Frank William Keaney

Inducted: 1966
Born: 06/05/1886
Died: 10/10/1967

Frank Keaney, legendary coach at the University of Rhode Island, shocked the basketball world with a revolutionary, run-and-gun “firehouse” style of play. His “fast break” plays transformed basketball like the forward pass changed football. Most teams wilted in the face of the Rhode Island break. Unaccustomed to constant pressure and unable to stand the pace, some resorted to stalling, which brought out the showman in Keaney. Once, when Tufts tried to stall, Keaney dashed onto a stair landing and led Rhode Island students in the school song. Maine, trailing by six points, tried to counter the break with a tight zone; Keaney responded by having four of his players read newspapers while the fifth held the ball. When Brown used the same stalling tactic, Keaney ordered his players to literally sit on the ball for the last eight minutes of the half. At halftime, Keaney charged up to the Brown coach and barked, “You’re ruining the game of basketball. You’re behind and are supposed to force the issue. You’re content to lose. Sonny, you’re a born loser!”

Few schools dared to run with the Rams. Teams could beat Rhode Island by slowing the tempo and controlling the boards, but even with superior ability, that was never easy. Though the Rams often lacked the talent and depth of their rivals, Keaney took them to four NIT tournaments. In 1946, they even reached the finals, losing to mighty Kentucky by a single point. Against stronger teams, the fast break served as an equalizer, a strategy for keeping Rhode Island in even the toughest games. “He won many games he had no license to win,” observes Dr. Harold Browning, a former Rhode Island dean.

Keaney was born to Irish immigrants in Cambridge, Mass., on June 5, 1886. His mother died in a flu epidemic in 1900. By then, his father had abandoned the family of five children. An older sister raised Frank and his brother Allen. He attended Cambridge Latin School, studying Latin and Greek. He began playing basketball at the local YMCA. James Naismith invented the game only a few years earlier, in 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Graduating in 1907, he played semi-pro baseball in the Maine League for Lewiston. As Keaney prepared to head home at season’s end, teammate Willard Boothby, already enrolled at Bates in the Class of 1909, introduced him to Bates President George Colby Chase, who asked Keaney about his goals. “Teach and coach,” replied the 5-foot-8, 145-pound shortstop. Chase asked, “Did you study Greek and Latin?”

After Keaney quoted the opening verse of Virgil’s Aeneid and translated it, Chase admitted him on the spot. Joining a class of 138 from eight states (including South Dakota), he was one of few Catholics. Jumping into campus life, he played in the annual freshman-sophomore baseball game that fall, won by the frosh, 3–2, in a “rattling good game,” reported The Bates Student. Then it was on to football, which was enjoying heady times. The year before, in 1906, the forward pass had been legalized, and Bates, under coach Royce Davis Purinton, Class of 1900, joined the vanguard. “The forward pass was attempted by the Bates team and was well handled,” the Student reported. “The play promises when perfected, to be especially pleasing to the spectators besides an effective ground gainer.” 

In Keaney’s first game, against the soldiers of Fort McKinley, a bygone Army base on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay, Bates won 34–0. The Bates backfield included two freshmen, Keaney and Eugene Vernon Lovely of Gardiner, Maine. It was an auspicious pairing: Both would one day have athletic stadiums named for them. That winter, “the first season in the history of intercollegiate basketball” was played at Bates. Twenty tried out, including Keaney, who was “experienced in the game.” On Jan. 17, 1908, the first game was a 52–18 loss vs. the Rockport YMCA. The first college game, a 21–7 loss to Colby, was at Lewiston City Hall. The finale, a 22–15 loss to Maine, was at the old wooden Bates gymnasium. After a disappointing 3–5 record, the Student declared the inaugural season “handicapped by inexperience, incomplete organization, absence, and loss and change of captains.” A high-minded editorial cited “objections for maintaining basketball at Bates as an intercollegiate sport.” A decision was made. “Basketball” was dropped as a sport. Its return would come 12 years later, in 1920.

