Coach McKay is ready to play
Returning for his second stint at LU, McKay explains his transition from UVA
Some did not believe it. Others would not. A couple professors chalked it up as some ill-advised April Fools’ Day prank. There was simply no way Ritchie Lawrence McKay was bolting the University of Virginia Cavaliers to fill the Liberty Flames men’s basketball team’s head coach vacancy. After all, just a few years prior, he left Liberty for the ACC powerhouse. There was simply no way he was returning.
But on April 1, 2015, exactly six years after he left, all doubt and uncertainty were removed. During a press conference held in Williams Stadium, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., along with Athletic Director Jeff Barber made an announcement that potentially altered the trajectory of a struggling program. McKay was coming back.
“…There is really no other place in the country I’d rather coach,” McKay said.
McKay has had his foot in the door of coaching for nearly 30 years. The former Indiana native has 28 years of coaching under his belt and explained how coaching was more than a job. It was a calling.
“I got called into coaching,” McKay said. “I didn’t have a career pursuit other than playing professional basketball. I didn’t know what I would do after that. … My playing career came to an end when I was 23 years old. But before my career ended, I got a taste of coaching and really enjoyed it. It’s the calling that I’ve wanted to fulfill.”
And with each year, he grew to love it more and more. There were multiple aspects to the world of coaching that made the occupation so appealing to him. It allowed him to further establish his competitive nature. It allowed him to remain involved in one of his favorite sports. But there was one more variable coaching provided which stood out more than the rest.
“For me, once I got into coaching I realized something,” McKay said. “I could have an impact, or even the small chance to influence people like I was influenced by coaches. That captivated me.”
And he has been dedicated to the coaching world ever since. Earning his first head-coaching job at Portland State in 1996, he has been at the helm of all of the programs he relocated to — all but one.
After a short stint as head coach for the Flames from 2007 to 2009, McKay headed to Charlottesville with the newly appointed head coach of the Cavaliers, his close friend Tony Bennett. What made his decision particularly peculiar to some was the unconventional voluntary transition from head coach to assistant. Some saw it as a step down for McKay.
“Not many people voluntarily leave a head coaching position to become an assistant,” McKay said in a 2009 press release. “It speaks to my relationship with Coach Bennett and the opportunity that I have in assisting him to build a great program.”
So McKay and his family loaded up and headed an hour north for the next chapter in his coaching career. He was no longer preparing for the likes of the Big South Conference. Instead, he would be strategizing against legendary coaches Mike Kryzewski of Duke University and Roy Williams of the University of North Carolina.
“The competition (in the ACC) was unrelenting,” McKay said. “Honestly when you go into Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Dean Dome, or the Yum! Center, all of a sudden you got these raucous crowds, Hall of Fame coaches and McDonalds All-Americans.”
Admittedly, McKay knew just how intense the completion awaiting him would be. Yet he embraced it and had full confidence and belief in his new team and Coach Bennett.
“I enjoyed it … I enjoyed competing,” McKay said. “But I also had great confidence in my boss Tony Bennett and in our players.”
During his time under Bennett, he learned and grew as a coach. But there were two key things McKay learned from his friend, two things that he will never forget: the packline defense — a defense created by Bennett’s father — and how to truly be a coach of integrity.
“Even though I’m older than (Bennett), I’ve learned a lot from him,” McKay said.
McKay’s time at UVA was a fruitful one. He and Bennett led their Cavaliers to multiple NCAA tournament appearances and ACC Championships. Each year, UVA improved. Life was good.
So Liberty began the search for a new head coach, few expected McKay’s name to make the short list. But McKay felt his calling was leading him back.
“I think the leadership (at Liberty) is outstanding,” McKay said. “I think the coaches here are tremendous. I’m excited to be a part of a coaching staff that’s really mission oriented. I wanted to be an extension of what (Dr.) Jerry Falwell started years and years ago in training Champions for Christ.”
When the announcement unveiling the new head coach was made, the only group of people more excited than McKay’s family, may have been the team itself.
“I heard he was an incredible offensive coach and he gives you a lot of freedom (on the court),” redshirt sophomore Ezra Talbert said. “I also knew with him coming from UVA, they had an incredible defense … I was just excited about the whole thing. I had only heard positive things about how great of a man he is.”
Redshirt junior guard Ryan Kemrite echoed his teammate in saying how excited he was to learn and improve under his new coach. Kemrite added that with the limited time he has had under McKay thus far, he has still seen improvements in his overall game.
“His confidence level in us is unbelievable,” Kemrite said. “The confidence he infuses is unmatched with anyone I’ve ever had coaching me.”
Now, as all of the hype and excitement of the change in management subsides, the focus has shifted to witnessing what this team can do. The Flames are less than a month away from their season opener, and McKay has a unit that boasts a combined 20 career starts. Half of his team just met a few months ago.
With the evident lack of chemistry, experience and size on this team, McKay is ready to face any difficulties this next chapter may bring.
“I would not put anything past this group,” McKay said. “I think they are like-minded. I think we are going to compete. We are going to try to represent Liberty University in an excellent fashion.”
McKay will get to finally get to see his team compete when the Flames take on DIII opponent Covenant Scots, Nov. 13, 7 p.m. at the Vines Center.
HAYWOOD is the editor-in-chief.