LEXINGTON, Ky. _ After one stunningly successful season, Stan Heath's name is already being tossed around the national rumor mill.
While Kent State's rookie mentor has not yet been mentioned as a candidate for any opening in particular, he will without question receive at least initial consideration for any job that may become open in the midwest after leading his team's unprecedented run through the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
Heath, of course, wanted no part of any potential employment talk during the Golden Flashes' tourney run.
"People keep asking me about big opportunities that may or may not come my way. But Kent State's a big thing to me," said Heath. "I always wanted to be a head coach, and (KSU director of athletics) Laing Kennedy gave me an opportunity to fulfill that dream here at Kent State. I can't thank him enough. But as far as my future goes, I don't worry much about it. I live in the moment."
Just like his upstart Flashes, Heath has reached lofty goals by paying his dues.
After lettering three seasons mostly as a reserve at Eastern Michigan, Heath started his coaching career by serving as an assistant at Division III schools Hillsdale (1988-89) and Albion (1989-91). He then climbed the Division I assistant coaching ladder, with successful stops at Wayne State (1992-94) and Bowling Green (1994-96) helping him land a job under Tom Izzo at Michigan State in 1996.
"I started from the bottom when it comes to coaching," said Heath, who was a finalist for the head coaching position at his alma mater that was instead awarded to current Eastern Michigan coach Jim Boone in 2000. "I've been turned down for so many jobs you'd be amazed, but I never got down. I never got discouraged."
The Spartans finished 17-12 in Heath's first year as an assistant before the program shifted into overdrive. Michigan State advanced to the Final Four three straight years beginning in 1998-99, and captured the 2000 national championship.
"When you look at what we accomplished at Michigan State, we took a solid program to another level," said Heath. "That was my goal when I came to Kent State. A lot of people said I couldn't win here no matter what I did, but I thought we could raise the bar by taking this program to a level that had never before been reached. That's what I told Laing. And obviously, he believed in me."
Heath certainly proved his worth, leading the Flashes to their first-ever Mid-American Conference regular-season title, third MAC Tournament championship in four years, and to a school-record 30 wins.
Ironically, Saturday's game against Indiana featured two teams with successful young black head coaches who both earned the opportunity by paying their dues as Big Ten assistants. Heath, 36, spent five years as an assistant at Michigan State before taking over at Kent State, while 41-year-old Indiana head coach Mike Davis served three years as an assistant under Bobby Knight before taking over the controls when Knight was fired.
"I think the fact that we're both (in the 'Elite Eight') pretty much speaks for itself," said Heath. "There are so many good assistants out there who have to work, scratch and scrape just to get an opportunity, so I hope this will open the door for some other coaches. I think it just shows you that if you're prepared and you're willing to work hard, you can succeed."
Kennedy knows that keeping Heath is going to be difficult, because he's already been through the rigmarole. He hired Kent State's first black basketball coach in 1996, Gary Waters, who led the Flashes to their first two MAC Tournament titles and to their first-ever NCAA tourney victory a year ago before accepting a five-year deal worth over $3 million from Rutgers.
"I was happy we were able to keep Gary as long as we did," said Kennedy. "He took our program to a level that allowed us to land a coach like Stan, who worked at Michigan State under one of the best coaches in the entire country in Tom Izzo. That's the caliber of coach we want to bring into this program."
Kennedy hinted that Heath's contract, which currently includes a base salary in the $120,000 range plus a slew of incentives, will likely be renegotiated following this year.
"We renegotiated Gary's contract after every season," said Kennedy. "I think because of the level the program has now reached, this position is more attractive than ever. We have more to offer now than ever before. I want this to be the most attractive mid-level job in the country."
Still, no matter how high the team rises, Kent State simply can't compete in the ever-important salary department with programs from the major conferences. And if Heath's success continues, elite schools seeking a head coach will eventually come calling.
The only major head coaching position currently available in the midwest is West Virginia, which is actively pursuing Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins. Elite schools may want to see Heath successfully build his own team before they seriously consider him, but if he pulls that off he can pretty much pick his next position.
"I'll tell ya, it's going to be hard to keep him at Kent State," said Flashes senior guard Demetric Shaw. "He's done that well. A lot of people say he's walked into a good thing, but don't let that fool you. He's done a great job, period."
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