March 24, 2023
Through Kenny Brooks, the strongest branch in Lefty Driesell’s coaching tree is in women’s basketball
Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks has found success in Blacksburg
BLACKSBURG, Va. – There was once a time when you couldn’t keep Charles Grice Driesell quiet.
Known better by his nickname “Lefty,” Driesell roamed the sidelines of arenas in men’s college basketball from 1960 to 2003. He won an NIT title, an ACC tournament, 16 regular season conference titles and nine conference Coach of the Year awards. And after those games, media members would flock to whatever hallway corner or press conference podium he was stationed at to hear one of the most interesting coaches in the sport speak with his drawl from the Virginia Tidewater.
While Lefty could be brash and boisterous, he was also armed with a disarming humor and a southern charm. He remains beloved by his peers, his former players and his assistant coaches. Before he finally got into the Hall of Fame in 2018, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski publicly campaigned for his induction.
And when Lefty got to make his Hall of Fame speech in Springfield, Massachusetts, he reflected a bit on his coaching tree.
“In fact, I got two guys (that were former players) at JMU that are Division I coaches right now,” Driesell said near the end of his speech.
“So, you know…” and Lefty then trailed off.
But Kenny Brooks knew who his old coach was talking about.
“It’s my biggest claim to fame with him,” Brooks said last weekend from a stage in Cassell Coliseum, where his Virginia Tech Hokies were hosting the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament. “He paused and he went somewhere else. And I think I might have said, ‘He’s talking about me!’ … I talked to him about a week after that and he said, ‘Kenny, I was going to talk about you in my acceptance speech, but I forgot your name and just kept on going.’ And I said, ‘Coach, as long as you were thinking about me in that moment, that’s big enough for me.’”
Lefty Driesell is now 91 years old. He’s not as much of a chatterbox as he used to be, but he still thinks about Kenny Brooks. Earlier this month, after Brooks led the Hokies to their first-ever ACC Tournament title, he got a letter in the mail postmarked from Virginia Beach, Va.
It simply read: “Great job, coach.”
Driesell once had a coaching tree in men’s basketball that extended its branches far and wide. It was a fruitful tree; 24 former Driesell players or assistant coaches have coached Division I men’s college basketball.
But today, there are only two head coaches in the men’s game who previously worked under Driesell: Kenny Blakeney at Howard and Kevin Baggett at Rider.
The strongest branch of Driesell’s coaching tree today is in women’s college basketball through Kenny Brooks, who played for the Lefthander and coached under him at James Madison University, and now has Virginia Tech on the brink of competing for a national championship.
“He made me a better man. He really did,” Brooks said. “I owe him a lot… I love the man.”
Three decades before he was leading the women’s basketball program at Virginia Tech to historic heights, Brooks needed a job. It had been more than a year that his playing career at James Madison had wrapped up, where he averaged 6.8 points and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 47.7% from 3-point land for Driesell’s Dukes as a senior.
“You know, he didn’t play me. I was mad at him. I didn’t — I didn’t play as much as I thought I should have in my career,” Brooks said of Driesell. “But he saw something in me, and he wanted me to be able to coach and he put me on that path.”
One day in 1993, Brooks’ phone rang. It was his college coach.
“Do you still want to coach?”
“Be here Monday.”
That was Brooks’ first interview for his first job in coaching, for a gig as a part-time assistant for the men’s team at James Madison. JMU went on to win the CAA that season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament where the Dukes lost narrowly to Florida by two points.
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After that season, Brooks got a full-time assistant coaching job across the state at the Virginia Military Institute, where he remained for four seasons before returning to his alma mater in 1998 to be an assistant coach on the men’s side again. By then, Driesell had been unceremoniously dismissed from James Madison after a 16-13 campaign in the 1996-97 season, and Sherman Dillard had taken the reins of the Dukes.
Still, Brooks always kept with him what he learned from Driesell through three years of playing for him and one year of coaching under him.
“When I played for him, I will be very honest, I thought he was the craziest man in the world,” Brooks said. “I got to work with him, and I got to see him from a different side. You know, things he was doing to us — we thought he was doing them to us — but he was actually doing them for us; very generous man. He made me a better player, but he made me a better person. I’m a better man because of his coaching. I’m a better father because of it.
“I’ve had the luxury of understanding what the method to his madness was.”
That madness led Driesell to 786 victories across a head coaching tenure that included stops at Davidson, James Madison, and Georgia State and — most famously — Maryland, where he was a rival to Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and Krzyzewski in the ACC of old. Were it not for the tragic death of Len Bias in 1986 and Driesell’s subsequent ousting from that program, he likely would have never landed at James Madison and coached Brooks.
As Brooks continued to coach at James Madison, he often sought advice from Brad Babcock, the longtime JMU baseball coach who then went on to become an athletic administrator for the Dukes.
