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As a younger coach, Ritchie McKay had to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining himself. No matter how legitimate the reasons for leaving were, no matter how logical every decision might have been, having four head coaching jobs in seven years inevitably leads to a reputation as a ruthless, overly ambitious basketball vagabond.
In many ways, though, it was the decision McKay made in 2009 that didn’t necessarily fit.
After 13 consecutive seasons as a head coach, including two at Liberty where his career appeared to be once again in ascendence, McKay abruptly left to be an assistant under Tony Bennett, who had just taken the job at Virginia.
“I thought he was making a mistake,” said Jeff Barber, then the athletics director at Liberty. “I told him, ‘You’re a head coach, not an assistant.’ But he felt like he was doing the right thing, and I can’t judge a man who feels like he’s doing the right thing.”
Given the raw feelings McKay left in his wake — his decision to step down came just days after his star player, Seth Curry, transferred to Duke — the idea he would eventually find his way back to Liberty was never on anyone’s radar until it happened.
But now, with McKay leading Liberty to a 28-6 record and an NCAA tournament bid, it all somehow makes perfect sense.
“It was a blessing for me (to come back), it really was,” McKay said. “There was a comment or two about being a retread or whatever. I think I’m the only one who’s gone back to a place as a head coach without being a head coach at another place first. It is unchartered water, but I love the fit. I’m grateful to have a chance to be a part of our university and a part of our basketball family.”
Though some fans may have been puzzled in 2015 when Liberty brought back the coach who had jilted them, the six years McKay spent away arguably made him more qualified to take a program from rock bottom to the NCAA tournament.
For most of his career, McKay tried to emulate his mentor Dick Bennett, whom he met in 1992 and calls “the best coach that has ever dawned the sidelines.” But he had never worked directly with either Dick or Tony Bennett, though McKay had once tried to hire him to a restricted-earnings position at Colorado State.
“He was coming out of playing in the NBA, so he said no to $18,000 a year,” McKay said.
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The tables turned when the younger Bennett got to Virginia and asked McKay to be his associate head coach. McKay initially declined, but something was gnawing at him.
Up to that point in his career, the journey McKay had been was largely about chasing something he couldn’t even put his finger on.
He had been the hotshot young coach, climbing from a nowhere job at Portland State to Colorado State to a Pac-12 job at Oregon State by his 35th birthday. Then he left for New Mexico, his father’s alma mater and what he considered his dream job, where McKay became too enamored with his initial success and too isolated to realize how quickly it would come crashing down.
Though he rebounded right away at Liberty and went 23-12 in his second season, McKay saw something in himself that needed to change. Going to work for Bennett, giving up the title of head coach and being able to serve others in a different way, he concluded, was the way he needed to do that.
“I was operating out of a woundedness I didn’t even realize,” McKay said. “I had a performance-based mentality. I just wanted to win, I wanted to be validated, wanted to be approved. That’s unattainable, but I didn’t know it then.”
Of course, there was a basketball benefit, too, in his move to Charlottesville.
Though nobody knew it at the time, Bennett was constructing a basketball powerhouse with his father’s noted “pack-line” defense as the foundation, and McKay was getting a masters degree in a style of play that, as he jokes, he had only taken online courses for previously.
“Honestly, the first two years, I thought, ‘Man is this going to work?’” McKay said. “We were 15-16, then (16-15), and I saw us being competitive with some of the better teams that were more talented, but we were having trouble with teams we were more talented than. It really came down to Tony’s perseverance and sticktuitiveness in the system and his ability to attract the right kind of guys.”
By McKay’s sixth year under Bennett, Virginia had won two ACC titles. But he had also accomplished what he set out to do in transforming the relationships in his life, resulting in a healthier frame of mind that would allow him to pursue head coaching jobs again with a different perspective on what he wanted to be about.
“I got mind space back,” he said. “I (was able) to reshape who I was as a coach.”
When the Liberty job opened again in 2015, McKay was interested but Barber was skeptical. Though college sports are big business, egos and relationships can be bruised when a coach leaves, particularly the way McKay did. It took a couple years, in fact, before they even started communicating again — and even at that, Barber acknowledged it was awkward at first.
“I went into the search hoping to find somebody else,” said Barber, who is now the athletics director at Charleston Southern. “I knew he was a terrific coach the first time, but you can’t spend six years with UVA basketball without becoming a better coach. He was always the right person, always the right fit with Liberty. It was a struggle for me the second time, but sometimes as a man of faith I say do the right thing and leave the consequences to God.”
Though the program was in worse shape than McKay left it six years earlier, he has essentially tried to implement the Virginia blueprint, albeit one with some tweaks to the pack-line since Liberty doesn’t have the defensive length to make it work the same way.
Just as important is the way he’s built the roster, relying on the old Dick Bennett axiom of “get guys you can lose with first,” a nod to establishing culture before results. Though it stood to reason Liberty might struggle this year moving up from the Big South to the Atlantic Sun, the Flames were competitive early against teams like Vanderbilt, Georgetown and Alabama and knocked off both UCLA and Georgia State in the non-conference season. After beating a very good Lipscomb team in the A-Sun finals, Liberty looks potentially like a tough tournament out.
“i know how hard it is to go to the NCAA tournament,” said McKay, who will be making just his second trip there in 17 years as a head coach. “I consider it a really incredible blessing to be able to take this group. These are young men that are unentitled, they have a great sense of appreciation and gratitude and they have a connectivity that a lot of people don’t have.”