One hundred and twenty-one down. One to go.
A win by the Saskatchewan Rush on Saturday night against the New England Black Wolves would lift Rush bench boss Derek Keenan into the spot of the National Lacrosse League’s all-time leader in coaching victories. He enters the game tied at 121 with long-time Buffalo Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour.
“I guess it means I’m getting old,” laughed Keenan.
But really, it’s a testament to Keenan’s ability to lead a wide-variety of players, from established veterans to fresh rookies – a group that now includes the likes of MVP candidate Mark Matthews, team captain Chris Corbeil, and Keenan’s own son Ryan, the Rush’s first overall pick in the 2016 NLL Entry Draft.
It’s also a nod to his abilities as a general manager. He’s done an outstanding job of getting his coach – himself in this case – the best players available whether that’s been via the draft or a shrewd trade.
“(Rush assistant coach) Jeff McComb said once that I’m not that good of a coach, that I just stand there, but I’m a heck of a GM,” added Keenan with a chuckle.
“The GM part, (Rush owner) Bruce Urban and I have really been partners. He’s a hands-on owner but in a good way. We’ve built this together. He’s been a big part of it and never taken credit.”
After wrapping up his playing days in the NLL, Keenan’s coaching career was launched 18 years ago as an assistant on the bench of the Toronto Rock under the tutelage of the legendary Les Bartley, whom the league’s Coach of the Year trophy is named after. Keenan’s notoriety as one of the NLL’s best coaches took off in Portland where he led the expansion franchise to the Champion’s Cup final in its first season.
His road eventually led to the doors of the Rush. The accolades have come in droves to Keenan and his team ever since. He is the NLL’s only three-time winner of both the Coach and General Manager of the Year awards, winning both honors in 2010 and 2014 guiding the Rush.
With two Champion’s Cup titles in a row, it’s easy to regard his tenure with the Rush as nothing but a resounding success. But things weren’t always as rosy as they are now.
After two seasons of growth and a first playoff appearance, the Rush started the 2012 campaign full of optimism. Yet by mid-March, the team was a woeful 2-7.
“It was unbelievable. I was awfully close to getting fired and rightfully so. It’s a performance-based business,” recalled Keenan. “We started slow but caught lightning in a bottle at the end. We went to the final and nearly won it.”
At the 2012 draft, the Rush utilized the first overall pick that had been acquired from Philadelphia and used it on Matthews and then chose Curtis Knight with their own selection. By the time the 2013 season launched, the Rush lineup now included that pair along with Corbeil, Jeff Cornwall, Aaron Bold, Kyle Rubisch, Ryan Dilks, John Lafontaine, Brett Mydske, and future assistant coach Jimmy Quinlan.
“The guys we were going to build around were there and we are continuing to build with them and with new players,” said Keenan, who signed a four-year contract extension earlier this season – a deal that will likely take him through to his retirement from coaching.
In 2014, the Rush set new NLL records by starting the season 14-0 and for the longest road winning streak, but they were denied a second trip to the Cup Final after getting knocked off by Calgary in the West Final.
The following two seasons, the Rush exacted their revenge by twice eliminating Calgary in the division final and then went on to sweep Toronto and Buffalo in back-to-back championship series.
“The opportunity I was given with the Rush has been phenomenal. What we’ve built together with Bruce, (team governor) Al Ryz, and the coaches has been very special. It’s been an opportunity that not everybody gets,” added Keenan.
“We’ve enjoyed our success but that success always comes back to the players. They’ve just been really good.”