ORLANDO-When the No. 12 UNC-Wilmington Seahawks face off against the No. 5 Virginia Cavaliers in first round action, the spotlight might be brightest on the Seahawk bench as head coach Kevin Keatts is a rising star in collegiate coaching.
The attention on Keatts stems from how quickly he turned around the program in Wilmington. In the six years before he arrived on campus, the Seahawks were a combined 58-127. Since he took over, they’re 72-27 with three consecutive Colonial Athletic Association regular season titles to go along with two consecutive trips to the Big Dance.
That turnaround is due to a change in attitude according to Seahawk players. That was a welcome departure from the previous regimes.
“Pretty much when he came in he was like, ‘We’re going to win championships so do whatever you got to do to buy in, play hard and work hard for each other,’” senior guard Denzel Ingram said.
While success at Wilmington may seem instant, Keatts road to the coastal North Carolina city hasn’t been.
Keatts began his coaching career as an assistant at Southwestern Michigan College. He moved to his first of two stints at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. First as an assistant and then head coach from 1997-2001 and then again as head coach from 2003 until 2011, where he won national prep championships in 2004 and 2008. In between those stints were two years as an assistant at Marshall University in West Virginia.
Keatts said the return to the prep level after the two seasons at Marshall was due to missing having that impact on kids. He enjoyed so much that he thought that would be the end game for him.
“At Fork Union, there’s a legendary coach, Fletcher Arritt, and he just retired four years ago,” Keats said. At one point, I thought I was going to be Fletcher Arritt and that was the best thing in the world because Fletcher stayed there over 40 years.”
However, Keatts received the call of a lifetime from Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. That call resulted in an opportunity to become an assistant coach on Pitino’s staff. It was door Keatts said he had to walk through.
“It’s hard to say no to Rick Pitino…” he said. “Being a Hall-of-Fame coach and all that he’s done for basketball and so many coaches and players he’s mentor. I had to take it.”
Keatts worked under Pitino for three years before being named head coach at UNC-Wilmington on April 1, 2014. Now that the move to Wilmington has worked out for all parties involved, the rest of the college basketball world is taking notice.