Katrina, Prohm reunited with Kennedy at Murray State for the past five seasons.
In the days following Kennedy’s resignation at Murray State in May, many players made it known that they wanted Prohm to be the next coach. He had built strong relationships with them, and the administration listened.
“Even if I wouldn’t have gotten the job, that was the most humbling thing I’ve had in coaching,” Prohm said. “Emails and tweets let them know how much they believed in me. You really don’t have any idea. They don’t come out and say it until need be. I had no idea those guys felt that strongly about me.”
Kennedy, who had suffered neck and shoulder pain while at Murray State, had always been the even-keeled one while Prohm coached with more outward emotion. The main difference for the detail-oriented Prohm is that when he wakes in the middle of the night, he can’t go right back to bed because it’s now his job to come up with the answers. “You’re bouncing a hundred different questions off your head,” he said.
Prohm doesn’t exactly have to reinvent the wheel to get Murray back on track following Kennedy’s departure. The Racers, who return top scorer Isaiah Canaan along with senior Ivan Aska, will be looking for their 25th consecutive winning season and third straight league title.
“You dream 20 years ago you want to be the head coach at Duke, but I wouldn’t trade this for any in world,” Prohm said. “It’s one of the elite mid-majors in the country. It’s also one of the elite basketball programs in the country.
“This is an unbelievable community. You come here, you’re going to continue to win, win championships and also see if we can advance.”
Prohm said Kennedy, who has yet to be cleared to return to the court for Texas A&M, has expressed excitement about Murray State’s future as well. Even after calling with the stunning news last week, Kennedy still took the time to give out some more advice.
“The biggest thing Coach told me the other day is, ‘Enjoy every day because things change fast,’” Prohm said. “The toughest thing is, I hope he gets well soon. I've got a hundred questions to ask.”