The riveting semester-long countdown of the top ten Bates athletes of all-time continues this week with the addition of Frank Keaney ’11 to an already accomplished group of student athletes. That ’11 signifies the class of 1911, not 2011 for those seniors who were starting to rack their brains trying to remember that superstar athlete named Frank from their first year. No, the number-seven spot on our list is bringing us far back in time to the record books that are stored (scanned online) in the dusty corner of the library basement.
Frank Keaney has a spot reserved on this list primarily because of his gargantuan contributions to the world of sports, particularly basketball, after his career at Bates. As you will see in the coming weeks, we generally valued the accolades that Bates athletes accrued during their time here higher than what they did in their post graduate years, but Keaney’s resumé is truly a wonderful one, and worthy of recognition. The history of his career at Bates is somewhat sparse, as records only describe him as a multi-sport athlete who graduated with a Bachelors of Science. We would have loved to gush about his collegiate accomplishments as well, but we were hard pressed to find any relevant information. Still, there is plenty to share about Keaney and his achievements.
First, and of course most important, is that like all Bates students Keaney grew up just outside of Boston, attending high school in Cambridge before arriving at Bates. Nine years after graduating, Keaney was hired at Rhode Island State College, now known as the University of Rhode Island, to be a chemistry professor and the head coach of multiple varsity sports teams including football, baseball, track, cross-country, and most notably basketball. Keaney also met his wife at Bates, Winifred Keaney, who was hired to work at Rhode Island at the same time and became the coach of several different women’s sport teams as well.
1920 marks the year that Keaney began an incredible and illustrious coaching career at URI, and he also sowed the seeds of a basketball revolution. Over the course of the next 28 seasons, Keaney would be the first basketball coach to implement an offensive strategy known as the fast break, an integral part of basketball offense as we know it today. The fast break in basketball appears exactly as it sounds: A team breaks down the court after a missed shot or a quick inbounds pass, sprinting down court to catch their opponents off guard, looking for a quick score. Easily the most exciting part of the run of play during a basketball game, the fast break provides for leaping slam dunks, wide-open pull-up threes, and quick changes in momentum. Keaney is considered the inventor of the fast break offensive style, and his record at URI confirms the unprecedented nature of the strategy, as well as its effectiveness.
The shot clock, which establishes a time limit for how long a team can be in possession of the ball, was not implemented in college basketball until the 1985 season. Before this new rule, games were low-scoring affairs, as teams would hold the ball for extended periods of time without attempting a shot. Particularly in Keaney’s time as a coach, this slow, low-scoring culture pervaded the game. Keaney used his fast break strategy coupled with full-court defense to establish a new paradigm. In 1939, Keaney’s Rhode Island Rams averaged more than 50 points a game, becoming the first ever college team to do so. But they were only beginning to trend up. By 1943, the Rams were averaging an absurd 80.7 points per game, 2.02 points per minute, earning them the nicknames “Firehouse Gang” and the more formal “two points per minute Rams.” To illustrate just how ludicrous this scoring clip is, recognize that there were three NBA teams this season that averaged fewer points per minute. In 2014. Only 15 of the 351 Division I college teams this past year scored at a faster pace. Before the chaos of the 68-team field we all enjoy every year during March Madness, the most prestigious national tournament was the postseason National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Keaney led the Rams to four berths during his career, reaching the championship game in 1946 before losing to powerhouse Kentucky. In his 27-year tenure, Keaney only had one losing season and tallied over 400 wins.
In addition to coaching, Keaney quite literally left his mark at URI through his work teaching chemistry. The official school color of URI to this day is Keaney Blue, a shade of blue that Keaney invented. While we mere mortals pick our favorite colors, Frank Keaney made up his own. Five years after Keaney left URI, the school named its Gymnasium in honor of him, a dedication that continues today. In 1960, Keaney was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as part of just the second ever class of basketball icons to be enshrined. John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach that ever lived, was inducted in the same class as a player, just as his coaching career was beginning to blossom.
Keaney would have become the first ever coach of the Boston Celtics in the late 1940s after he retired from coaching at URI, as he was offered the job but could not accept due to health reasons.
Keaney excelled in everything that he did, forever altering the sport of basketball, building the athletic department at URI, and dedicating himself to the field of chemistry. So as basketball season approaches, the first time you witness the exciting creativity, the flawless moving parts of an effective fast break, remember that the beauty you are seeing stems from an energetic and innovative Batesie that roamed this same campus over 100 years ago.