ORONO, Maine — Respect and fairness were two characteristics that stood out in former University of Maine men’s basketball coach Rudy Keeling, according to two of his former players, Matt Rossignol and Dean Smith.
Keeling, 64, died at his home in Londonderry, N.H., Saturday after a brief illness, according to a news release from the University of Maine.
Keeling served as head coach at Maine from 1988-1996 where he compiled a record of 104-124. He earned North Atlantic Conference Coach of the Year honors in 1993-94 while leading UMaine to a school-record 20 wins.
Keeling faced a challenge of replacing longtime UMaine coach Skip Chappelle, who coached the Black Bears from 1971-88.
The new players were concerned that Keeling would come in and make sweeping changes, but their fears were soon allayed, according to Rossignol.
“I enjoyed playing for him very much and had a tremendous amount of respect for him even though I just had him for my senior year,” Rossignol said. “Some of us were worried that he would come in and clean house, that the players left over from coach Chappelle would be put to the wayside. He didn’t do that. He named me a captain. That left impression on me.”
Rossignol, a former Van Buren High School standout who now coaches the school’s girls basketball team, went on to average 13.7 points during his senior year for Keeling.
Smith recalled Keeling for the opportunities he helped the former Foxcroft Academy standout to pursue, both athletically and academically.
“For me, the biggest thing that he brought was a level of fairness,” said Smith, who played his junior and senior seasons for Keeling.
“He was a coach who really appreciated effort and loyalty from coach to player and player to coach. He gave me the opportunity to play at the highest level that I could bring my game to.”
In his senior year, Smith won the prestigious Walter Byers Award, given to the nation’s top scholar-athlete. He also led Maine in scoring that season, averaging 19.1 points per game.
“[Keeling] was very fair in how he treated players on and off the court,” Smith recalled. “His fairness, in my case dealt with my pretty demanding educational schedule. He understood the student-athlete aspect was the biggest aspect. He allowed me to miss some practices when I needed the time for my course work.”
Both Rossignol and Smith liked Keeling’s coaching style.
“Any time we played he expected that we would do our best to represent the University of Maine. I remember a Blue-White game when he didn’t think we were being as serious as we should and he took us into the locker room and let us have it,’’ Rossignol said. “He was also able to delegate authority, like putting Mike Jaskulski in charge of defense. That showed he had confidence in himself.”
Smith also remembered that Keeling could be intense when he felt it was necessary.
“For the most part, he was very level headed. He expected people to be able to understand and grasp his concepts,” said Smith, who is now the owner and vice-president for engineering at Orono Spectral Solutions. “He had more of an intellectual style and had high expectations on how to execute plays.”
Current Maine men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward said in a news release that “the Black Bear men’s basketball program, and the entire UMaine community is deeply saddened to hear the news of the passing of coach Keeling. He was an outstanding coach, a first-class person and representative of the University of Maine, and a beloved and highly respected member of the entire basketball coaching community.
Woodward added that Keeling “touched many lives of young people here at Maine, was an outstanding example of character, integrity, and intelligence, and his influence has, and will continue to be felt throughout our great school and all of college athletics,” Woodward said. “It has always been an honor to follow in his footsteps at the University of Maine and the wonderful example he provided daily and throughout his career. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, and to all the outstanding young men who had the tremendous opportunity to be coached and mentored by him.”
Following his time at the University of Maine, Keeling was head coach at Northeastern University for five seasons. Prior to Maine, Keeling served as an assistant coach at both Marquette University and Bradley University.
After Northeastern, Keeling served as athletic director at Emerson College in Boston. In May of 2007, he was named the commissioner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, where he served until this past January.
Keeling graduated from Quincy College in Illinois in 1970. He and his wife, Jane, raised four children.
When Keeling was hired for the ECAC post, he received words of support from Kevin White, current athletic director at Duke, who served as UMaine’s AD from 1987-91.
“Rudy Keeling will provide great leadership to the ECAC,” White said. “Without question, he is strong and determined, very bright and clearly passionate about intercollegiate athletics. Rudy’s vast experiences in both administration and coaching will serve his unique constituency.”
As ECAC commissioner, Keeling was responsible for providing leadership, direction, consultation and support for the conference’s programs. During his tenure, he was instrumental in the formation of the Division II Lacrosse League, expanding Division I Lacrosse membership, creating the Holiday Festival Basketball Tournament at Walt Disney World, the Labor Day Soccer Classic and establishing the ECAC as the host for the NCAA Division I men’s hockey Frozen Four in 2014, according to an ECAC news release.
The release added that Keeling consistently represented the ECAC and its constituency in the highest manner to other national, regional and local athletics governing bodies and educational institutions, as well as private and public organizations.