Fall 2021 SS Magazine

College basketball coach Billy Kennedy, wife win Coach John Wooden Keys to Life Award

In October 2011 at the age of 47, only a few months after he was hired for his dream coaching job at Texas A&M, Billy Kennedy was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. But that didn’t slow him down.

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He went on to lead the Aggies for eight seasons despite the diagnosis, reaching the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2018. They advanced in 2016 after completing the biggest last-minute comeback in NCAA Division I history, when the third-seeded Aggies came back from 12 points down with 44 seconds remaining in regulation to defeat Northern Iowa in double overtime.

Kennedy was let go by A&M in March 2019, and he was hired as an assistant coach at Wichita State for the 2020-2021 season.

Throughout the ups and downs of being a college coach, Kennedy has long been an inspiration to others as he holds on to his faith.

“My verse … is Job 23:10,” Kennedy told Sports Spectrum in 2013. “It is something I have embraced my first two years of going through Parkinson’s. The verse says that God knows the way that I take, and when He has tried me, I will ‘come forth as gold.’ He’s got me. He knew it. I’m going to go through the trial and come out of the trial, but come forth as gold.”

On Saturday, Kennedy, along with his wife, Mary, were named the 2021 winners of the Athletes in Action Coach John Wooden Keys to Life Award, which honors integrity in the game of basketball. The presentation came during the annual award show, hosted by ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes and broadcast in full on the Athletes in Action website.

Athletes in Action is a sports ministry established in 1966 that, according to its website, “has been helping competitors find a relationship with the One who truly satisfies, join a community where they are valued beyond their success, and use their platform to make a difference in the world.”

The Keys to Life Award is given annually (except during 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic) during Final Four Saturday to a college or professional basketball figure who exemplifies outstanding character, integrity and leadership on the court, at work, at home and in the community. The award was established in 1998 and named for UCLA Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden. Past winners include Clark Kellogg, David Robinson and Rick Barnes.

“It’s humbling when I look at the guys that got the award before, and I’m just thankful and really speechless because it’s such a great honor,” Billy Kennedy said during the ceremony.

“He’s the same all the time,” Mary said of her husband, “and it’s because his anchor is his faith.”

She continued later, “When you think you can do it, then you are disappointed. It has been such a sense of peace and such a relief to know that all of the things that have shocked me and surprised me that have come through this life we’ve done together, God has never been surprised. … He has had a plan, and I’ve been able to stand on that knowledge that He’s in control. And that’s the only way we could get through it.”

As Dykes facilitated, the conversation often centered around the Kennedys’ faith and impact on players and assistant coaches even in the midst of challenging personal struggles.

Kennedy has also been known to discuss his faith on his Twitter page. Last May, Kennedy took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the racial tensions in America through the lens of his Christian faith.

“My family and I are burdened to pray that we are part of the healing that comes only from the real TRUTH that is the love of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for all,” he wrote.

After Dykes’ interview with Billy and Mary Kennedy, the award ceremony ended with Dykes giving a Gospel presentation and then offering a prayer to God.

“I’m very confident in my heart right now that for every single person literally around the world that’s watching this event, God knew you would be here,” Dykes said. “You’ve heard the name of Jesus talked about over the last few minutes of this program. You know, to me the name of Jesus, I know it demands a response — the response of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus, or the response of saying, ‘No, I don’t need You. I’ve got life figured out on my own.’ I think that’s a real gamble.

“I know how Jesus has changed my life and how He’s changed my heart, and how He’s changed the lives and hearts of Coach [Kennedy] and his wife, and millions and millions of people around the world.”

He then urged anyone whose desire was to say “yes” to Jesus to pray with him.

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