Keaney also worked. In his first year, tuition was $50 a year, and board was $3 a week. To pay for his board, Keaney washed dishes 20 meals a week for 60 students. One Saturday, he dashed from the dish sink to Garcelon Field, where he “took the ball on a double pass around Bowdoin’s left end for 20 yards.” He mixed ice cream on Sundays in an “old-fashioned electric freezer with paddles.”

In the classroom, Keaney excelled in Latin and Greek. “He loved the structure of the language,” according to his biography, Keaney, written by William Woodward. “He learned to appreciate its potential impact in influencing others and making things happen.” And in baseball, he led off and batted .380 with 38 steals, developing the swashbuckling style soon to become his trademark. Bates beat Bowdoin three times. In a 5–2 win, Keaney was “the star of the game,” the Student reported, with three hits and four stolen bases. In a 5–4 Memorial Day win, he had three hits, including a triple, and stole two bases. And in a 6–5 Ivy Day win, he stole home “the feature for Bates.”

Keaney added another activity destined to change his life. As scorer for interclass girls’ basketball in the old Rand Gym, he watched the Class of 1911 defeat the Class of 1910 in overtime, 18–14, as “Miss McKee threw two baskets for the Juniors, winning the game.” He and Winifred “Mac” McKee, Class of 1911, of Newark, N.J., soon became inseparable.

After graduating from Bates, Keaney worked at Putnam High School (CT.), teaching algebra, chemistry, and physics and coaching all sports. The following year, he taught at Woonsocket (R.I.) High School. His baseball teams won 77 straight games, and his track team won the state title. He married Winifred McKee in 1916, and his sons Frank Jr. and Warner followed. In 1917, he took a coaching and teaching job at Everett High School (M.A.). 

In 1920, Rhode Island State College (which would become the University of Rhode Island in 1951) hired Keaney as a chemistry professor and one-man athletic staff. His first year, football went 0–4–4, including a 27–0 loss to Brown. But basketball improved from two wins to 9-8, and rival UConn was beaten in three sports. From 1925 to 1930, Keaney teams went 122–65, including 15–1 in basketball in 1929.

He coached football for two decades and baseball for three. His baseball record was 221–110–1. Coaching basketball brought national attention to Keaney and Rhode Island. The slow-paced college game had been seeking an identity for decades, and Keaney provided it. Keaney “turned a game of patterned plodding into 40 minutes of frenzied excitement,” said Sports Illustrated. “With the full-court presses, fast breaks, and long outlet passes, Rhode Island led the nation in scoring and would do so in nine of 10 years in the 1930s.” 

In 1937, a rule change sparked Keaney’s offense. A jump ball following each basket was replaced by an in-bounds pass. Keaney’s teams went from “point a-minute” wonders to “two points a-minute” marvels. Dubbed “firehouse” basketball, spectators loved it. In 1940, Rhode Island beat Connecticut 102–81 in the highest-scoring game ever played at that point. “The system was deceptively simple,” Sports Illustrated said. “Rhode Island came out with a full-court man-to-man press and stayed in it the whole game. Whenever a Ram player got his hands on the ball after an opponent’s basket or in the backcourt, he heaved a long pass to a breaking teammate.” Some coaches dismissed the fast-break style as undisciplined, but Red Auerbach, who was voted the greatest coach in the history of the NBA, said he adopted Keaney’s fast-break style to the Boston Celtics. Red Auerbach called Keaney “a great psychologist,” hailing him as “very innovative and ahead of his time.”  