“He kept me in the business,” Brooks said. “And he would tell me that I was going to be a great coach and to stick it out.”
In 2003, Bud Childers — the Dukes’ women’s head coach — left the program on medical leave three games into the season. James Madison tapped Brooks, then a men’s assistant, to replace him on an interim basis. The team went 16-10 under Brooks, and he remained the Dukes’ head coach through the 2016 season. Over time, Brooks turned the Dukes into a mid-major powerhouse. Under Brooks’ direction, James Madison won 337 games, posted 11 seasons of 24 wins or more and went to six NCAA Tournaments. Brooks is the Dukes’ all-time winningest coach for women’s basketball.
Typically, when a coach at a mid-major wins that much, that consistently, they are lured away by a Power 5 program. But for Brooks, those calls did not come quickly, or all that often. The University of Virginia changed women’s basketball coaches in 2011, when Debbie Ryan left and Joanne Boyle was hired. As Brooks says, he “never got a sniff” at an interview with the Cavaliers. N.C. State, Wake Forest, Pitt and Georgetown all changed coaches during Brooks’ rise at Virginia Tech too.
“Jobs around me came up and I never got an opportunity,” said Brooks, who is now the only Black man who is a head coach in women’s basketball at the Power 5 level. “I mean, not even a call… People always asked me, ‘Well, why won’t you take a Power 5 job?’ Well, I never got the opportunities… No one was knocking down my door.”
That changed in 2016 when Virginia Tech fired Dennis Wolff as its head coach. The man who would make that hire was Whit Babcock, the Hokies’ athletic director and son of Brooks’ mentor, Brad.
“My familiarity with Whit played a part in it. I don’t think I would’ve come here under a previous regime,” Brooks said. “I loved his father… Because of the familiarity, I was willing to listen. I could have stayed at James Madison for a very long time and been happy. But I wanted to test my wits against some of the best.”
There was no better league to do that in than the ACC. When Brooks first entered it, he was coaching against national championship winners in Muffet McGraw and Sylvia Hatchett as he tried to build the Hokies into a program that was not only successful, but one that sustained success. And he’s since battled against Jeff Walz, Wes Moore, Courtney Banghart, Nell Fortner, Niele Ivey and Katie Meier.
And this season, finally, he beat all of them.
Virginia Tech won the ACC Tournament title and has a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It just advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999 — and for just the second time in program history. If the Hokies beat No. 4 Tennessee on Saturday, they’ll advance to the Elite Eight for the first time ever. And Brooks’ Hokies are currently riding one of the country’s best winning streaks with 13 straight victories.
It didn’t happen overnight. Brooks endured three straight seasons of losing records in the ACC. In the 2019-20 season, that’s when things shifted. Center Elizabeth Kitley arrived on campus, Aisha Sheppard started to emerge as a WNBA prospect and Virginia Tech won 11 ACC games for the first time ever.
Guard Georgia Amoore arrived later. And then, when the transfer portal allowed college athletes to move from team to team more freely, Virginia Tech became a destination for the likes of guard Kayana Traylor and forward Taylor Soule. Kitley has won two ACC Player of the Year awards under Brooks and is a finalist for the Naismith National Player of the Year. And Brooks is a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year.
And a lot of what he knows in coaching — how to build a program, how to treat players — he learned from Lefty Driesell. While the Hall of Famer may have forgotten his former player’s name during his induction speech, Brooks will never forget his.
Brooks has his own blossoming coaching tree now. Three of his former assistants — East Carolina’s Kim McNeill, Chattanooga’s Shawn Poppie and James Madison’s Sean O’Regan — each led their teams to the NCAA Tournament this season.
Poppie’s first-round opponent was Kenny Brooks’ Hokies.
“I owe that man so much. Not only to help me as a basketball coach, but how to manage this thing as a husband and father. I’m not sure I could pick one thing,” Poppie said of Brooks. “I think the one thing I probably took the most was relationships and how to build a culture. I could go on and on with how he does his daily building people up and those kind of things. It all starts with the relationships and being genuine.”
That sort of sounds like Brooks talking about Driesell.
Soule and guard Cayla King are a bit too young to really know who Driesell is. They were still wearing diapers when he retired from coaching in 2003 after a run at Georgia State.
But they see him and have heard about him through Kenny Brooks.
“He always gives him thanks, and says he’s the reason he got into coaching,” King said. “I think he is a big reason why Coach Brooks is who he is today.”
Said Soule: “I think I see the similarities in the two of them.”
Indeed, Brooks still finds himself emulating Driesell when he coaches, and in everyday life.
“One of the biggest things I took away was how he incorporated his family into everything. Everything that we did, his wife was always there, his children were always around,” Brooks said. “And to see him love his family in front of us — that taught me so much, just about being a man. And so, I do a lot that he did, and I’m appreciative of him.”