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Coach Keeling: The Rescuer

Throughout his three-decades-long sports career, Rudy Keeling has been a builder. As basketball head coach at the University of Maine at Orono, he reinvigorated a languishing team. Years later, at Boston’s Emerson College, he completely revamped the sports program as athletic director.

Now, Keeling is working hard to return the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) to something closer to its former glamour. When he was appointed ECAC commissioner in 2007, he was the first African-American ever to head a major sports conference. “We are a secondary conference for a lot of schools,” he says. “We used to be very much affiliated with football.”

Harlem-born Keeling is working to expand sports programs at the 320 schools affiliated with the ECAC, including those with Olympic sports such as swimming and track and field and women’s sports. The ECAC runs the gamut of Division I, II and III schools but suffered a blow when some of its football teams opted out for big-time conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“Yes, I have a reputation as a rescuer. I think I do. People hire me for all sorts of problems,” Keeling says. One reason he was chosen, Keeling says, was that he had lots of experience across all divisions of sports. Keeling was head basketball coach at Division I Northeastern University in Boston, and he served as an assistant coach at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., and Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

While Northeastern brought him a great deal of status, he gave it up in 2002 to help struggling Emerson, a private school known for hatching debaters, develop a sports program when it hardly had one.

Keeling added five varsity sports, hired nine new coaches and gave Emerson its first-ever field for men’s and women’s lacrosse and soccer and softball for women. A new indoor court, The Piano Row Gym, gave Emerson a place for basketball and volleyball. Keeling’s role as ECAC commissioner is a step forward for Blacks to break into sports management. One other person of color has been named a commissioner since Keeling. The second Black college sports commissioner is Dell Robinson, who was recently appointed to head the Great Lakes Conference. But problems remain, he says.

“Right now, advancement is based on who you know, and since the upper echelons are mostly White people, that’s who they know,” he says.

But as more African-Americans break into higher sports management, they’ll be better known and end up on more hiring short lists, he says.

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