Keith “Mister” Jennings will officially become a Hall of Famer at East Tennessee State this weekend, but he’s been a legendary figure in these parts for as long as many can remember.
The little point guard from Culpeper, Va., was certainly one of the most popular athletes in ETSU history when he walked off the basketball court here for the last time in 1991. His stature has only grown in the two decades since.
Now 44, Jennings will be inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame with five others in ceremonies Sunday night at the Millennium Center.
“It really means a lot to me,” he said earlier this week from Bluefield, Va., where he’s been an assistant coach at Bluefield College for the last four years. “Those were some great times, and I really appreciate all the people who still remember me.”
Who could forget?
Jennings was the brilliant passer, playmaker and shooter who guided the Bucs to the NCAA tournament his last three seasons. They were an electric team that routinely drew crowds approaching 10,000 to the Dome, powered by the skills of a 5-foot-7 kid no one else seemed to want coming out of high school.
“His girlfriend was going to James Madison, and he wanted to walk on there,” said Les Robinson, the coach who gave Jennings a scholarship at ETSU, and ultimately the reins to his team. “VMI was right in his backyard and didn’t want him. I remind those coaches of that whenever I see them … he started 40 games at Golden State but couldn’t play at VMI.”
Jennings still holds the ETSU career records for assists and steals. (His 983 assists are almost twice that of Tim Smith, the No. 2 man on the list.) He’s also fourth in scoring, just 12 points shy of 2,000, and ranks among the leaders in a slew of other categories.
He was a second-team All-American as a senior in 1991 and won the Naismith Award as the nation’s most outstanding player under six feet tall. He averaged 20.1 points and 9.1 assists that season and shot 59.2 percent from 3-point range.
Jennings then launched into a professional career that started with NBA stints in Golden State and Denver that covered four seasons. From there he was off to Europe, where he was a fan favorite wherever he played for the next decade.
It took Jennings awhile to find his way back to campus and earn his degree a couple of years ago. That’s the only reason he didn’t land in the Hall of Fame sooner.
“It’s long overdue,” said Greg Dennis, his former co-star who was enshrined in 2004. “If anybody belongs in that hall of fame, it’s Mister. He did so much in his career there, with all the records, and he went on to do a lot more. It’s great for him to have this weekend.”
Jennings quickly emerged as the charismatic leader in ETSU’s recruiting class of 1987. It was an unheralded group coming out of high school, with few college suitors, but it ushered in the golden age of basketball here.
Dennis grew three or four inches after signing and reported to campus at 6-foot-11, with guard-like skills. All he did was score 2,204 points in his career, which stood as the school record until Smith broke it 14 years later. He also stands third on the rebounding list, with 895.
Then there was Alvin West and Major Geer, sharpshooting guards who would score over 1,000 points for the Bucs and cashed in many of Jennings’ assists with 3-pointers. And Michael Woods, the spirited forward who helped fill in the gaps as the program rebuilt after a 7-21 season.
The youngsters would open their college careers with a sobering 25-point loss to UNC-Greensboro, which was then a Division III school, but they found a way to win 14 games that first season.
The win totals rose steadily from there as the mix was upgraded with the addition of guys like Calvin Talford, Marty Story, Jerry Pelphrey, Rodney English, Trazel Silvers.
It remains a remarkably tight bunch to this day.
“A special bond of brothers,” says Jennings. “My brothers at ETSU are more dear to me than all the championships and accomplishments we created there. I still keep in touch with those guys; it’s a fraternity that will never change. Even the guys I don’t see very often, we pick right up where we left off when I do see them.”
Jennings expects to see several this weekend.
“I think a lot of them are going to try to come,” he said. “Calvin is the only one telling me I need to pay him to come. I told him, ‘All the assists I gave you, you need to pay me.’”
Jennings’ path to ETSU was more happenstance than a strong recruiting effort by Robinson and his staff. You might call it dumb luck.
“There was a guy named Howard Johnson who lived in Johnson City, an older fellow,” said Robinson, “and he kept telling me about this kid in Culpeper, Va., because his daughter lived there. One night I was walking off the court in the Dome, we’d had a game, and he came up with all these clippings. I turned to (assistant coach) Dave Hanners and said, ‘You’re going up to D.C. tomorrow anyway, so go by and watch him play.’
“He came back and said, ‘Les, he’s a good player … but he’s 5-6.’”
Alan LeForce, another assistant, then went up to Culpeper and came back with a startling analysis: “He’s a 5-6 Oscar Robertson,” who happened to be Robinson’s favorite player. Intrigued, the head coach had to see for himself.
“I took my brother with me and we watched a quarter, and I said, ‘We’re taking him,’” said Robinson. “My brother said, ‘Les, he’s awfully small.’ That didn’t bother me too much because I’ve always thought height is overrated in basketball. You’ve gotta have people who can run the show.”
Robinson laughs when he recalls the night he offered Jennings a scholarship at a local steakhouse.
“He stood up and shook my hand,” said Robinson. “I’m sitting down and looking him right in the eye. I said, ‘God, he is small.’”
But no one loomed larger on the basketball court during those magical years at ETSU. About all Jennings didn’t accomplish was leading the Bucs to an NCAA tournament victory.
They almost beat top-seeded Oklahoma in Nashville during his sophomore season. They led most of the way, but he fouled out late and the Sooners escaped with a 72-71 victory.
“Whenever March Madness rolls around, there’s a good chance I’ll hear about that game,” he said.
Jennings had the Bucs poised to beat Iowa in the first round in 1991, but his career ended in a 76-73 loss.
As fortune would have it, the Bucs finally broke through at the NCAA tournament the year after Jennings graduated, knocking off Arizona as a 14-seed in Atlanta.
“If anything, I was just proud of them, because I felt like I was part of that,” he said. “A lot of people still think I played in that game.”
Dennis, who had redshirted and was part of that team, said Jennings’ leadership was hard to replace. He always thought the Bucs had a chance when the little point guard had the ball in his hands.
“The main thing for me was the mental aspect of Mister, his knowledge of the game,” said Dennis. “Of course, it seemed like he had eyes in the back of his head. For the rest of us around him, he almost made the game a breeze. All we had to do was not fall over our feet, and Mister would put us in position to be successful. He was a general on the court in every aspect.
“I always had confidence in him, no matter who we were playing or who their point guard was.”
It’s been several years now since Jennings last played a competitive game. He injured a hip while coaching at Science Hill in 2008 and says, “I feel the wear and tear now.”
He has a 17-year-old son, Keith Jr., and a 15-year-old daughter, Kaycee, and hopes they’ll be able to watch him coach his own team someday soon. He’s been sending out his resume, trying to make connections.
“I’m not built to be an assistant coach all my life,” he says. “I always want to be moving forward.”