Keaney also explored the connection between physical conditioning and mental performance. A well-conditioned athlete, he wrote, “makes fewer errors of the head.” When an athlete performs at maximum physical efficiency, “arising problems in a game are quickly solved, fewer errors are made, and players are more attentive, alive, and alert.” Fifty years later, Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Greenbay Packers, preached to his players that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Until 1941, “Little Rhody” was just a regional sensation; they’d never appeared at college basketball’s mecca, Madison Square Garden. That would end in January when “little, unknown” Rhode Island, according to the New York Daily News, came to the Big Apple. “Rams 42 points in First Half Sets Record at Eighth Ave Arena”; “R.I. Cagers Unorthodox Tactics Dazzle Garden Crowd — Lives Up to Ballyhoo”; “St. Francis Victim of ‘Racehorse’ Basketball”—headlines blared. 

In the 1940s, there was no such thing as March Madness, and the major men’s college basketball tournament wasn’t the NCAAs but the National Invitational Tournament, which vastly eclipsed the NCAA tournament in prestige and media attention, partly thanks to the tourney’s location, Madison Square Garden. In 1941, 1942, 1945, and 1946, Keaney-coached teams earned invitations. In 1946, Rhode Island finished the regular season at 19–2 to earn its fourth invitation to the exclusive eight-team NIT to compete for the national championship. A shot from 62 feet out by Ernie Calverley tied the opener against Bowling Green before Rhode Island won 82–79 in overtime. Next, they beat West Virginia. In the championship against Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp, the “Baron of the Bluegrass,” Rhode Island lost 46-45. Impressed by Keaney’s abilities, Boston Celtic founder Walter Brown offered him the job to coach his new professional team. Keaney initially said yes but then decided to return to Rhode Island.

Keaney’s dazzling style was not confined to the basketball court or the baseball diamond. Indeed, “the fast break was only the most spectacular product of his maverick genius,” wrote Sports Illustrated. “There was a touch of originality in everything he did. He devised the Keaney Ring, a 15-inch iron rim placed inside the standard 18-inch rim to promote sharpshooting. He loved to create and experiment, as was his modus operandi for his career as a coach.” 

In 1953, URI dedicated Keaney Gym, with 5,000 seats, on Keaney Road. All his life, Keaney filled dozens of notebooks chock-a-block full of diagrams, reflections, and verse — From one, a poem, “The Coach’s Wife,” he read at the dedication of Keaney Gym in 1953: 

There are lines of praise to the athletic star

And the boys who make the team,

And the winning play of a crucial game

Has been many a poet’s theme.

There are headlines bold for the winning coach

And of how he directed the strife,

But here’s to a soldier behind the lines,

To the valiant coach’s wife….

Someone to rejoice when the victory’s won.

To share sorrow in times of defeat.

To have faith in the coach’s dreams and plans.

His alter-ego, who makes life complete.

So, we laud the deeds of the coach and team.

Their success is the aim of her life.

She’s content to console, to exalt, to inspire.

And to be just the coach’s wife.

Keaney continued as athletic director until 1956. Across all sports, his record stands at 707–322–14. In 1960, Keaney was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame, a year after inventor Dr. James Naismith. “He was a wonderful, boisterous Irishman, an old-fashioned type coach who was half-father and half-Rockne,” wrote William Woodward in Keaney. “He seemed to be saying to his players, ‘I’ll build your character, son, you just listen to what I have to say.'” 

In his forward to Keaney, Chuck Daly, who coached two NBA championship teams, as well as the 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball “Dream Team,” wrote, “The game as we know it today places tremendous emphasis on conditioning, speed, quickness, tough defense, and sharp passing. Frank Keaney introduced all these concepts 25 years before they became the norm.”

Frank Keaney died on Oct. 10, 1967, at age 81. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1966, and the Bates College Hall of Fame in 1968.

For additional reading:

  • Running Rams: University of RI Basketball, William Woodward, Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
  • “Firehouse Frank and His Boys,” Widely Birmos, Time, Jan. 20, 1947.
  • “Keaney Invented the Fast Break. and RI Made the Big Time. “Maury Klein, Time, 1938.
  • Keaney: If You Don’t Love to Play, Pivot and Go Home, William Woodward, Dutch Press, Jan. 1, 1991.
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