Karen Kemp: Leading the Way
Friday, October 24, 2008

Being a head basketball coach didn't sound like the job Karen Kemp wanted when she was an All-American player at NAIA school Berry College. It was the yelling she didn't like.


"When I was in high school and college, my coaches stomped and screamed at the players," she said. "When my college coach asked me why I didn't think I'd be a good head coach, I told her ‘I don't think I can scream and yell like that."


Because I didn't like it as a player.


"She told me, That's not what's important about coaching. It's just my style. So I decided if I became a coach, I wanted to talk to my players, not scream at them."


She did become a head basketball coach, and after 14 seasons at the helm of the East Tennessee State University women's program, Kemp is riding high. Her teams have three straight winning seasons, including 20 and 21 wins the last two years, and a first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament last spring, when the team played a tough, competitive game before losing to highly favored Oklahoma State, 85-73.


Kemp has become the Lady Buccaneers' all-time winningest coach (194 victories) and has been at her post longer than all but two of ETSU's other current head coaches — and she's served under seven athletic directors, counting interim ADs.


"I've been through a lot of changes," she said. "But I feel like things are on the right track. I think the athletic department is going in the right direction and there's a lot of support."


It's a long way from her college years at Berry, a small school in Mount Berry, Ga. A career in coaching was hardly the plan, but she was offered an assistant position at Mississippi State and decided to take it.


"I graduated Berry and the next day I was in the car headed to Mississippi State," she said. "I was in education and I thought I might coach some."


That job led her to a higher assistant's position at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, a powerhouse in the Southern Conference. After seven years there, she moved north again to Johnson City, taking the ETSU head coaching position.


The program hasn't been a consistent winner. While the Lady Bucs won 21 games Kemp's first season and she was voted league Coach of the Year honors, and the last two seasons they've been 20-12 and 21-12 (plus another Coach of the Year award), she still has a career coaching record that's barely below .500 — 194 wins-205 losses. Another 20-plus-victory season, though, and she could move into winning territory.


"The big difference the last five years has been that we've had more money in the budget to recruit," she said. "That means we can go out and get more good kids."


The Lady Bucs were members of the Southern Conference for many years until a recent switch to the Atlantic Sun Conference. After several near misses at Southern Conference titles, ETSU last year landed its first-ever NCAA tournament berth by winning the A-Sun tournament championship. Kemp even enjoyed the celebratory soaking she got when her players dumped one of the Gatorade coolers on her at the end of the game — even though it ruined her suit.

That championship game, a 75-72 win over Jacksonville, was perhaps her biggest thrill as a coach and was made even sweeter because the previous year's team was one of the favorites to win the league tournament and suffered an upset loss.


Another thrill was at the NCAA tournament selection party. The team gathered with fans at Fanatics sports bar at the Doubletree Hotel to watch the tournament pairings announcements and find out who the Lady Bucs would play.


They expected to be seeded 16th, which would have paired them against a national powerhouse like Tennessee, Connecticut or North Carolina in the first round. But they landed a slightly more merciful No. 14 seeding against Oklahoma State.


"We were ecstatic about being a 14," Kemp said. "We started looking at Oklahoma State and the matchups we'd have and we realized that this was a team we could compete with."


"When game time came, I was really afraid we would throw one up in the stands, we'd be so shell-shocked. But the girls didn't do that. They really played well.

Even though we lost, it was great for us and great for our program."


"Winning our league tournament was great, but to me that makes you hungrier. We made history for our school, but as they say, that is history now. We want to get back and not just get there to the NCAA but get there and win."


Kemp's players have found even greater success off the court — in the classroom.


"Every player who's completed their four years here, they've graduated," she said. "I'm proud of winning games and for the kids when they win awards, but I'm proudest of them when they walk across that stage with their diploma."


"My goal is to prepare them to be great citizens when they leave here, to make them much more prepared for life after basketball. Fortunately for me, we've been able to recruit good students, good athletes and good people."


Coaching satisfies Kemp's competitive nature, she said, and her love of interacting with the players and their families — "I love to talk; most coaches do," she says — as well as her innate desire to prepare the team for each season and each game.


Outside basketball, Kemp has often found herself watching her own children play sports. She and her husband, Eddie Gregory, have two children, Marcus, 16, and LaKeisha, 11. One of the most difficult aspects of her decision to come to ETSU was the fact that her parents and siblings are still in Georgia. Kemp said that made it more difficult for them to visit her and to watch the kids play sports and grow up, in general.


She was born in Chatsworth, Ga., and her mother and one of her brothers still live there. Kemp has two more brothers living in Dalton, Ga., and a sister in Atlanta.


But when she first arrived here, she found Johnson City familiar in some ways.


"This place was kind of like my hometown," she said. "We were in the foothills of Georgia. I love this area. I love the trees, nature, and it's a great place to raise a family."


"If you'd have asked me 14 years ago if I'd still be here, I would've said ‘No way.' But everything has been really positive. It feels like home now. I thought after four or five years I'd move on, but there's been no reason to move on."


Has her coaching style changed over the years to accommodate some yelling and screaming at her players?


Not really.


"They know if I get upset and really yell at them, it's serious," she said. "They know I mean it."


This article was written by Doug Janz, from the Johnson City Press and was featured in Thursday's edition of Her Magazine.